Six Takeaways from the Mark Zuckerberg Congressional Hearings

Photo by JD Lasica via Flickr
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg came out mostly unscathed after two days of grilling from congress.
Whatever you may think about politics, Facebook or its uncomfortable founder Mark Zuckerberg, there is no doubt that his appearance before Congress to discuss internet privacy in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, there is no doubt that the two days of hearings were delightful political theater. They were at times funny, strange and confounding, but mostly they were awkward, so so awkward, for everyone.

They did leave us with some feelings about Zuckerberg, Congress and the state of technology in America.

There were good drinking games to be made with Zuck's testimony.

Take a shot every time he says "Let me have my team get back to you" or begins a response with, "Senator..." You'd be dead from alcohol poisoning in the first five minutes.

Members of Congress aren't really sure what Facebook actually is.

Is it a toy or a nefarious clandestine data mining operation? Is it a monopoly? How does it make money? What exactly is an app anyway? Congress doesn't seem to know even after two days of questioning its founder. There was a real sense of frustration based primarily on the fact that most senators don't use the service. They didn't understand, for example, that people chose Facebook over services like Friendster and MySpace—or even what those things were for that matter—and how that doesn't make Facebook a monopoly. They didn't get how ads work or what "categories of data" (sigh) Facebook keeps and, more importantly, why. As a result...

There were no gotcha moments.

Every time one of the committee members tried to cry "monopoly" or "terms of service agreement," they stumbled. In one particularly weird moment, Senator John Kennedy (R-Louisiana) said "your user agreement sucks" as if this were some sort of revelation. All terms of service agreements are complicated because they are legal documents meant to protect companies from liability. Anyone who uses any app or online service knows this. Also, no one reads them despite the fact that they agree to them all the time. That isn't a surprise to anyone except the rosy-cheeked Kennedy, apparently, and it underscored just how clueless many of the questioners were. As a result, it made Zuckerberg look even smarter.

If Zuckerberg was more normal, this would have been much easier.

Facebook's founder has been poked fun at ruthlessly for his robotic demeanor. This should come as no surprise to nerds, who not only recognize Zuckerberg's socially awkward behavior, they mimic it themselves. Zuck sounded like a software engineer. He was odd, calculating and used words like "architecture" to describe software, much to the dismay of the gawking panel, who was completely out of their element. It was like watching a guy who spends his entire life staring at lines of code in his mom's basement put in front of a bunch of members of a retirement community and forced to explain what email is. The exchanges were sometimes painful to watch and really did illustrate not only how impersonal Zuckerberg is, but the underlying mistrust so many Americans have for experts, introverts and, in particularly, introverted experts.

The people who lead us do not understand at all.

In 2006, former Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) described the internet as a "series of tubes" in a now-infamous argument against net neutrality. Sadly, the level of knowledge among his peers in Congress doesn't seem to have grown much in the past dozen years. They, at best, seemed know they have a thing they carry around that is a phone and a kind of mini computer, but no one could figure out how it worked (beyond playing Candy Crush) either before the hearings or even during. We doubt the exchanges with Zuckerberg helped to clear their confusion. They often sounded like their entire knowledge of computers and the internet came from either their twenty-something interns or a crazy uncle who emails the family conspiracy theories so often, you keep a link to Snopes handy at all times. They clearly get their toddler children and grandkids to help them set up the wi-fi network at home. And that should worry all of us. These are people who craft laws designed to regulate technology while encouraging the development of it, and they don't even understand what it means to opt-in or opt-out. It's no wonder net neutrality laws were reversed recently.

The Zuckerberg as Data from Star Trek meme is brilliant.

Seriously, it's genius.