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Facebook’s Zuckerberg Lands in the Spotlight Amid Movie Flak, School Donation

September 24, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is set to donate $100 million to the Newark, N.J., school system as a new movie comes out documenting the rise of the social networking site. Ray Suarez has more.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight: The very private man behind Facebook gets his own moment in the spotlight. Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s a fictionalized account of a very real story. “The Social Network” opens in movie theaters next week, chronicling the birth and rise of social networking giant Facebook, including an unflattering portrayal of the site’s creator, Mark Zuckerberg. The movie alleges he took the idea for Facebook from his Harvard classmates.

This week, the real Mark Zuckerberg is making headlines of his own, starting with a whopping $100 million donation to the public schools in Newark, New Jersey. The district has been plagued for years by low test scores, poor graduation rates, and crumbling buildings.

The venue for the announcement? “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

MARK ZUCKERBERG, founder, Facebook: Every child deserves a good education.

RAY SUAREZ: Zuckerberg, who dropped out of Harvard to work full-time on Facebook, said he wants to make sure other students have an opportunity to succeed. The philanthropic move comes just before the film’s premiere. On “Oprah,” Zuckerberg said the movie was just a movie.

MARK ZUCKERBERG: It’s fun. You know, I mean, it’s — it’s — a lot of it is fiction, but even the filmmakers will say that. They’re trying to build a good story. And I can promise you, I — this is my life, so I know it’s not that dramatic.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK ZUCKERBERG: The last six years have been a lot of coding and focus and hard work. But maybe it would be fun to remember it as partying and all this crazy drama. So, you know, who knows? Maybe it will be an interesting story.

RAY SUAREZ: David Kirkpatrick is the author of “The Facebook Effect.” He says Zuckerberg doesn’t take the movie lightly.

DAVID KIRKPATRICK, author, “The Facebook Effect”: At Facebook, they are concerned about this movie. They do feel that he — first of all, Mark is not a public figure. Nobody — most users of Facebook don’t even know who he is.

Most of them have never even heard his name. So, the movie’s going to change that. For the first time, Mark Zuckerberg’s going to be a genuine global celebrity. So that’s what they’re facing. What kind of celebrity is he going to be? Is the movie going to define his image, or are they going to define the image — or is he going to define it himself?

RAY SUAREZ: Since Zuckerberg launched Facebook from his dorm room back in 2004, it has grown exponentially, now with more than 500 million active users. Fifty percent log on in any given day. People spend a lot of time there — over 700 billion minutes a month combined.

Kirkpatrick says Zuckerberg is a modern titan in his own right.

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Well, certainly, for social media and social networking, he is the guy, just as Carnegie was for steel or Ford was for autos.

I don’t think we can compare him to those people yet, just simply because he hasn’t been out there as a business leader for anywhere near as long as they were. He hasn’t faced a lot of the challenges they faced. But, yes, he defines his industry in a way that almost no one has before.

RAY SUAREZ: Judy Woodruff visited Zuckerberg at Facebook’s offices in 2006, when the site had fewer than 12 million active users.

MARK ZUCKERBERG: I’m really young, so I have to be thinking about the long term, you know, and how this stuff is going to play out. And I think that the way that you achieve the best long-term value is by building real value in the world.

Are we actually helping them achieve their goal of understanding the world? And, if we can do that, then I don’t think we’re going to have a hard time making a lot of money.

RAY SUAREZ: Zuckerberg has indeed made a lot of money. Forbes magazine ranked him this week as the 35th richest person in America, with a net worth of almost $7 billion, even surpassing Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

Recently, Facebook itself has come in for criticism. Some users complained about the site’s privacy settings, leading to a change in its policies. And, just yesterday, the site had its worst meltdown in years, a coding error that brought Facebook down for two-and-a-half-hours, a lifetime in the online world.

One of the easiest places to talk to people about Facebook is on Facebook. So, I asked three questions: Do you care about the backstory? Do you want to know about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg? Do you plan to see the movie? And does the $100 million donation to Newark schools alter whatever idea who already had about Zuckerberg?

And the answers came in all day. A woman I went to high school says, “I’m interested in seeing the movie to learn the backstory, but have no particular interest in Zuckerberg.”

And, as a really good illustration of how Facebook works, my third-grade teacher says: “I don’t really care that much about the backstory, don’t know about the film, but I want to know, why Newark schools? I wonder why such a large donation and why to Newark. Is there something behind this sudden grand donation?”

And a tech entrepreneur who is a Facebook friend said: “Mr. Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation doesn’t alter my opinion of him or of Facebook. I am, however, interested to know more about why he chose Newark, what are his objectives in supporting education, and, recognizing that he’s only 26, is this an indication of a broader philanthropic strategy?”

Zuckerberg said today he does indeed plan to continue donating to education. Whether he will continue to maintain a more public profile remains to be seen.

In the meantime, he hopes Facebook will grow beyond the half-billion people who have already signed up.