Like many Facebook users, Mark Zuckerberg turned to the social network to announce that he and his wife were expecting a baby.
But in addition to the usual baby bump photo and giddy sentiment about the impending arrival, Facebook’s founder and chief executive included a somber message in his post: He and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have suffered three miscarriages in the last two years.
It was a rare and deeply personal revelation, not just for the famously private Zuckerberg but for anyone on Facebook. Despite the company’s mission to be the ultimate place for everybody to share just about everything, most people populate their feeds with only the most flattering of posts — engagement and wedding news, vacation pictures of exotic locales, promotions at work and other not-so-humble brags.
But with Zuckerberg’s candid remarks on miscarriage, plus Sheryl Sandberg’s recent emotional posts about her husband’s death, the company’s two most high-profile executives are using their status as business celebrities and tech leaders atop the world’s most popular social network to draw attention to sensitive issues close to their lives. In doing so, they’re shaping public discussion and providing guidance on what is appropriate to share on social media.
Industry watchers say the tendency for users to conceal their personal challenges might be putting pressure on social networks to better reflect reality, in all its ups and downs. Zuckerberg appears to be trying to embrace that philosophy by walking the walk himself.
“You feel so hopeful when you learn you’re going to have a child. You start imagining who they’ll become and dreaming of hopes for their future. You start making plans, and then they’re gone,” Zuckerberg shared in his recent post. “It’s a lonely experience. Most people don’t discuss miscarriages because you worry your problems will distance you or reflect upon you — as if you’re defective or did something to cause this. So you struggle on your own.”
His post immediately went viral, with commenters praising the Facebook executive for his candor. Some divulged their own problems with fertility. “Mark Zuckerberg” became a trending topic on Twitter, and his post received about 850,000 Facebook likes within six hours of posting.
“Being the CEO of Facebook, he is really following their mentality of being open and connected with everybody. He’s sharing something extremely personal that most people wouldn’t even want to share with their closest friends. So this is different,” technology expert Jonathan Roubini said. “It’s following the philosophy of Facebook, and in doing so he’s showing he’s a human being like everyone else.”
Physician Renee Dua, co-founder of Heal, a start-up that connects users with doctor visits, said she considered Zuckerberg and Chan brave for exposing their fertility struggles.
“I would have had a hard time doing what they’ve done,” said Dua, who is the mother of a 1-year-old and a newborn. Often, women seek out “mommy” groups online to speak privately about their frustration in conceiving, she said. But the high-profile Zuckerberg could now open the door to a broader discussion by many people who have struggled with miscarriages — including herself.
“It can become a subject of conversation instead of something to hide,” she said.
Although Facebook urges everyone to share just about everything about their lives, Zuckerberg hasn’t always hewed to that philosophy himself, building a reputation as a tight-lipped, elusive introvert in a sea of outspoken Silicon Valley personalities.
Although he has publicly said everyone should have a single identity that is shared with everybody, he keeps certain Facebook posts reserved for friends only. In 2011, photos Zuckerberg posted on his private Facebook page showing him cooking with Chan and posing with a just-captured chicken were leaked after users found a loophole in Facebook’s privacy settings; the Menlo Park, Calif., company immediately responded that it would fix the bug. A year later, he and Chan were married during a secret wedding that they had told friends and family would be a graduation party for Chan.
As he has become more comfortable in his role as head of Facebook, Zuckerberg has gradually let down the curtains shrouding his life. This year alone, the 31-year-old shared with his 33 million Facebook followers a photo of his mom on Mother’s Day. He has held public Q&As on his page in which users can ask questions “about whatever’s on your mind” and promised to do more. Facebook users have also been privy to loving posts about Chan and her work as a doctor; goofy photos of their dog, Beast; and his reflections from his travels around the world.
The post about the pregnancy was his most personal yet and arguably the one that will make the most impact. He encouraged others to share their struggles, saying: “In today’s open and connected world, discussing these issues doesn’t distance us; it brings us together. It creates understanding and tolerance, and it gives us hope.”
Brian Blau, a research director at Gartner, said it’s unusual to see a CEO “set an example of what is appropriate content.”
“In today’s world where everything is media-centric, where we get a lot of our news from sites like Facebook, where Facebook and its competitors compete over the real-time nature of the way we live, it’s important for well-known people to think about social media and use it to their advantage.”
It could also be a savvy business move, resulting in more people posting more details on Facebook. But Roubini said Zuckerberg’s motives seemed heartfelt.
“This kind of relatability helps Facebook’s brand, but I don’t think it’s the main reason he did it,” he said. “There are lots of people who have been through a miscarriage, and it’s often made to seem like a shameful experience. So I believe he has a more humanitarian purpose.”