Why we care whether Mark Zuckerberg is a robot

April 13, 2018

If you’ve been on Facebook at all this past year, you’ve probably seen the joke that Mark Zuckerberg is a robot. These jokes reached their apex during Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing this week, where he testified in front of the Senate to explain Facebook’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which Facebook sold the personal data of millions of users. At the hearing, Zuckerberg was stiff and unblinking, each move appearing choreographed. He would stare ahead blank-faced for extended periods of time, abruptly turn and smile without moving anything but his lips, and then immediately return to the blank stare, as if someone were controlling his expression with a dial. At one point, he lifted a glass of water to his mouth, holding his head and elbow in place and sipping the water while maintaining the blank stare ahead. The footage of him drinking the water truly makes it seem as if someone is controlling his arm, and only his arm, with a lever while the rest of his body stays completely still, awaiting command. Viewers of the hearing joked that the Zuckerberg at the hearing was actually an A.I. copy of the real Zuckerberg, picking up Facebook’s mess while the real Zuckerberg hid in a luxury bunker or secret vacation home. Others joked that Zuckerberg was a cyborg, replacing himself with robot parts in order to control his human emotions.

Given the intensity of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it’s easy to attribute this bizarre behavior to nerves. However, this is not the first time Zuckerberg has acted strangely in public. Two years ago, Zuckerberg did his first ever Q&A on Facebook Live, where he took questions from viewers and answered them in real time. Although Zuckerberg did not appear nearly as robotic as he did in the Senate hearings, some precursors to his now-robotic behavior stood out. He stared directly into the camera for the whole Q&A, and delivered barely fitting, prepared responses to the on-the-spot questions.

A viewer asked Zuckerberg, “If you could start all over again as a teenager, what would you start as your startup?” Zuckerberg began his response by dropping memorized statistics about Facebook, clearly irrelevant to the question. He then continued on to say that his “startup” would “connect people around the world, because that is exactly what I care about.” This was a transparently pre-written response, not really an idea about a startup so much as a vague description of Facebook.

After the question, he invited to the set Jerry Seinfeld, an odd choice of “celebrity” for 2016. The two exchanged awkward greetings, and then Seinfeld joked “I didn’t know you would be here,” and Zuckerberg retorted “Hey, I was supposed to say that!” The two chuckle uncomfortably. The entire exchange was palpably awkward, with Seinfeld’s ease of being on camera contrasting sharply with Zuckerberg’s visible nerves.

Zuckerberg did several more live Q&A’s after that first one, and he was definitely aware of his awkward camera presence and keen to make himself more relatable. In his later Q&A’s, Zuckerberg makes references to memes and reads aloud viewer’s joke-questions. But his now notorious blank stare and jerky movements undermine his “relatable” jokes, making him seem even less human than in his earlier, more formal Q&A’s.

Zuckerberg’s robot-like behavior and subsequent unsuccessful attempts to remedy that behavior shed light on what it means to “act natural.” He’s the billionaire CEO of one of the most successful companies in history. People who watch his Senate hearings or Q&A’s know that his daily life is nothing like ours. The vast differences between Zuckerberg’s life and the average person lead us to question whether his inner thoughts are anything like ours, allowing us to notice and scrutinize his unusual demeanor.

Zuckerberg’s robotic behavior is both comforting and disturbing to the average viewer because it distances his psychology from ours. On the other hand, we don’t want Zuckerberg to act too natural because that means Mark Zuckerberg really is “just like us.”

But if he is just like us, why is he a billionaire CEO while we’re regular joe-schmoes watching his Q&A? Alternatively, if he is just like us, maybe we could become just as successful. We can’t ever know exactly why we will or won’t become as successful as Zuckerberg, and we use mockery of his behavior to cope with these unanswered questions. Analyzing and joking about Zuckerberg’s robotic demeanor allow us to address difficult questions about ourselves and how we relate to powerful people without actually answering them.

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