09/18/2010 04:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How to Read Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg is on a crusade to open up the world. It's a crusade that echoes the ambitions of emperors and kings, and it just so happens that he's got an imperial quality, the outgrowth perhaps of his academic interest in the classics. In a profile in this week's New Yorker, Zuckerberg quotes from the Aeneid in Latin (but only because "these are the most famous quotes in the aeneid"):

"fortune favors the bold" and "a nation/empire without bound."

But like the emperor or the king, he's not the kind of guy who is going to really open up himself. What do we learn about him in a profile subtitled "Mark Zuckerberg opens up"? Not much.

And maybe, maybe, a lot.

Alexis Madrigal complains that it's "stupefyingly boring", and not necessarily because of the writing, by Jose Antonio Vargas, but because of its subject. On a meta level, there's something interesting about that, perhaps because Zuckerberg is so often assumed to be - and depicted to be - some kind of nefarious hacker, a notion that the new movie, "The Social Network" will only entrench more deeply.

But while we're being all meta (in that Ancient vein), let's appreciate a certain elegance to the boringness of the article, which is essentially about the boringness of who Zuckerberg appears to be. Appears to be because that's all we have to go on: who knows what he's really like? And for that matter, who knows what anyone is really like?

But wait: isn't the virtue of Facebook - like the rest of the Internet, like all of our technologies: to provide tools for revealing to us the truth of the world and the people in it? In his essay "The Question Concerning Technology," Heidegger summons the Ancient Greek origin of techne to describe technology as methods and skills, but a means for getting at true forms and ideas, the "bringing-forth," from the Greek poiesis. Put this on your Wall:

"Bringing-forth brings out of concealment into unconcealment. Bringing-forth propriates only insofar as something concealed comes into unconcealment. This coming rests and moves freely within what we call revealing [das Entbergen]. The Greeks have the word aletheia for revealing. The Romans translate this with veritas. We say "truth" and usually understand it as correctness of representation."

In that sense, there is a certain truth to the depiction of Zuckerberg as boring, just as there is a truth to our identities on Facebook, and to Facebook itself. But getting at that truth, the process of "bringing-forth," is lost somewhere between the promise of the technology and the reality of what already is one of the biggest, most influential businesses on Earth. Zuckerberg has read the ancients, but it's unclear how much he's thought about techne. As one Facebook executive says, discussing Questions, a product that directly rivals Quora, a site built by former colleagues and friends of Zuckerberg's, "What matters always is execution. Always." The question is what execution actually means.

Zuckerberg's ultimate goal is to create, and dominate, a different kind of Internet. Google and other search engines may index the Web, but, he says, "most of the information that we care about is things that are in our heads, right? And that's not out there to be indexed, right?" Zuckerberg was in middle school when Google launched, and he seems to have a deep desire to build something that moves beyond it. "It's like hardwired into us in a deeper way: you really want to know what's going on with the people around you," he said.

It's unclear too what "indexing" "things that are in our heads" means, what "knowing what's going on" implies, and what his other "desires" are. Those things matter, at least in a profile about him, at most because he's in control of a website that counts 1 out of every 14 people on the planet as its users.

So, what do we know about what's going on with Zuck? (That's his nickname.) His profile says he has 879 friends, displays his email address and cell phone number, and mentions Green Day and Jay-Z as favorite musicians. The sci-fi novel Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card is the only book mentioned - but, he says, not because it's his favorite: "I just added it because I liked it. I don't think there's any real significance to the fact that it's listed there and other books aren't."

As much of an "oversharer" as Zuckerberg may be (Vargas's word), this and other anecdotes belie the notion that we should all be - and thus, will be - sharing everything about ourselves, and doing it honestly.

When Vargas says he took "Interested in Men" off his profile because he didn't want to share his sexual orientation with all of his "friends," Zuckerberg was rendered speechless, as if that detail did not compute. And yet with "Ender's Game," Zuckerberg himself shows that what we say we "like," or how we describe ourselves to the world, isn't going to be an honest reflection of us, but part of a constructed version of ourselves. Facebook profiles are, writes Vargas, "always something of a performance: you choose the details you want to share and you choose whom you want to share with."

But no: choice over who we are digitally is precisely what has been lacking on Facebook, and much of the web. Vargas points to the painful irony of Zuckerberg's situation: "Now Zuckerberg, who met with me for several in-person interviews this summer, is confronting something of the opposite: a public exposition of details that he didn't choose." Welcome to the club, Mr. Zuckerberg. Look at the photos of you that others have uploaded, or Google your name, and you'll see just how much control we do have in this "post-privacy" world. When privacy policies are longer than the U.S. Constitution, settings are convoluted, and interests are aligned with advertisers, what we appear to be on Facebook, and for what reasons, is often not up to us.

That's the greatest irony of Facebook: What all of us are like on Facebook, increasingly the home of our online selves, isn't quite like us at all.

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