Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan did not write a letter to their daughter yesterday. They issued a press release, and called it a letter. I can point at my cat and call it a dog, but guess what, it’s still a cat. One of the richest entrepreneurs in the country took their daughter’s birth announcement and used it as an opportunity to release a savvy statement about himself and his wife—and their beliefs, and their business plans, and their money—all packaged for quick public consumption. In grand American political fashion, the billionaire couple turned their child, an innocent newborn, into a marketing tool. Max Chan Zuckerberg’s birth was her parents’ perfect news peg.
I mean, just look at the thing! There’s the artfully composed photo, the one that journalists on deadline would inevitably slap atop their glowing articles. (Because free press art is easiest to access when you’re in a hurry.) There’s the bold-faced text highlighting meaningless buzz phrases like “advancing human potential” and “we must build technology to make change,” plus bullet points that make it easier to digest (and send out breaking news alerts about), prepackaged stats (for context!), and bite-sized quotes built for quote marks. The only thing missing was a phone number for their flak, but that wasn’t necessary. The Chan-Zuckerbergs have the most famous flak of them all—it’s called Facebook.
What’s missing is anything a daughter would actually want to hear from her parents when revisiting this thing years from now. There’s no mention of how her parents met or why they brought her into the world, no nuggets of family history, no parental words of wisdom on how to navigate the world. There’s almost no love in it at all; despite rambling on for more than 2,000 words, the word love comes up just three times, twice in the very last paragraph and then as the closing.
Everything between those pieces of thinly emotive window dressing is nothing less than a manifesto for how innovative and awesome Zuckerberg, Chan, and Facebook by extension, are going to make the world for the rest of us. They’re going to put Internet everywhere, fix America’s schools, and give away a bunch of their money for A Cause. With lines like “because we have a moral responsibility to all children in the next generation,” and “we must engage directly with the people we serve” most of this text could be ripped from the notepad of a junior campaign staffer.
That’s not to say the things they pitched aren’t good, if they actually happen. And who knows if anything the couple proposes in their press release will actually come to fruition. Zuckerberg and Chan don’t want people asking about that. Like any polished power-couple, they already know they’ll get a free pass on pretty much anything just by first trotting their chid across the stage.
So, what will the Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan Hella Righteous Facebook Pseudo-Charity Of Righteousness actually do? After rambling about in heavy Silicon Valley-ese with a dash of TED talk—that easily recognizable, obviously meaningless collection of buzzwords, numbers, royal we, and open-ended questions—Zuckerberg and Chan lay it out.
Platform One: The Internet
People often think of the internet as just for entertainment or communication. But for the majority of people in the world, the internet can be a lifeline.
It provides education if you don’t live near a good school. It provides health information on how to avoid diseases or raise healthy children if you don’t live near a doctor. It provides financial services if you don’t live near a bank. It provides access to jobs and opportunities if you don’t live in a good economy.
The internet is so important that for every 10 people who gain internet access, about one person is lifted out of poverty and about one new job is created.
Everyone needs Internet to improve their lives, and to join Facebook. Gee, what a funny coincidence it is that spreading the Internet everywhere will simultaneously increase the value and profit margins of his own company, the second most popular site on said Internet.
Sure, they won’t be the first people to do good work without the purest of motivation, but that’s not what the Chan-Zuckerberg’s are selling here. In this “letter” to little Max, they’re making a branding pitch to investors, advertisers, and the world at large.
Platform Two: The Children And Schools
Children who face traumatic experiences early in life often develop less healthy minds and bodies. Studies show physical changes in brain development leading to lower cognitive ability.
... If you have to wonder whether you’ll have food or rent, or worry about abuse or crime, then it’s difficult to reach your full potential.
If you fear you’ll go to prison rather than college because of the color of your skin, or that your family will be deported because of your legal status, or that you may be a victim of violence because of your religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, then it’s difficult to reach your full potential.
We need institutions that understand these issues are all connected. That’s the philosophy of the new type of school your mother is building.
In other words, Chan’s plan for a private school for “disadvantaged” kids in East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park will be terrific and everyone should back it, even if that $100 million they gave to Newark, N.J., to fix its failing schools was mostly a failure. A quick refresher on how that went, from a Washington Post article on Dale Russakoff’s The Prize, which at one point discusses these “well-meaning reformers” failing to “[win] the support of a wary community”:
It is a story of politicians, especially then-Mayor Booker, with more ambition than attention span, leaving behind unfinished business—and students lagging years below grade level—as they climb the political ladder.
It is a story of the earnest young billionaire whose conviction that the key to fixing schools is paying the best teachers well collided with the reality of seniority protections not only written into teacher contracts but also embedded in state law.
... As they envisioned the enterprise before its launch, Russakoff writes of Booker and Zuckerberg, “their stated goal was not to repair education in Newark but to develop a model for saving it in all of urban America.” Yet “two hundred million dollars and five years later, there was at least as much rancor as reform.”
To be clear, that state-law matter isn’t some sort of secret piece of information withheld from Zuckerberg. In fact, if he had used his precious web access combined with another tool, something called Google, he could have looked up the state statute himself. This was a failure of an alleged Silicon Valley genius to do basic research via the Internet.
That aside, somehow the tale of Newark got left out of Zuckerberg and Chan’s press release today. I suppose, like most parents, they’d prefer to not talk to their child (and the press) about their failures. Instead, let’s imagine a future where baby Max learns about next-wave entrepreneurship with her study-buddy in Malawi instead!
Platform Three: “Advancing Human Potential”
As you begin the next generation of the Chan Zuckerberg family, we also begin the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to join people across the world to advance human potential and promote equality for all children in the next generation. Our initial areas of focus will be personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people and building strong communities.
We will give 99% of our Facebook shares—currently about $45 billion—during our lives to advance this mission. We know this is a small contribution compared to all the resources and talents of those already working on these issues. But we want to do what we can, working alongside many others.
Suck it, Bill Gates! Now is a good time to remind you that the Chan Zuckerberg initiative sounds like a charity at all but actually is an LLC—a private company, the same as Facebook.
Will all this make a difference in the world? Maybe. It sounds nice on paper, although the gulf between programs that sound good and those that actually make a difference in this world is really wide. At the very least, Max already seems to have a lot of her life mapped out for her, as her parents’ memo speaks to a future where she is free to “build any business and solve any challenge to grow peace and prosperity.” Kinda putting a lot on the kid’s shoulders her first day, no? Little girl, are you prepared to disrupt the neoproactivity of the monoparadigm?
On a more basic level, is any of this what little Max will want to do when she grows up?
One thing is for certain. As of this very minute, Max doesn’t care about Internet access for the poor. Max, who can’t even crawl yet, definitely doesn’t care about re-engineering education. Max doesn’t care about her inheritance (yet). Yes, she may eventually fret over these things the way the rest of us do, but right now Max wants food and a clean diaper and a flash light to stare at. In a few years, she’ll want her own pony or light saber (or both!). Later on, she’ll want her own car. Through all of this, though, what she’ll want the most is the unconditional love of her parents. She wants to know her mom and dad will be there when she has her first car accident, her first breakup, her first career failure. She’ll probably want that billion-dollar inheritance, too.
None of that is in this letter. Perhaps they put it in a separate letter they kept private, or they never wrote that letter at all. That’s their parenting choice, one of millions Zuckerberg and Chan will make in their lives. And the one they made yesterday was to use the birth of their daughter as a news peg to promote themselves and their world vision. In the grand ranking of political sins, that’s barely a blip on the radar. But it doesn’t make it any less sad.