Facebook CEO and avowed non-lizard person Mark Zuckerberg faced lots of questions about how his company (mis)handles user data over hours of congressional testimony this week. But, the internet being a ruthless storm of petty judgement, another stratum of commentary focused on Zuck as the ultimate dork: his chair was padded with an additional cushion that looked like a child’s booster seat, he sipped water as an android recently programmed to sip water might, and, of course, there was that puzzling haircut.
There’s precedent for this look on a mega-wealthy tech titan — Bill Gates practically invented it — yet appearing before the nation’s most powerful lawmakers with a botched Caesar inarguably raises the bar. Where we used to dismiss such Lego-hair as eccentricity, we are now forced to understand it. Observers blaming some unknown amateur are on the right track; even closer to the ugly truth are those who believe he cuts his own hair. Still, this is not the whole story. Consider not just the self-inflicted nature of the shame that carpets Zuckerberg’s scalp, but also the means to fashion it.
You may recall, from the opening of the film Wayne’s World, a gag in which Garth is subjected to a “suck cut” — a seemingly quite painful shearing administered by vacuum cleaner attachment. What you may not know is that the scene was spoofing an actual device called the Flowbee. Invented in 1986 by carpenter Rick Hunts, who initially sold it out of his garage and held demonstrations at county fairs, the Flowbee went on to become a classic product of the late-night infomercial scene. Millions of people bought the thing.
Did Zuck use the Flowbee to achieve his flat, quasi-uniform ‘do? I knew just the expert to call upon for analysis — the very guy who told me about the Flowbee in the first place. My friend Zach, 36, is a deeply loyal customer, and, as all his buddies can tell you, no barber has touched his hair since 2001. That’s a 17-year streak of satisfactory solo haircuts, but to meet Zach on the street, you’d never suspect him of such unorthodox grooming:
When I got in touch with Zach for this piece, I first sought to confirm that he remains a Flowbee man. “Oh yeah, she’s still purring like a kitten,” he said. “A very loud kitten.” We went over his history with the bladed contraption, beginning with how he acquired it on the cheap. “My friend had two — his uncle had bought a bunch and was trying to resell them or something,” he explained. “That was not a good business model. So he gave my friend two, and in seventh grade, my friend sold me mine for five bucks. [The Flowbee System currently retails for $79.95, not including shipping and handling costs.] I bought it as a joke, as it is a hilarious item. And I wanted to watch the instructional video. And then, years later, I tried it out on a whim. Turns out it’s not a bad system.”
Only once, in 2012, did Zach have to order replacement blades and new “cut spacers,” the plastic cartridges that allow you to take off precise lengths of hair. He uses the longer spacers on the top of his head, and the short ones for the sides and back, finishing up with clippers on the very back. He has the entire routine down pat: “20–30 minutes of running the vacuum cleaner and the Flowbee in the bathroom. I wonder what the neighbors think is going on.” Regardless of the noise, the at-home convenience and the money saved on trips to the salon are too good to pass up. This is the Flowbee life.
We came, at last, to the crucial question: has Zuckerberg been experimenting with a Flowbee himself? I had Zach scrutinize a number of news photos. We agreed at the outset that it was hard to imagine a professional stylist inflicting such damage on a client. Immediately, Zach picked up on part of what makes the haircut so strange. “I think one big issue is that it appears to be really recent,” he said, “like he got it the day before. I will check back the next day and trim some stray hairs with scissors, that type of thing.” It was entirely possible, he informed me, that we were studying a Flowbee cut.
“And the reason I think that,” he added, is that “there are those strays,” the kind a hairdresser would never leave behind. “You gotta really go over your head a bunch of times to avoid having those uneven ones in the back there.” The more Zach pored over the images, the more convinced he was that Zuck had gone for a suck cut, though certainly without watching the instructional video. “Or maybe he’s using a Robocut or an Aircut,” he speculated, referring to a couple of the Flowbee’s competitors, which he described as “all vying for the 500 of us who refuse to pay for haircuts.” Either way, he said, Zuck’s major error was in not trimming himself a week before showtime.
“It would just be awesome if he just didn’t think about it until the last second, so he brought [the Flowbee] with him to [cut his hair] in a hotel room the night before,” Zach imagined. “He would have someone pack it for him. Send them a Slack message or something dumb like that.”
It was all eminently plausible, yet I had to wonder: Why? Why doesn’t Zuck throw money at someone for a modest makeover? Why go to the trouble of shortening his curly shag with a niche ’80s gizmo you have to direct-order from a factory in Corpus Christi, Texas? Zach’s answer was simple and persuasive: “I don’t think he cares. Not only does he not care, his handlers aren’t making him care. He probably started doing it in his dorm room and, like me, just thought, ‘I don’t need to pay $30 for a haircut, I can do it just fine on my own!’ And never looked back. But then he spent more energy making apps, and never got his haircutting skills honed.”
“That’s why I don’t develop apps,” Zach concluded.
So, Zuck, if there’s a takeaway here, it’s that a suck cut is not necessarily a shortcut. You need to put in the practice, and you do not want, under any circumstances, to sit down for a televised interrogation having done no more than a first pass with your Flowbee. Unless the whole idea was to distract us from your evasive replies, in which case you may actually be a genius. That strategy would account for the bad suit, too.