500m users, but will charity act buy Zuckerberg some friends?

By Guy Adams

Signalling the start of a carefully timed public relations offensive, Mark Zuckerberg, 26-year-old founder and chief executive of Facebook, is today expected to announce a donation of $100m to the troubled state school system in the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The gift, to be unveiled on Oprah Winfrey's television programme this afternoon, represents the first act of public philanthropy by the internet entrepreneur, whose path to riches will next month be the subject of an unflattering portrayal in the film The Social Network.

It also represents an effort to revamp Mr Zuckerberg's public image. His site now boasts more than 500 million mostly happy users and has given him a personal fortune estimated at $6.9bn, making him the 35th wealthiest person in America, with a greater fortune than both Steve Jobs and Rupert Murdoch.

However it has also made him a bete-noire of civil liberties campaigners, who are concerned that Facebook has begun invading the privacy of users and are troubled by the vast reservoir of personal information that the company holds.

Critics launched a largely unsuccessful boycott of the site earlier this year when it altered the "privacy settings" which govern how much information about users is held in the public domain.

They have also voiced concerns about a Facebook application that uses mobile telephones to map the location of users.

Sources close to Mr Zuckerberg told The New York Times that he will use the Oprah appearance - his debut on the chat-show circuit - to rebut some of these criticisms. He will also outline plans to start a charitable foundation which will fund educational projects.

Newark makes an ideal jumping off point for Mr Zuckerberg's endeavours, since the local public education system has for years been beset by the sorts of controversy, political point-scoring, and institutional mismanagement typical of school administrations in many less-favoured corners of the US.

State schools in Newark were first declared a failure in 1995. Yet despite now receiving $22,000 a year for each of their 40,000 pupils, they remain among the worst performing in the country.

Only half of local students complete high school, and just one in five makes it to university. Some 85 per cent of teenagers at community colleges in the blue-collar city need to attend remedial classes in basic English and mathematics.

Spokesmen for Mr Zuckerberg have declined to discuss the donation in detail, but it is likely to come with strings attached, and may require local politicians to reform the education system and secure matching funding from other donors.

Cynics will meanwhile question his motivation. Mr Zuckerberg has barely had time to draw breath since launching Facebook from his dormitory at Harvard University in 2004, let alone think about spending his fortune. However some believe that the timing of his philanthropic gesture owes as much to media management as it does generosity.

October will see the opening of The Social Network (it release on November 25 in New Zealand) an adaptation of the book The Accidental Billionaires, which chronicled the founding of Facebook and according to one review portrayed Mr Zuckerberg as "a hard-hearted genius with a fetish for Asian women who is not above stealing ideas and turning on his friends in his quest to create the dominant social network".

Early reviews of the film, which is directed by David Fincher with a screenplay by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, have been astonishingly strong, and it boasts a perfect 100 per cent positive rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes, which ranks movies according to their critical reception.

Some writers have gone so far as to compared the film to Citizen Kane, the Orson Wells portrayal of the media magnate William Randolph Hearst, which is frequently pegged as the greatest movie, and most complete cinematic hatchet job, of all time.

Billing The Social Network as a major early favourite for Oscar season, Variety on Wednesday described it as "a classic study in ego, greed and the slippery nature of American enterprise," which "continues Fincher's fascinating transition from genre film-maker extraordinaire to indelible chronicler of our times".

The Hollywood Reporter meanwhile described the film as "mesmerising," but noted that "no one is very likeable" in it. The actor Jesse Eisenberg portrays Mr Zuckerberg as a character who "exists in his own world ... dresses like he just rolled out of bed, and doesn't relate to people half as well as he does to computers".

Although Zuckerberg did not co-operate with either the book or the film, he is reported to have attended an early screening. By appearing on Oprah, he will go some way towards making sure that the public are presented with his real personality, as well as Eisenberg's fictional one.

- THE INDEPENDENT

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