Mark Zuckerberg’s awkward trip home to Harvard

Man of the moment.
Man of the moment.
Image: Courtesy of Facebook/Alex Lindsay/PXC Production
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Nearly 3 million people tuned in on Facebook yesterday (May 25) to watch Mark Zuckerberg deliver the graduation address at Harvard, the university he dropped out of a decade ago. Thousands of others watched the livestream on Harvard’s site, or attended the ceremony itself on the school’s campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

It was a showcase opportunity for Zuckerberg, for Harvard, and for Facebook. Yet the speech—and the entire day around it—turned out to be a strange, stilted affair.

Hours before the ceremony, the Harvard Crimson, the school’s student newspaper, got hacked and displayed a series of headlines such as “BREAKING: Mork Zinkeltink Zonks all over the Internet” and “MARK ZOINKERBURG AT IT AGAIN.” The hacking came after Zuckerberg spent the days leading up to the speech hyping it up with a series of vaguely uncomfortable Facebook videos.

Then came the ceremony itself, in which Zuckerberg—beaming on a covered stage as others had to sit in the rain—made a handful of not-unexpected, self-deprecating jokes about his short time at Harvard, and then gave an extravagant speech about how to build “community” and live a “meaningful” life. He used the word “purpose” no fewer than 27 times.

Zuckerberg didn’t regale graduates with inside tales of Silicon Valley, or speak much about his personal success. Rather than go into detail about what he learned from leaving school to start Facebook, or changing the way the world interacts online, or becoming one of the richest people in the world, Zuckerberg proposed to the class of 2017 many of the same questions that the tech billionaire himself now seems to be grappling with:

So what are we waiting for? It’s time for our generation-defining public works. How about stopping climate change before we destroy the planet, and getting millions of people involved manufacturing and installing solar panels? How about curing all diseases and asking volunteers to track their health data and share their genomes? Today we spend 50 times more treating people who are sick than we spend finding cures so people don’t get sick in the first place. That makes no sense. We can fix this.

How about modernizing democracy so everyone can vote online, and personalizing education so everyone can learn?

These achievements are within our reach. Let’s do them all in a way that gives everyone in our society a role. Let’s do big things, not only to create progress, but to create purpose.

It certainly wasn’t the type of speech one would give if trying to quash rumors of a possible run for president. And, like the graduation speech delivered earlier this month by the current US president, it wasn’t very specific. (If Zuckerberg was detailed in laying out what’s to be done, he was a lot more vague about how to do it.)

Meanwhile, the livestream of the speech on Facebook was besieged by brutally inaccurate auto-captions—which Facebook later said were Harvard’s fault, not the tech company’s.

Taken together, the glitches and stiltedness made for a rather awkward homecoming—especially for the CEO of a company that prides itself on seamlessly connecting billions of people with one another.