The Passion of Mark Zuckerberg: A Conversation with Ekaterina Walter

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Mark Zuckerberg has captured the attention of the entire world, as he proved once again with today’s market-moving, stop-what-you’re-doing-and-pay-attention announcement about the launch of Facebook Graph Search. He is, of course, famous and infamous — the symbol for a social media phenomenon that has revolutionized the way we live but also a lightning rod for an ongoing debate about individual privacy in the social age. Does Mark Zuckerbrg have anything worthwhile to teach business leaders, or is his success a unique, unteachable combination of circumstance and individual talent? In the newly published Think Like Zuck: The Five Business Secrets of Facebook’s Improbably Brilliant CEO, Ekaterina Walter argues convincingly for the former. In a highly readable, warm discussion about Zuckerberg and Facebook, she asserts that Zuckerberg can teach us the value of passion, purpose, people, product, and partnerships. Hers is a highly instructive book that even Facebook critics — as I have been from time to time — should read.

Walter demonstrates how the rise of Facebook reflected a deeply personal passion of Zuckerberg’s for connecting people in an open world — one that gave him a single-minded focus that led to the launch of the world’s largest social network. In my favorite chapter, on the value of partnerships, Walter shows how the symbiotic relationship between Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg has made him a better leader. But since this is a book intended to help business people become more effective, Walter imparts lessons from the Zuckerberg/Sandberg relationship, such as the importance of forming business partnerships that combine imagination and execution.

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What makes the book more valuable are the lessons that Walter shares from brands that demonstrate the ethos of Zuckerberg — companies ranging from TOMS to Zappos. Her examination of businesses that demonstrate passion, purpose, people, product, and partnerships elevates the book from a read for Facebook watchers to a useful guide for anyone in business.

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How Facebook perverts the English language

I certainly do not “Like” how Facebook perverts the English language by forcing us to us words inaccurately.

Case in point: recently, I heard about the launch of a Facebook page for a forthcoming (at the time) biography of Mick Jagger. I wanted to learn more about the book, get access to additional content about its subject, and better understand how the author was using Facebook to build a community.

To get content from the book’s Facebook page, I had to “Like”  page – something we do routinely now as a necessary step to perform consumer research for products and services that provide information through Facebook pages.

Of course, “Liking” the page for a book I had not even read was intellectually dishonest. But because of the way Facebook presents branded content, I could not click a “Learn More” button that implies no endorsement on my part.

Because of Facebook’s failure to comprehend the nuances of English language, I was put in a position of hoping that my Facebook friends, experiencing the same dilemma, understand what my “Like” really means. (And I think they do understand as evidenced by the way so many of us designate a Facebook “Like” with quotation marks as if to collectively roll our eyes at the vagaries of living in Facebook’s world.)

Since “Liking” the page for the Mick Jagger biography, I’ve discovered that Facebook automatically lists the book on my profile as one of my personal favorites. Could the situation become even more absurd? I still have not read the book, and my act of basic consumer research has resulted in my Facebook profile publishing less-than-honest information about me.

And, the incident has created a built-in resentment I’m going to need to put aside so that I can assess the book fairly when I read it.

Ironically the world’s leading social network is notorious for its insensitivity toward the way human beings behave, as we’ve seen when Facebook randomly introduces new services like Facebook Beacon that violate our privacy.  Facebook’s oafish command of English and reliance on an intrusive technology feature to post information on my profile without my permission is but another illustration of how human beings take a backseat to technology at Facebook.

Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg is committed to keeping Facebook’s personnel count small.  But Facebook would do well to invest into something that the company does not seem to understand: human beings. Human beings who value communication. People who understand and respect the words we use to create social networks with each other.

Facebook co-brands with President Obama

“God, we’ve never done this. I don’t know where to stand.”

Those were the words of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg as she kicked off a town hall Facebook hosted for President Barack Obama today. The town hall, streamed live and followed avidly on Twitter, was a marketing coup for both Facebook and the president – maybe the pinnacle of co-branding.

For about an hour, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg fielded questions for the president from employees at Facebook’s headquarters and from those of us watching from the digital world. As a political forum, the town hall was fairly bland. But I think it was a successful marketing event for these reasons:

1. Facebook elevated its stature from social media leader to national influencer.

And Zuckerberg knew it.

“I’m kind of nervous,” he admitted. “We have the president of the United States here.”

In addition to moderating questions, Zuckerberg interjected his own views on occasion, voicing support for Obama’s stance on educational reform. For his part, Obama acknowledged Facebook’s influence more than once when he cited the times he’s met with Zuckerberg and Sandberg to compare notes on issues of the day.

2. Facebook gave Obama an audience with the affluent high-tech industry, and those of us living in Facebook’s orbit – nothing to sneeze at, considering Facebook’s reach with 500 million people.

And Obama took advantage of the moment, playing to the audience by advocating issues such as energy, immigration, and healthcare reform.

“We want more Andy Groves in the United States,” he said at one point. “We don’t want the next Intel launched in China.”

Jennifer Preston of the New York Times went so far as to ask on Twitter, “Will other presidential candidates seeking election in 2012 get same opportunity w/Facebook livestream townhall? Is this in-kind donation?”

It was the kind of forward-thinking communications approach that helped Obama get elected president.

3. The format was low risk.

Facebook is like a self-autonomous country. What does Facebook have to lose by getting involved in a town hall with the president? It’s not like Facebook followers are going to delete their accounts if they dislike Obama.

What if you are not Facebook, though? Would hosting a major political in a town hall be good for your brand? Certainly it would if you have an agenda to promote or you seek to elevate your stature. If you played host to a town hall as carefully choreographed as this one was, the risk would not be as high as you might think.

Today’s event was not so much about Zuckerberg and Obama cozying up to each other but rather Facebook borrowing brand equity from the office of the president and the president acting as the gracious guest to a country of 500 million.