So, I’m sitting in a dimly lit theater in Palo Alto waiting for Superman.
Not the one who wears a red cape. The one who wears a blue hoodie. Silicon Valley boy wonder, Mark Zuckerberg, star of stage, screen, “The Simpsons, ” Facebook and the universe in general, has invited a few of his 500 million friends to a special movie screening.
No. Not that movie. “The Social Network, ” Aaron Sorkin’s fictionalized account of the rise of Facebook and the guy who either invented it or stole it, is not what this night is about. This night is about education and “Waiting for Superman, ” a documentary that those looking to save our schools hope will do for the education disaster what “An Inconvenient Truth” has done for the global warming disaster.
And Zuckerberg? He has a chance to become the education CEO, the guy who lubricates the national conversation with star power and tons of cash. He’s a billionaire at 26, which gets people’s attention — even in Silicon Valley, where an army of entrepreneurs has made money nearly as fast as they’ve made progress.
Last month — on Oprah, no less — Zuckerberg dropped $100 million on the Newark, N.J., school system. The nationally televised largesse coincided with the run-up to the unflattering portrayal of Zuckerberg in “The Social Network, ” which opened to rave reviews and box-office supremacy. Naturally, cynics questioned the coincidence. Could it be that the man they call Zuck was trying to counter the bad vibes from the Facebook blockbuster with a sudden spasm of philanthropy?
A lot to think about in a dimly lit theater as we wait for superman, who does stroll in (sans hoodie) and does exactly the right thing. He picks up a microphone to welcome the educators, community leaders, journalists, friends — and he makes a joke.
“I’m not really inviting a lot of people to go to the movies right about now, ” Zuckerberg says, “but I thought this one was pretty important.”
The crack filled the theater with laughter and cleared the air over whether Zuckerberg was going to spend much time worrying about those who question his motives. Not that it hasn’t been a concern at Facebook HQ.
Larry Yu, Facebook’s corporate communications director, told me before the Wednesday screening that the company’s public relations staff didn’t think announcing Zuckerberg’s big gift just as the bothersome biopic was being released was such a hot idea.
“We recommended against the timing, ” Yu says, “because we thought it would be construed as an obvious ploy.”
Which is pretty much how it was construed. But the time was right for New Jersey and two of its prominent politicians — Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker — who teamed up to join forces with Zuckerberg on the education initiative.
And so, it seems Facebook watchers (which is pretty much all of us, right?) are left with a choice: We can see Zuckerberg as a cynical and manipulative billionaire working overtime to spin public opinion. Or we can see him as an incredibly young and fabulously rich man who decided he would start giving away his money much earlier in life than some of those who have gone before him.
Alternatively, you can adopt my take, which is: Who cares? Who cares what motivates a guy to give millions to K-12 education? If you do care, I’ve got two words for you: Bill Gates. In the late 1990s, when Gates started paring his staggering wealth through philanthropy, he was blistered. The billionaire monopolist was simply buying his way into heaven, critics cried. His generosity was just a way to take the heat off Microsoft, which was being skewered in public opinion and the courts for being anti-competitive.
And maybe it was pure PR. But who cares? Gates just kept giving, and I’d like to hear a coherent argument now that the man doesn’t believe in what he’s doing, which is helping run the world’s largest charitable foundation.
Zuckerberg is young. He’s connected. He has a platform to encourage other moguls to follow his lead.
Yu says he doesn’t know whether his boss has decided to make K-12 education his signature philanthropic cause. But in the dimly lit theater, Zuckerberg talks about how he wants his $100 million to spur innovations and initiatives that can be replicated across the country.
Here’s hope then that Superman’s help could be coming to a school district near you.
Contact Mike Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.