If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, then the Congressional hearing is unacknowledged theater.
It's performance above policy, Kabuki with the drabbest of costumes.
Yesterday Mark Zuckerberg finally showed up for the first of his two command performances (the second is being staged before a House committee today), appearing before not one but two Senate committees at the same time. The result was not the drama the event had been billed as, but more of a single, endless, absurdist running joke.
Zuckerberg, for his part, came to perform. After a few, early Richard Hendricks-like gulps, he settled into what was clearly a well-prepared, deeply rehearsed routine that stuck to a script of his own writing. His superhuman tirelessness during nearly five hours of testimony did little to dispel his robotish reputation. Same with his HAL 9000 habit of beginning pretty much every answer with, “Senator, ….”
Over on Wall Street, the trading algorithms cheered, driving not only Facebook's stock up more than 5%, but Twitter's up more than 6%. Even shares of Snap – the social network designed to avoid the kinds of muck Facebook has been dragged through lately – rose as much as 2% during the hearing. It wasn't so much that Zuckerberg dazzled. His image in the eyes of the American public remains disjointed from the reverence that much of Silicon Valley has for him as a CEO. It was more that he didn't trip over the low bar this performance demanded. That a tech CEO who could easily have been painted as a villain by both political parties appeared vastly more competent than the technological rubes who sought to confront him. Facebook may talk about connecting the world.
Facebook may, as at least one Senator noted, be beholden by securities law to shareholders. Facebook may court advertisers as customers and hunt users as product. But Facebook is one thing at bottom: a very large and powerful group of engineers, maybe the most powerful group of engineers ever assembled. And Facebook engineered the hell out of this hearing before it even began.
Look at the charm offensive the company staged, starting with The Magical Apology Tour before media and culminating the pre-hearing goodwill visit with some of the very Senators expected to grill Zuckerberg about his company's slippery-fingered approach to user data and elections. One Senator (mine, sorry!) gushed, “He's a very nice young man.” (A side note from someone with a lifelong allergy to suits. I have to admit I was a little bit disappointed that Zuckerberg showed up at this hearing not wearing a t-shirt and jeans. Instead, his business suit represented the kind of perfunctory UI that designers dread – a triumph of compromise over challenge. But is Zuckerberg wearing the same salaryman-hued suit, the same ugly and wide-necked shirt collar, the same shambily looped necktie on every single day of his DC tour? If so, I respect that.)
Facebook is said to know its users better than they know themselves. Zuckerberg, by contrast, seemed wholly unprepared for how poorly prepared were the questions he found hurled his way. Here's Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, flipping with noise and confusion through questions that looked to be printed out for him in 75-point Arial Black all caps.
HATCH: Well, if... so, how do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?
ZUCKERBERG: Senator, we run ads.
HATCH: I see. That's great.
Here is Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, following up on a question asked by Hatch and thrown for a loop when Zuckerberg referred to ISPs as pipes. It almost sounds as if Wicker is secretly hoping his credibility won't end, as Ted Stevens' did, by an epic quote.
ZUCKERBERG: Specifically, though, on the pipes, one of the important issues that, that I think we face and have debated is...
WICKER: When you, when you say "pipes," you mean...
WICKER: ... the ISPs.
There were other memorable exchanges. Sen. Lindsey Graham making Zuckerberg squirm about who his competitors are (a worst-case nightmare for a man who defines his actions by competition). Sen. Rafael Cruz baiting Zuckerberg about silencing conservatives (and then a human emotion – anger – erupts for a second into Zuckerberg's public facade). And Sen. John Kennedy praising Zuckerberg's intelligence before needling him like this,
KENNEDY: Here's what everybody's been trying to tell you today, and -- and I say this gently. Your user agreement sucks.
He's right. The Facebook user agreement sucks. The way Facebook uses users sucks. The way we users agree to be used sucks. None of this dynamic has changed since Facebook was prototyped in 2003. You may be tired of hearing 15 years of Zuckerberg apologies and how they have changed nothing – “Issues about violating people’s privacy don’t seem to be surmountable” he wrote back in 2003. 2003! But it's on us to hear how people – highly educated or otherwise, common-sensed or otherwise – stay stuck to Zuckerberg's creations, and still change nothing.
User agreements suck, but as a user of the Internet for the past 35 years I need to admit that users like myself suck too. A single user like me or you will not change anything. A Senator chiding a CEO won't change anything. Zuckerberg coming back to Congress in a few months won't change anything. He's probably going to be even more polished. And yet, this is exactly why the theater of legislators is the stuff of democracy.
Look at that photo at the top of this page. Just look at it! It was taken before the hearings, but after the charm offensive Facebook launched. And it will endure in our educated, common-sense minds long after the words of Sens. Feinstein, Hatch, Wicker, Graham, Kennedy, etc. have become a news blur. It will stick with us long after the manner, good or bad, that Zuckerberg held to his talking points mattered. Long after he put his salaryman suit back on its hanger. It is the image of Facebook getting Facebooked. It is the image of Zuckerberg getting Zucked.
Like Facebook or hate it. Admire Zuckerberg or revile his Zucking of your life. This is the image that will endure. History has a fine bandwidth.