SAN JOSE, Calif. —His face pale and shining with sweat, words stumbling out in a voice pinched with anxiety, Mark Zuckerberg appeared on the verge of a panic attack in June at the All Things Digital conference, as he fumbled to explain his mistakes in college and in building Facebook.
Less than six months later, in front of some of the most influential figures in the Internet industry at the Web 2.0 Summit last week in San Francisco, Zuckerberg looked like a different person — relaxed, thoughtful, even funny — as he talked about his shortcomings.
"Ah man, I've made so many mistakes in running the company so far," Zuckerberg said, answering a question from an audience member who called him a "celebrity entrepreneur."
"Basically any mistake you think you can make, I've probably made" — Zuckerberg paused to smile —"or will make in the next few years. But, I think if anything, the Facebook story is a great example of how, if you're building a product people love, you can make a lot of mistakes."
If Zuckerberg still has the ramrod straight posture that actor Jesse Eisenberg imitated as he played Zuckerberg as an ambitiously malevolent nerd in "The Social Network," the 26-year-old Facebook CEO on stage at Web 2.0 looked light years away from the panic-stricken kid who nearly fainted at All Things Digital. Zuckerberg watchers who have noted the change say he seems to have found his public presence, displaying the gravitas he has long had in private.
"All I can say is the Mark you saw on stage (last week) is the Mark I know in private," said Tim O'Reilly, a leading Internet thinker and Web 2.0 co-host who interviewed Zuckerberg on stage. In the past, "I think the Mark on stage was less sure of himself. This is the real Mark. It's not like he's become more polished in that space — it's the other way around. What appears to be more polished is actually more authentic, as he's feeling more secure and comfortable to just show himself on stage."
O'Reilly, who mentions Zuckerberg in the same breath as Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, said the social network chief may be benefiting from the tutelage of more experienced executives like Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, and Elliot Schrage, Facebook's vice president of communications and public policy. He contrasted Zuckerberg's performance this week with Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who castigated the media for what Schmidt said were off-base stories linking Google's 10 percent employee raises to the search giant's fear that it is losing talent to Facebook and other hot young companies.
"Eric is becoming more guarded, and Mark is becoming less guarded," O'Reilly said. "Some of that is because with Google, Eric was making unguarded statements, jokes, that he really got burned on. You could say each of them (took) different things from bad press experiences.... In Mark's case, I think what he learned is to be himself."