Ironically Facebook and Its 500 Million Friends Remain Largely a Mystery

[9 September 2010]

By Zachary Houle

To most people, Facebook needs no introduction. You’re probably on it, along with some half billion other people worldwide. The social media site is growing at a rate of about 25 million new users a month, and is capturing the imaginations of both authors and filmmakers. The new authorized biography, The Facebook Effect, is hardly the first book that has chronicled the rise of the company and its young CEO Mark Zuckerberg: last year, an unauthorized tome called The Accidental Billionaires was published that chronicled the darker side of the network’s creation, and some of the lawsuits and plagiarism accusations that arose from it. A David Fincher movie called The Social Network, which is based on The Accidental Billionaires, will be released this fall, and will probably only increase the fascination with the social networking site among the populace.

While the Fincher film will purportedly focus on the more sordid aspects of Facebook’s founding, The Facebook Effect, written by David Kirkpatrick, a former senior editor of Fortune magazine, is a much more fawning affair. In the afterword of his book, Kirkpatrick writes, “Facebook cooperated extensively in the preparation of The Facebook Effect, as did CEO Mark Zuckerberg.” In the acknowledgement section, there’s this: “Thanks go first to Mark Zuckerberg. Had he not encouraged me to write this book and cooperated as I did so, it would likely not have happened.”

These pronouncements rub both ways. On one hand, getting the full cooperation of Facebook is key to writing a comprehensive history of the social network, and comprehensive this book is. If you want to know how Facebook grew from being a dorm-room project to becoming a company worth between $10 and $20 billion, plus all of the politics, back-room deals and investment rounds that helped it grow (including all of the embarrassing missteps) – read this book. It boasts dozens of interviews with all sorts of major players, including present and past executives of the firm, and it’s a handy textbook for those interested in beginning their own start-up company.

On the other hand, obtaining the complete cooperation of Facebook – even though Kirkpatrick insists that there was “no quid pro quo” in that the company wasn’t allowed to vet the book prior to publication – raises a huge red flag vis-a-vis journalistic integrity and bias. In fact, Kirkpatrick comes off as a bit of a cheerleader of both Facebook and Zuckerberg at times, and the tome is a little skimpy when it comes to looking at some of the less pleasant aspects of the social network – especially when it comes to how it handles privacy and security issues. While Kirkpatrick does include some examples of poor user experience on Facebook, examples which sometimes had devastating consequences for many people—from ordinary citizen’s right up to high-ranking government officials—he barely interviews anyone who might provide negative or a differing context of the insidiousness of the service.

This is a near-fatal flaw of the book, and prevents it from being a well-rounded, well-executed portrayal of a company that has grown from being a simple way to see which of your friends were taking certain classes when it was launched at Harvard University, to a website and network that ranks only behind Google in terms of being a lucrative source of ad-revenue for companies that want to target their messages to a wide array of people, if not sheer ubiquity on the web. (Not bad for a firm that is only six-years-old.)

Still, this is an engaging read that often has the propulsion of a crackling good novel, particularly in the book’s first half which chronicles the slow and steady rise of Facebook. It’s in these chapters that we are introduced to Mark Zuckerberg as a character, and how his sense of business acumen grows as does his business.

In the beginning, Zuckerberg was a socially-awkward teenager, a computer science major at Harvard University, who arrived toting an eight-foot-long whiteboard as a brainstorming tool. Right away, he was coming up with new software, no matter how much coursework he might have had. As Kirkpatrick notes, “[s]leep was never a priority”, which would become a bit of a recurring theme for Zuckerberg, who is prone to fainting, likely as a result of not getting proper rest.

During his first week at Harvard, he created an Internet software program called Course Match, which allowed students pick classes based on who else was taking them. The following month, he created an Internet site called Facemash, which had the sole purpose of figuring out who was the hottest person on campus. It turned out to be popular as some 450 students voted on 22,000 pairs of photos before the site was shut down. Zuckerberg was eventually hauled in before Harvard’s disciplinary Administrative Board, and was cited on violations of the school’s code of conduct in the way that the site handled security, copyright and privacy. (Zuckerberg had hacked into Harvard computer networks to get some of the photos.) Privacy issues would be the ongoing theme that would come to define the young entrepreneur: someone that some say has a cavalier approach to privacy issues.

Shaken by the experience but not deterred, it wasn’t long before Zuckerberg put down $35 online to register a web address, Thefacebook, as it was initially known, was a mish-mash between Course Match, Facemash as well as a social networking site called Friendster. As this might suggest, Zuckerberg didn’t create the first social networking site – which Kirkpatrick illustrates in depth through a sole chapter on the history of social networking on the web – but he had a sense of good timing, arriving when broadband Internet was really starting to take off, and was savvy enough to start his site at college, where people’s social networks are at, perhaps, their deepest point during the course of their lifetime.

