Without the Internet, Chris Hughes would not exist as we know him today—a just-turned-29 idealist on the go, determined to make what he calls repeatedly a “direct and positive impact on the world.” The first time I met him, back in October, in the new open-plan New York offices of The New Republic, the magazine he bought earlier this year to do just that—naming himself both editor and publisher—he asked me, with solemn wonder, if I’d heard that Facebook had reached a billion users that day. Hughes was Mark Zuckerberg’s sophomore roommate at Harvard—a propitious year to bunk together. He had the fifth Facebook account (Zuckerberg had the fourth, the first three reserved for testing) and became, for the first few years of its resistance-is-futile, planet-conquering rampage, its minister of external affairs and chief liaison to the human race. He acted as spokesperson, sounding board, and right-brain brainstormer among the coders, for whom even normal social interaction (of the kind they were trying to map onto the web) was a public-relations adventure. For this, and for helping forge the “poke,” he received one percent of the company and was, at the time of the magazine purchase, worth, according to Forbes, at least $600 million.
Hughes is polite and physically slight, with a taut part of blond hair, a courtly southern habit of calling people “sir,” and a casually fussy deportment—jeans, open-neck dress shirt, leather shoes. “I have been fascinated by this idea of how serious journalism would survive in this digital era,” he says, as the bang-bang-whirrrr! of construction in the office goes on around us. “It’s important. If people don’t support this type of journalism, I feel like we’ll have a less cultivated citizenry and it’s less likely for democracy to flourish.”
It’s difficult not to get swept up in Hughes’s sincerity, his life-of-the-mind swagger, his vertiginous luck. (There’s even an obsessively compiled Tumblr called, with lighthearted haterism, “Chris Hughes Is Better Than You.”) Given that he was a history and literature major, he’s perhaps the most accidental of the Facebook zillionaires, barely even figuring in The Social Network (probably because he didn’t quite fit into its hetero-nerd revenge myth). And these days he’s choosing to use his computer money to help shore up a set of Establishment values that matter to him (and to many of us) but are not quite thriving in the everybody-has-something-to-share Facebook era. If Zuckerberg used to refer to himself, presumably jokingly, as the “enemy of the state,” Hughes, whose demeanor is less piratical, has his eye on state dinners. And he has dined at the White House, and he celebrated his wedding to his somehow even younger partner, Sean Eldridge, with a revel for 400 people—including Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi—this summer at Cipriani Wall Street.
But he is not really a showboat. Given that he’s trained himself to be on-message since answering media inquiries about Facebook from a dorm room, he is a considered person, not predisposed to blurty swirls of confessionalism or raucous self-doubt. His old friends talk about his circumspection, and his new ones his calibrated fresh-faced-ness. He radiates opportunity in an era of disruption, and people read things into him or onto him. Politicians do it: He’s become a big Democratic fund-raiser. Literary mandarins do it: The Paris Review had him host its annual benefit bash earlier this year. And certainly journalists do it—those he employs, those he hopes to employ, and those who are just curious about whether he has an answer for this whole shaky-seeming business. He seems happy to represent, to all of us, what a fantasy member of his never-not-wired generation could be—a savior from the future for the institutions of the past.
It was the Internet that beamed him to the door of the Establishment. Like many precocious eventual New Yorkers, he realized sometime around puberty that the sticks weren’t for him. He grew up in Hickory, North Carolina, the only child of small-town Evangelical Lutherans who always told him he could be whatever he wanted. One day, he typed “best high schools in America” into Yahoo search, ordered up brochures for the ruling class, and without telling his parents, got himself admitted to Phillips Academy Andover, which is where both presidents Bush went. With an imploring phone call, he even persuaded the school to give him financial aid after they had originally denied it. Then he set off to better make his mark on the world. In a “senior reflection” in the student paper, published just before graduation in 2002, he wrote that Andover taught him to put aside typical high-school indulgences of “sex, sleep and booze” for a self-improvement ethos he called “Asceticism for Progress.”