Elgan: Why do tech CEOs have to be nice?

Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates: Why do we vilify them?

Mark Zuckerberg's charm offensive has begun. The Facebook CEO "showed off a softer side" to Oprah Winfrey and announced a donation of $100 million to New Jersey public schools.

I'm all for empowering the Snookys of tomorrow, but the whole thing is obviously a publicity stunt designed to preemptively humanize Zuckerberg before he's demonized in a movie called "The Social Network," which opened the 48th New York Film Festival on Friday and hits theaters nationwide Oct. 1.

It's a nice try, but it won't work. Any vague warm-and-fuzzies about Zuckerberg that creep into the mainstream consciousness as a result of his desperate philanthropic publicity stunt will be washed away by the character assassination that is The Social Network.

Unfortunately for Zuckerberg, the movie is shaping up to be an enormous hit, and already being compared to Citizen Kane, The Godfather and Rashomon. At deadline, with 12 critics counted, the movie was scoring 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Zuckerberg may become the Villain of a Generation, all from a fictional movie based on a fictional (and mediocre) book called, The Accidental Billionaires. Well, it's mostly fiction.

What's unfortunate is that much of the worst stuff about Zuckerberg's personal character in the movie is made up. To a large extent, he's going to be vilified for things he didn't do and words he didn't say.

It may be hard to feel sorry for a 26-year-old billionaire. But The Social Network will be unfair to Zuckerberg.

All of which raises the question: So what?

Why does anyone care how virtuous the CEO of Facebook was in college? Why do tech CEOs have to be nice?

Steve Jobs just wants to be left alone

Apple CEO Steve Jobs is another tech titan with a reputation for being less than nice.

Recently, a Long Island college student named Chelsea Kate Isaacs sent an e-mail to Jobs complaining about Apple's media relations department. She apparently had requested a quote from Apple's PR people for use in a journalism class paper, and after she was denied she sought to convince Jobs to force them to give her the quote.

Jobs replied, in part: "Our goals do not include helping you get a good grade. Sorry." After a little back-and-forth bickering, Jobs concluded with one of his famously terse replies: "Please leave us alone."

Steve Jobs was also unfairly demonized (along with rival Bill Gates) in a movie called "The Pirates of Silicon Valley." In that movie, Jobs is depicted as a megalomaniacal hippy cult leader who browbeats employees and throws tantrums.

Bill Gates came off even worse. Pirates gave us a scheming evil genius right out of Central Casting, plotting to steal ideas from Apple (all with the help of current CEO and then henchman Steve Ballmer) and bend the industry to his will! Muahahahahaha!

Gimme a break.

Of course, Gates was the industry devil right up until he became the industry angel, giving away his billions to health and education philanthropies and, more important, always saying nice things.

What do Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have in common besides being college dropouts who founded tech companies and became billionaires?

They each were born with a Spock-like sense of logic, a personality that favors truth and fact over political correctness. Most of their bad reputations come from them making the mistake of telling the truth, rather than pandering to the public desire for platitudes.

Eventually, CEOs tend to wise up and become like politicians, always saying what people want to hear. Gates is there. Zuckerberg is getting there. And Jobs may never get there.

While Hollywood and the media may seek to tear down tech CEO billionaires for not being nice -- and the media will always be happy to go along -- I think it's a better idea for us to judge CEOs by what they and their companies actually do, and to stop demanding that they say nice things all the time and appear to be nice people.

In other words, while we have the right to judge their actions as executives and technologists, we really should listen to Steve Jobs when it comes to their personalities: Just leave them alone.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newslettter, Mike's List.


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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