All eyes were on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg today as sat through his second Congressional hearing on the Cambridge Analytica scandal. And Mark Zuckerberg’s eyes were—wait, hang on. Have you ever really looked at Mark Zuckerberg’s eyes?
On Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, a significant segment of the American population did. As Zuckerberg dodged stupid questions from U.S. senators and representatives, observers wondered about the two dark bulbs in his head. People on Twitter compared his eyes to those of anime characters, robots, sharks, and dolls. According to others, they are bloodshot, bulging, vacant, and “weird lil black marbles.” Poet and Weird Twitter celebrity Patricia Lockwood posted a photo of Zuckerberg at Tuesday’s hearing with his eyes so subtly enlarged, they looked almost real.
Sure, it seems possible that Zuckerberg’s eyes are perhaps slightly larger than average in relation to the shape and size of his face and nose. But they look exactly the same as they have since he came on the scene in the 2000s as a wee billionaire with a website. Why haven’t his eyes so captivated the public until this very week?
Part of the answer may be that we generally spend a lot more time thinking about Mark Zuckerberg than we do looking at him. His name has been in the news a lot lately, because his company is being taken to task for doing bad things. We sometimes see his face in newspaper photos or in online images, but we rarely have reason to stare at it, head on, for protracted periods of time. During a Congressional hearing, that’s all you do. You listen to interminable questions that never end and answers that end too soon, waves of self-serving chatter saturating your body, as your mind fixates on two of the few moving objects onscreen: the eyes of the man at the table.
Babies are entranced by faces—they are one of the first things our developing brains learn to grasp when we don’t understand anything else going on around us. The same principle applies to the Facebook Congressional hearings, which were certainly not scripted to be accessible, interesting, or useful for the vast majority of viewers. When our brains drift, they drift toward faces. We’re also used to watching people on TV who’ve been well-lit, made up, and filmed by top-of-their-game camera operators. Zuckerberg, on the other hand, had the misfortune of testifying in office buildings with fluorescent lighting on the ceiling, while his image was streamed in videos that greyed and flattened his face. (No one ever went to C-SPAN to be a cinematographer.)
But the public’s concern with Zuckerberg’s eyes was also a matter of his humanity—windows to the soul, and all that. As he tried to convince legislators and Facebook users of his reliability and remorse, viewers decided that his “beady eyes” made him seem untrustworthy, that they looked like they belonged to some not-exactly-humanoid creation of a buggy neural network, that they might glare straight into a person’s brain, through screen and skull, to devour the juicy personal data that’s made him one of the richest men in the world. We are getting the creeping sense that we don’t entirely understand the full breadth of Facebook’s powers, and we are digging into the softest things in front of us—eyeballs!—for clues.
This is the tactic Americans took when faced with the unthinkable, unknowable Donald Trump as a credible presidential contender, too. In 2016, two separate illustrators edited photos of Trump to replace his eyes with two tiny replicas of his mouth. A photo that depicted him squinting and pouting looked uncannily alike in the before and after versions. The other picture, in which Trump’s eyes became toothy, bellowing holes into his head, made the then-candidate into a kind of demon figure. Both images were undergirded by a morbid interest in the particular facial features of a person whose humanity observers were still trying to suss out, as if his face were a riddle that could explain the emptiness it masked.
By 2016, Trump’s picture had papered over the public consciousness so thoroughly, his likeness was more pop art than person. But Zuckerberg’s face is still something like fresh meat to people outside the tech press. His youthful persona, which camouflages a cutthroat capitalist, has been propped up in part by the smooth, unwhiskered, easily flushed body part we’ve been made to stare at during this week’s proceedings. He and his company have benefited from a face that is white, but that has neither the punchability of a Martin Shkreli nor the scheming air of a Travis Kalanick. This week, Zuckerberg discovered that his guileless mug has its limits. Given the opportunity to scrutinize the eyes of a powerful person in the spotlight, the public will rarely like what it sees.