Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot.

Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom. It’s appropriately childish — a lava lamp, a participation trophy, a white stuffed dog — yet the surroundings foreshadow the culture-shifting, technological force Zuckerberg would create. Amid thick tomes on C++, Java and Windows 95, we see a framed, sepia-toned photograph of what appears to be a young Zuckerberg, posing in his desk chair the same way he is now: one arm draped over the back of his office chair, the other hanging over his splayed out legs.

This series of photos, modeled after various phases in the CEO’s life, evoke how far Zuckerberg has come: Once a scrawny child learning to code, he’s now one of the richest men in the world … but that’s not the main takeaway the public took from the photo. Instead, they beg the question: Does Zuck have the drip?

For the first time in his life, Zuckerberg looks a bit too cool for all the retro tech paraphernalia. A thick gold chain hangs around his neck, but it’s not so long as to cover the large, gothic-style text on his graphic tee: Carthago delenda est, or Carthage must die.

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Zuckerberg’s sudden shift in style is noticeable — for about 13 years, he’s worn the same gray shirt and jeans in most public appearances, because, of course, he is focusing on such large issues beyond the comprehension of us laypeople, who are not as rich as he is, because we just spend too much time getting dressed. In April, when Zuckerberg posted an Instagram reel about updates to the Meta AI assistant, onlookers honed in on Zuckerberg’s frat boy-esque chain, rather than the intricacies of the Llama 3 model. Someone altered a photo of Zuckerberg’s video and added a beard to his face, and it went viral, because he looked surprisingly good! And now the top comments on the video implore him to actually grow out his facial hair.

At a recent high-profile wedding in India, Zuckerberg wore a beaded Alexander McQueen suit, which he followed up the following day with a luxurious organza shirt from Rahul Mishra, one of India’s top designers. The shirt is so intricately embroidered that its cost is listed as “request price” online, like it’s a freshly caught lobster at an upscale restaurant. Sporting his glitzy, tiger-clad shirt, Zuckerberg was photographed next to Bill Gates, whose outfit would be permissible under my elementary school’s dress code.

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Zuckerberg’s outfit choices may seem frivolous, but they impact how the public perceives him and his business. That’s not something to take lightly when you’re the CEO of one of the biggest tech companies in the world, especially one that’s been raked over the coals for child safety issues and addictive design. If Zuckerberg is suddenly a fashionable MMA fighter instead of a dweeb who’s profiting off our personal data, could that suave style shield him from scrutiny?

“Personal style is a communication tool,” Amber Venz Box, the fashion blogger-turned-founder of the shopping platform LTK, told TechCrunch. “We have spoken and written communication, we have body language, and we have ‘drip’ — our appearance does communicate a lot about us and influences the way people feel about us.”

This is not the same man we saw looking ghostly and baggy-eyed as he testified before Congress over Facebook’s potential to undermine the electoral process. Remember just two years ago when we all clowned on that photo of Metaverse Zuck in front of the Eiffel Tower? And now we’re thirsting over his nonexistent beard? Zuck’s glow-up happened about as fast as we stopped caring about Horizon Worlds. Now he’s a buff MMA fighter who humblebrags on Instagram about running a 21-minute 5K. He no longer looks like the kid who got bullied in high school, but rather, the kid who would do the bullying.

“Maybe he stopped caring,” Avery Trufelman, a podcaster and fashion historian, told TechCrunch. “He’s like Taylor Swift post-Reputation era.”

Trufelman’s comparison of an abnormally powerful computer science geek and a record-breaking pop star might seem like a stretch, but in an era when tech companies control our attention for hours and hours every day, tech CEOs are a type of celebrity.

The most dominant celebrities, like Swift and Beyoncé, rarely talk to the press. They don’t have to. Instead, fans parse through lyrics for secret messages like they’re Talmudic scholars closely reading ancient texts. It’s not too different from techies listening in on Meta’s quarterly earnings calls, studying the rare insights we get into how Zuckerberg talks about his empire.

“That’s kind of what fashion discourse has become — image decoding, or armchair psychology,” Trufelman said. “Should it matter this much? I don’t know. But I think especially for big, intimidating public figures, this is one of the few open windows that we have into their inner workings, and so we’re trying to use it in whatever way we can.”

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Zuckerberg didn’t just wear that Carthago delenda est shirt because it looks cool. The phrase is a nod to the CEO’s early days as a fledgling startup founder, who reminds us in his photoshoot that he slept in a bare-bones bedroom with a mattress on the floor until Facebook reached 100 million users (sure, he could’ve just gotten a bed frame and some light decor secondhand, but then he wouldn’t be able to glamorize his sigma grindset in an eventual 40th birthday photoshoot).

The hostile nature of his old bedroom, as well as his nod to the destruction of Carthage, pit Zuckerberg as a rebel against the tyranny of legacy tech companies. According to Business Insider, Zuckerberg made the declaration Carthago delenda est at Facebook in 2011, when Google launched Google+, which was then believed to be a Facebook killer. Zuckerberg put his team into “lockdown mode” — another “era” depicted in his photoshoot, to use the Swiftian term — where he worked his team tirelessly to squash their competitors.

This Latin phrase comes from the ancient Roman politician Cato the Elder, who concluded all of his speeches with a call to defeat Carthage. But Rome wasn’t exactly the underdog during the Punic Wars, and Zuckerberg isn’t an underdog either — the republic emerged victorious in all three of these wars, but it would not rest until Carthage was completely wiped out. That’s a bit more violent of an adage than “move fast and break things,” but then again, Google+ doesn’t exist anymore. It worked.

Zuckerberg’s desire to cement himself within the history of American business is obvious in his photoshoot. In one photo, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is strangely present, sitting on a tiny chair next to Zuckerberg in a model of the Harvard dorm where he launched Facebook.

The image is unsettling. Gates is dressed like he’s about to go for a run, wearing a hoodie, gym shorts, Adidas sneakers and tube socks. Zuckerberg, sitting in a taller chair, looks like he’s holding court over the tech icon. At this point, Zuckerberg is wealthier than Gates.

Zuckerberg has always seemed to understand that he can’t take Meta’s dominance for granted, nor can he get complacent about his place in the company — the board is set up so that Mark can never be ousted against his will. His T-shirt’s bloodthirsty slogan still applies: Right now, Meta’s biggest competitor, TikTok, is fighting for its life.

Meta is riddled with reminders that it’s hard to stay at the top forever — just look at its massive stock dip in 2022, when it became clear that Zuckerberg’s grand metaverse plans weren’t as inevitable as he made them seem. One such reminder is embedded in the entrance to the company’s corporate campus. When the company first set up shop in Menlo Park, it kept the entrance sign from Sun Microsystems, the lot’s previous tenant. The company just turned the sign around and slapped the Facebook “thumbs-up” on it, intentionally leaving the SunSystems logo visible from behind.

“I always thought it was so poetic to keep those reminders of the empires that rise and fall, and clearly, Zuck has this Ozymandias mindset,” Trufelman said. “I think he definitely sees his place in the scope of history.”