Mark Zuckerberg: He's got the whole world on his site

An online phenomenon like no other, Facebook has just clocked up its 500 millionth user. So how is its founder's profile looking?

It's difficult to imagine how Mark Zuckerberg will be portrayed among the pantheon of "global revolutionaries" who have left a lasting impression on world culture. Mahatma Gandhi had his round spectacles; Che Guevara had his beret. Zuckerberg prefers a plain T-shirt, a blank expression and, for the most part, likes to keep his thoughts to himself. But a revolutionary he is.

The CEO and co-founder of Facebook oversees a social networking site which this week incorporated its 500 millionth user. "Five hundred million! You are the third largest country in the world now, officially," the veteran ABC News journalist Diane Sawyer nonsensically told Zuckerberg as he gave a rare interview to mark the occasion. Sawyer dutifully introduced her guest as "the driving force behind a global revolution".

Zuckerberg's is an astonishing achievement. He has grown Facebook to an estimated value of $40bn in six years. And he is still only 26.

Governments are in thrall to the powers of communication of a website that commands the attention of one in 14 of the world's population. Facebook provided the momentum for a 12 million-strong street protest against terrorism in Colombia in 2008. Earlier this month, David Cameron, having previously hosted Zuckerberg at Downing Street, used a filmed conference call with the internet pioneer to appeal to Britain's 26 million Facebook users for ideas on how to cut the national debt.

For that video Zuckerberg selected a plain navy T-shirt (for the ABC cameras he wore a plain grey one) and sat in a stark room. Some might see a deliberate statement in such simplicity, allowing the head of a company that attracts suspicion for its potential intrusions into individual privacy to appear laid back and unthreatening. In an interview with Fortune magazine, Zuckerberg walked into the room barefoot and unshaven before wiping down a whiteboard with his own woollen hat (then pointing out to the journalist what he had done).

Certainly he cut a very different figure from Cameron (suit and tie), looking a generation younger than Britain's youngest Prime Minister in two centuries. Baby-faced is how the Facebook CEO is often described, though he often remarks that he "feels old".

He has achieved an extraordinary amount in his short life. And yet commentators frequently express dissatisfaction that there's not a great flamboyance to him. One observed that he would eventually "disappear into the apparent black hole from which he came". He was mocked for his hubris when, four years ago, he rejected Yahoo's attempts to buy Facebook and turned up his nose at $1bn. Sawyer, friendly though she was to Zuckerberg, seemed incredulous that someone of such undoubted means should not crave symbols of material wealth. She told him she had read that he desired to buy a private plane. "I didn't think I ever said that," responded Zuckerberg bluntly in a voice that comes from deep in his throat. He claims his billionaire wealth is locked into the company and that he is committed to holding on to Facebook until he has built it into what "it could be".

Many characterise Zuckerberg simply as an internet geek in the mould of his role model and fellow Harvard dropout Bill Gates. But according to the newly published The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World, an insightful account of the company's origins written by the technology journalist David Kirkpatrick, "Zuck" – as he liked to be called by student friends – was not a loner at Harvard. "Girls were drawn to his mischievous smile," writes Kirkpatrick, who had wide access to Zuckerberg and his closest associates. "He was seldom without a girlfriend. They liked his confidence, his humour and his irreverence. He typically wore a contented expression on his face that seemed to say 'I know what I'm doing'."

That self-confidence remains in the grand depictions he makes of his achievements, comparing his work in charting human relations to that of Renaissance map-makers. He apparently agrees with those who cast him as a global revolutionary, describing Facebook as "the most powerful distribution mechanism that's been created in a generation".

He is the second of four children born to a psychologist mother and a dentist father whose sense of humour extends to a nickname of "the painless Dr Z" and a website with the promise "We cater to cowards".

Zuckerberg junior chose to leave his local public high school in Dobbs Ferry – a small town, 40 minutes by train from New York City – to attend the elite Phillips Exeter Academy, a boarding school founded in the 18th century and featured in the novels of John Irving. Old boys include members of the Rockefeller dynasty and the writers Gore Vidal and George Plimpton.

At high school Zuckerberg won prizes in maths, astronomy, physics and classical languages. He had a passion for Hebrew and ancient Greek. Away from the classroom he was captain and most valuable player of the school fencing team. His love of the sabre might have come from an infatuation with the film Star Wars, which provided the theme for his bar mitzvah. But in spite of the nature of the business he would go on to create, Zuckerberg's communication skills do not match his swordsmanship. When the 19-year-old started Facebook he was an "intense introvert ... whose fresh freckled face made him look closer to 15", Kirkpatrick notes. "He would stare at you while you were talking, and stay absolutely silent."

Photographs of Zuckerberg in his room at Harvard show a wall decorated not with images of student icons such as Guevara or John Lennon, nor even Bill Gates, but a flag with the name and famous crimson colours of his university. He would use his wall space to rest an eight-foot-long whiteboard on which he scrawled the software code for his latest internet-based ideas.

This Zuckerberg image is set to be redefined on 1 October when the actor Jesse Eisenberg will play him in a feature film, The Social Network. The movie has not been made with the co-operation of Facebook, and its strapline – "You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies" – is in part a reference to the many lawsuits Zuckerberg has faced from those who claim rights to Facebook. A former colleague, Paul Ceglia, last month demanded 84 per cent of the company, though Facebook says his claim is "completely frivolous".

The Sunday Times recently described the film's portrayal of Zuckerberg as that of a "ruthless and untrustworthy sex maniac". In what appears to be a highly stylised account of the origins of Facebook, the Zuckerberg character is shown being dumped by his student girlfriend, Erica, in a Harvard bar. Erica tells Zuckerberg that while he might "go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a tech geek ... I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole". Zuckerberg is then shown storming back to his dorm in a drunken rage. He immediately gets on his computer and, using the annual collection of photographs of Harvard students, encourages male friends to compare the looks of the women to various animals. In the movie script, leaked online, the idea proves so popular that it crashes the university's computer.

The real Zuckerberg was asked about the film in his recent ABC interview. "It's interesting, but it's fiction," he replied. "A lot of these things are distractions but people get remembered for what they build, right? People don't care about what people say about you in a movie ... I don't read a lot of the books about us. I don't read a lot of the press about us. I'm probably not going to see the movie either."

For the man who built the company that is connecting the world, Mark Zuckerberg likes to stay strangely disconnected.

A life in brief

Born: 14 May 1984, White Plains, New York.

Family: His father Edward was a dentist and his mother, Karen, a physician. Zuckerberg’s sister, Randi, is director of marketing development for Facebook.

Education: Attended Phillips Exeter Academy. In 2002, he began studying psychology and computer science at Harvard. In 2004 he decided not to return to college in order to pursue Facebook.

Career: Originally recruited by Microsoft in his senior year of school, he launched Facebook from his Harvard College dorm in January 2004.

He says: “I believe that over time people get remembered for what they build, and if you build something great, people don’t care about what someone says about you in a movie...they care about what you build.”

They say “The new internet prince” - Nick Denton, founder of Gawker

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