Zuckerberg hoodie makes mountains of molehills

An unlikely sensation: The interior design on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's hooded sweatshirt has generated a mini press sensation. It's the tech industry equivalent of a trashy summer news story.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read
The 'mysterious' (or not) Facebook insignia, as reconstructed by SF Weekly. Audrey Fukuman/SF Weekly

It's summer. It's the time of year when us business reporters are more likely to grudgingly (or not-so-grudgingly) refer to a day as a "slow news day," when CEOs are languishing on the decks of their yachts, when legislative bodies are more likely to be out of session. It's the season when we start wallowing in the quicksand of C-list celebrity deaths and even "X-Files"-caliber cryptozoology--as when, two years ago, gossip outlet Gawker became ensconced in the mystery surrounding the "Montauk Monster," a bizarre carcass that washed ashore on a beach in the eponymous surf-resort town on New York's Long Island. (Spoiler alert: It was probably a raccoon. This year, we have something far more insidious washing ashore.)

It's still early in June, and yet the tech industry press appears to already have its first product of the summer doldrums: the insignia on the inside of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's trademark hoodie, revealed when he was in the midst of a talk at the D conference last week and grew so sweaty that he appears to have been forced to choose between removing the hoodie or swooning to the ground like a corseted dame in an overheated Victorian parlor.

Onstage interviewers Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher took immediate interest in the fact that Zuckerberg's hoodie had a large, complicated, and never-before-seen-by-the-public Facebook graphic on its underside. SFWeekly took the time to recreate the logo and parse its meaning. Eager TechCrunch writer Jason Kincaid found on Saturday that one of the Skull and Facebones hoodies had surfaced on eBay, speculating facetiously that "at Facebook HQ, three goats were sacrificed in an attempt to ward off yet another wave of bad press."

Am I the only one who simply doesn't understand why this has made the tech blog world go bonkers? The company has maintained a collegiate vibe throughout its history, even long after it had moved from Harvard undergraduate dorms to the tony office digs of downtown Palo Alto. Fratty camaraderie breeds in-jokes. Facebook has very talented designers on staff. They made custom hoodies with--ooh, so clever!--a mission-statement design on the inside of the sweatshirt that was normally cloaked from public view. End of story. The world keeps spinning.

Perhaps in my unheeding youth I spent too many evenings in the company of those affiliated with Greek-letter organizations and various collegiate societies to be surprised by a young business' adoption of a fraternity-like in-joke. Squirreled away in the back of my closet, emerging only for the occasional trip to the gym when nothing else is clean, are T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like "FLOATERS VS. BOATERS 2002," the meaning of which sometimes has grown hazy even in my mind. There wasn't really anything hidden beneath the surface; we were just a campus full of clumps of kids who thought they were cooler than they actually were, and there's nothing wrong with that.

But at the time they meant something, and any group of tightly connected youth likes to claim things as their own, build their own traditions and simultaneously maintain the traditions of yore, even if that involves the consumption of live goldfish or the uncomfortably sadomasochistic "THANK YOU, SIR, MAY I HAVE ANOTHER?" scene in the storied comedy "Animal House."

And we know they love in-jokes at Facebook. In its younger incarnations the social network was littered with movie quotations like "Too close for missiles, I'm switching to guns" and "I don't even know what a quail looks like," something that will always remind me of my college friends' whiskey-tinged exclamations of "You can bring your green hat!" as they attempted to coax their suite mates out to party on a Saturday night. The Daft Punk song "Harder Better Faster Stronger" had particular significance to Facebook in its early days, executives have told me. And the "poke" feature has a story behind it, too.

This is by no means characteristic of Facebook alone. Further examples of tech world in-jokes that have made their way to the public at large include Microsoft's "blue monster," Twitter's weekly boozy "tea time," Google's lava lamps and Razor scooters, BustedTees' entire inventory, and my own employer CBS' use of "Black Rock" as the internal moniker for its ominous New York headquarters, a bit of jargon that gained a whole new dimension when the same name was used by the ABC sci-fi drama "Lost" for the skeleton-littered old slave ship that shipwrecked on the show's iconic island. (ABC, were you trying to say something mean about us?)

Let's face it: The only magical, mystical power of Zuckerberg's hooded sweatshirt and the pattern inscribed within appears to be its ability to make a press frenzy out of just about nothing.

The funniest part is that the "mysterious" Facebook insignia actually seems quite easy to decipher. They didn't even translate "making the world open and connected" into some esoteric tongue like Latin or Tolkien's Elvish. There is the Platform, the Stream, and the Graph, terms that anyone who follows Facebook's developments is well familiar with by now. There are arrows in and arrows out. There is the "+1" emblem that appears when a Facebook member receives a new friend request. People, this is no Dharma Initiative map.

As Facebook grows from a fratty start-up into an industry behemoth on the cusp of going public, perhaps its employees cling to the insidery camaraderie all the more--it keeps them young, as some might say. If it makes for a juicy summer news tale for business journalists thirsting for fluffy stories, particularly as the days grow thick and long with dreams of beach getaways, so be it.

That said, I hate to break it to you, Mark Zuckerberg: You are no Montauk Monster.