Zuckerberg's newest 'friend': Oprah

Facebook founder's Friday appearance on the talk show seemed designed to soften his image.

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By Jessi Hempel, writer

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Anybody tuning in to Oprah Winfrey on Friday afternoon, March 13 learned at least three things about Mark Zuckerberg, 24 year-old founder and CEO of Facebook: He looks a lot like his father (the bearded man in the audience close-up). He's not interested in dating Gayle King's daughter, a 22 year-old Stanford grad (King: "She's smart!"). And he can take a poke or two - virtually and otherwise.

That's novel for anyone who has followed Zuckerberg's public appearances. He's had a bit of a history of clamming up on stage, evading questions and coming off as, well, impersonable. In fact, bloggers have made a relative sport out of critiquing his performances on 60 Minutes and more recently, The Today Show.

But much as Zuckerberg gets nervous for public appearances, he's on a mission to connect the world. And if there's one person whose voice commands millions to take action, it's probably Oprah. So with grace - and what was clearly a bit of coaching - he joined her live for the show along with her best friend Gayle King, actress Ali Wentworth and actor Mark Consuelo. Jimmy Fallon, a confessed Facebook addict, even Skyped in to talk up the service.

Zuckerberg, wearing his 2009 trademark tie and a black jacket, began with a bit of a blush. "I never thought I'd be on your show," he said early on. "This is awesome!" But from there, he did a fairly good job of returning to his talking points. "Everyone wants to stay connected," he repeated each time there was a pause.

Even his personal details sounded rehearsed. When Oprah pressed him about the money, reminding the audience he was a billionaire, he explained that his friends has finally convinced him to get a couch. "I just got a credit card for the first time last year," he said, offering a forced laugh. "Until then I was using my student checking account."

The great irony is that while Zuckerberg has spent four years building a social network designed to let people share information, he's a pretty private guy himself. His chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, has 1,509 friends on the site, for example. Zuckerberg has half as many. In interview settings large and small, he evades all personal questions, preferring to focus on the business - building a Web site.

On my trip out to see him for our recent cover story, I had to rely on his coworkers and his assistant to find out a bit about what he does with his time. "Mark and I occasionally go play RockBand - he's really good at it," Chris Cox, head of product, told me. "His favorite band is Green Day. He can sing and play the guitar at the same time, which is cool. Not a lot of people can do that." Maybe if he pulled the guitar out for Oprah, his fans would stop criticizing his speaking abilities. As it was, he did a pretty good job.  To top of page

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