Facebook and the hoodie

Image of Vanessa Friedman

Should Mark Zuckerberg change his clothes? Having now seen countless pictures of the blue-eyed, hoodie-clad Facebook genius ever since Time made him the magazine’s man of the year in 2010, Goldman Sachs decided to kick off 2011 by valuing his company at $50bn and injecting it with lots of its money, and he himself announced he was getting ready for an international public offering of shares of the company in 2012, I can’t stop thinking about this.

It’s one thing, after all, to look like the Next Young Thing when you are an upstart college dropout trying to prove that your good idea is a really, really, great, world-changing, moneymaking breakthrough. However, once everyone agrees, once the establishment gets on board, once you are worth a reported $14bn yourself and are responsible for more than a thousand other people’s livelihoods and pension plans, once they have made a movie (The Social Network) about you, shouldn’t you start looking like a responsible person, as generally defined by responsible people such as, well, lawyers? Or maybe just your dad?

Or, by changing your dress to imitate the traditional power players, will you risk looking like: (1) a sell-out; and (2) someone who has lost touch with his base, and could thus lose his insight?

These are the sorts of questions that can make people roll their eyes and cringe and shriek, “What does it matter what our geniuses wear?” but I think they are important; they go to the root of our own conflict regarding the tech world and the financial world, the romance of the entrepreneur, and the difficult evolution from rule-breaker to industrialist. We dress to claim one of the above identities as our own, and Zuckerberg, with his uniform of jeans, khakis and T-shirts, with the occasional flannel button-down, has been firmly promoting the image of himself as a boy genius; the kid who stays up late figuring it all out in his dorm room, and is too obsessed with the life of the mind (and the life online) to worry about his looks.

As David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, noted recently: “Facebook’s culture from the beginning has been one of hackers” – and hackers don’t wear suits and ties. People at companies such as Goldman Sachs wear suits and ties. Just ask Jacqueline West, costume designer of the The Social Network, who puts the film’s businessman (Sean Parker, the former chief executive of Napster) and wannabe businessman (Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg’s original partner) in jackets and dress shirts, and reserves the hoodies and T-shirts for her anti-hero – which, Zuckerberg admitted at Stanford University, were all “that I own”.

But even if this lack of wardrobe awareness is feigned, you can’t tell me, given his media ubiquity – his appearance on Oprah and various magazine covers, for example – that Zuckerberg has not at some point taken his clothes into consideration. Or perhaps more to the point, you can bet your 2010 bonus cheque that whether or not Zuckerberg himself did, someone else in his organisation whose job it is to consider such things (such as his head of communications) did, and thereby forced him to confront the issue.

It is, after all, a juncture all successful tech gurus reach, and they don’t always make the same choice.

In 2000, for example, when then-tech-fairy-tale AOL merged with Time Warner, AOL chief Steve Case clasped Time Warner chief executive Jerry Levin’s hand while wearing a jacket and tie, using his outfit to demonstrate that he was ready to get up close and personal with the old boys; to join the establishment.

Meanwhile, since 1996, when he returned to Apple, Steve Jobs has famously worn the same outfit in almost every public appearance – a black turtleneck and jeans. It’s a tactic that is generally interpreted as a time-saving device, allowing Jobs to focus on important questions such as how to make sure Apple keeps its lead in the tablet wars, as opposed to what tie goes with what shirt – though personally I can’t help suspecting it has to do with the sort of superstition that keeps athletes in the same socks during play-offs: it’s his lucky look!

Then there’s Bill Gates, who still occasionally favours the V-neck jumpers and open-neck button-downs of his early years but generally tends to adopt a suit-and-tie route when speaking in public – increasingly so in his role as philanthropist king. And I haven’t even mentioned Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive and Gates’ former roommate, who appeared on stage at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week in the compromise look of blue button-down shirt and trousers – losing his usual jacket and tie to get back in the trenches. The point is, all have clearly made image-related decisions. When you represent a company that starts to symbolise an industry, it’s part of the job.

Now, given that the AOL/Time Warner merger resulted in failure (the companies separated in 2009), it’s understandable that a young tech guru might not want to follow Case’s example (even if Case, personally, has done OK). Zuckerberg has signed up to Gates’ Giving Pledge, which suggests the former might see the latter as a role model, but his apparent decision to become synonymous with grey T-shirts indicates to me at least that he has opted for the Apple route rather than Microsoft one. But isn’t it a bit silly to pose as an outsider when you have begun to define the inside?


More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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