Mark Zuckerberg has changed the way that over a quarter of the world’s humans see things. Viewing pictures posted on Facebook is often the first way we learn what a friend’s new baby looks like, or what hair color an ex's latest partner has. But a new academic journal aims not to explore the way we see each other on Facebook, but the way we see Zuckerberg himself.
The California Review of Images and Mark Zuckerberg is dedicated to “to unpacking specific visual depictions of Mark Zuckerberg in mass media, and linking them to broader academic and critical discourse,” according to a blog post calling for submissions written by Tim Hwang, the publication’s founder and editor.
The project started when Hwang was talking to a friend, and discovered that they both collected pictures of Zuckerberg. “We were showing off and trading our Zucks, we were collecting rare Zucks,” Hwang explained. “He has this weird quality where he ends up in scenes that are just visually strange.”
On its face, the journal might seem impossibly niche, or at the very least a difficult feat to create. Is there really enough material about Mark Zuckerberg iconography to produce a dedicated journal on the topic? The inaugural edition of the publication, which was released Monday, proves that there is: It includes six essays written by a diverse group of academics, like science historian Melissa Lo and media scholar Ethan Zuckerman.
“I was very surprised,” Hwang told me over the phone. “When we initially did this call for papers I thought there was going to be like one or two people who thought this was interesting.” Hwang ended up receiving close to 100 submissions, he told me.
What’s interesting about Zuckerberg, Hwang told me, is that he often ends up looking terribly awkward, despite that his image is carefully crafted. “He’s very extremely managed, but for some reason has come across as very uncanny,” Hwang said. “How does this celebrity CEO tend to emerge as this political figure? There’s a lot to write about I think, this is a deep well.”
When I first heard about about The California Review of Images and Mark Zuckerberg, it reminded me of a particular phenomenon I have witnessed occurring on the CEO’s Facebook page, where he often shares opinions and updates about his company with nearly 100 million people who have elected to “follow” him.
In the comments, various Zuckerberg fanatics engage in the ancient practice of online fandom: posting fan art. Most of the images are of Zuckerberg’s face. Scrolling through the works was a potent reminder of The California Review of Images and Mark Zuckerberg’s real purpose: to document how Facebook’s founder is perhaps the planet’s most visual corporate leader.
“Basically Zuckerberg has been really visual in a way that other tech CEOs have not been,” Hwang told me. “They haven’t generated as much visual attention as Mark Zuckerberg has. Since Steve Jobs we haven’t had someone whose been iconic in this particular way.” The only other prominent equivalent to Zuckerberg is perhaps Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who is also the subject of extensive fan art.
Most casual Facebook users have a sense of what Zuckerberg looks like. The CEO regularly uses Facebook’s Live feature to broadcast himself explaining one of his company’s new features or programs. The stream often features Zuckerberg, alone, staring into a camera.
Zuckerberg knows that he’s constantly being watched, and that the images he broadcasts of himself to the world are intensely judged and analyzed by his fans and critics. He spent a significant chunk of 2017 taking a carefully crafted public relations trip across the United States for example, which he regularly documented on his Facebook page.
The tour was so orchestrated that it led numerous commentators to wonder whether it was part of a grander scheme to run for public office. Others, myself included, argued that the tour was really about trying to market himself—and Facebook—as trustworthy to his billions of users.
The tour also spurred journalists to write extensive profiles attempting to uncover who Zuckerberg really is, and what effect his persona has on his company. It only makes sense that at some point or another, academics would also want to examine the role that Zuckerberg plays in our world, through their own lens. Hwang merely provided a platform for them to do so with his new journal.
Mark Zuckerberg is “a really interesting medium by way to talk about a bunch of meaningful issues,” Hwang told me. “The whole phenomenon is mysterious, it’s kind of fractal, the more you look into it, the stranger it becomes.”
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