Zuckerberg’s mission to make friends

What will it take to put Facebook back in a friendly light?

On a mission to make friends
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Mark Zuckerberg, the 26-year-old CEO of Facebook, is one of the most important people in Silicon Valley these days. The social networking site he launched six years ago from his Harvard dorm room boasts more than half a billion members and there are predictions it could be the next Google. But there have also been rumours and bad press for years suggesting the meteoric rise was no fairy tale. And only lately have Zuckerberg and company been taking steps to put Facebook in a friendly light once again.

Last weekend the Hollywood film The Social Network, about the founding of Facebook, was the top box-office draw. It has won positive reviews from critics, but isn’t flattering for Zuckerberg. It portrays him as a nerdish, scheming outsider with questionable loyalty to his friends. In real life, Zuckerberg has been targeted with lawsuits, including one that accused him of stealing the idea from three former Harvard classmates—charges he has publicly denied. While some have suggested he may be able to sue the filmmakers, a more likely course of action is for Facebook to try to burnish the image of its founder.

The Harvard dropout appeared on The Simpsons on Sunday, playing a kinder, gentler version of himself. And earlier this month Zuckerberg donated US$100 million to assist schools in Newark, N.J., with the announcement coinciding with the movie’s premiere. Zuckerberg has said it’s all just a coincidence, but the reality is that he’s no stranger to dealing with scrutiny. He has often found himself in the crosshairs of privacy advocates and even the general public for Facebook’s use— and some say abuse—of the massive amounts of personal information it collects. There have also been questions about his ability to lead the company, and whether his zeal to create a world-changing Web service is clouding his business judgment.

During an appearance this month on the Oprah Winfrey Show to talk about his philanthropic efforts, Zuckerberg was asked about The Social Network and casually replied that it was mostly fiction. He said his real life is “not that dramatic.” Somehow one gets the feeling it’s actually more so.