Some, however, offer a darker portrait – that Zuckerberg was a bit of a thief in that he had been hired to work on another social networking site called Harvard Connection, later rebranded ConnectU, and then left that project to start Thefacebook. This is where Kirkpatrick’s book gets a little thin, only alluding to this event in passing during the first chapter and a little later on, which is odd considering that those who started Harvard Connection eventually sued Zuckerberg, alleging that he had taken their ideas. (The lawsuit was settled in 2008 for $20 million in cash plus Facebook stock worth $10 million.) There is very said little about the suit, and Kirkpatrick doesn’t interview those who were behind Harvard Connection to get their take on things. He only speculates that Zuckerberg was “rude” and “very uncooperative” to the founders of Harvard Connection during his time working on that social network.

Still,, with its proclamation that it was “A Mark Zuckerberg Production” and its portrait of a young Al Pacino in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, was such a success at Harvard that barely six months after starting the network, Zuckerberg was offered $10 million for it. He turned the offer down, as he would turn down other overtures throughout the growth of Facebook, for he had a vision of dominating the Internet with his business – taking on the then-social networking behemoth MySpace (which has since been reduced to an entertainment and music portal).

With that belief, he and a small group of friends headed to Palo Alto, California, to rent a house and set up shop. While the group worked hard – executives who later joined the company learned to be awake at 3AM and be on Instant Messenger, for that’s when key decisions tended to be made by the 20-something upstarts – they were also notorious partiers. Someone set up a zip line from the chimney to a telephone pool in the backyard so visitors could fly down the line and deposit themselves right into the swimming pool. Naturally, Zuckerberg and company got sued by the homeowners who claimed that the entire house was in disarray and very dirty, with furniture thrown out in the garage and broken glass scattered around the yard and deck (though again, Kirkpatrick doesn’t offer details as to what happened to the suit).

That wouldn’t be the only time that Zuckerberg’s wild streak would ruffle feathers. When Facebook began to really take off as more and more schools were added (and later the world), the company was courted by Sequoia Capital, who was interested in investing in the company. Facebook was uninterested in taking the money, especially since one of the executives, Sean Parker, a guy who had helped found Napster, had some bad history with the funders. Zuckerberg and another partner showed up late in pajama bottoms and T-shirts to make the pitch, which was actually a David Letterman-style list of the Top 10 reasons Sequoia shouldn’t invest in a service called Wirehog – which was a peer-to-peer file sharing service being designed at the same time as Facebook, which Zuckerberg latter dropped largely due to litigation concerns.

Needless to say, Sequoia took the advice, didn’t invest, and Zuckerberg notes that, “It’s not a story I’m very proud of.” Such illustrations bring a certain color to The Facebook Effect and goes to show that Kirkpatrick did his research and asked some pointed questions of Zuckerberg et al about the growing pains of their company.

Kirkpatrick also does a brilliant job of showing the transformation of Zuckerberg. He goes from being little more than a kid, a college drop-out, who is found crying in the bathroom of a trendy restaurant while being courted by investors because he was afraid of going against his own principles. By the end of the book, Zuckerberg, who had a fondness for fleece jackets and flip-flops, has grown to donning a tie to his office for the entire year of 2009 to cement the seriousness of his commitment to the company.

Through it all, he remained steadfast in his determination to pilot Facebook, even as the offers of a buyout comes in from all sorts of interested parties such as MTV, Microsoft and Yahoo! The ongoing offers steadily climb – up to $1 billion, then $15 billion – but Zuckerberg refuses to budge, believing that his social networking site can radically change the face of the Internet and hat growth over profits is the solid and steady course of ensuring that the business continues to be a dominant force online. (Zuckerberg, the book points out repeatedly, also has always had something of a laisser-faire attitude towards ads appearing on the site, opining that they would affect the user experience – a position that would soften somewhat over time.)

The Pros and Cons of Having 500 Million Friends

The team at Facebook, which now numbers some 1,500 employees, went to extreme ends to remain a viable force. Kirkpatrick relates a story that, leading up to the launch of the site as a platform for developers to make their own applications that could run in Facebook in 2007, many were working late into the night and on weekends for months to ensure that everything went smoothly. Many went without sleeping for days and, as Kirkpatrick notes, “[s]ome of the programmers took an alertness drug called Provisual so they could stay up another night. They were semidelirious. They joked they should mix Provisual with cocaine and call it Blow-visual.” Such details are telling and utterly fascinating. Kirkpatrick really does offer a window into the inner-workings of the company at both the high level, right down to the feelings of those working in the trenches.

People interested in Facebook and what it represents will probably have to read both books and make up their own minds as to whether or not Zuckerberg is a creative genius or an outright plagiarist.

While the first half of the book is told in a fairly linear narrative style, Kirkpatrick more or less tosses that out about mid-way through to focus in on specific chapters dealing with Facebook’s issues with privacy, launching as a development platform, and the impact the social networking site is having on society and government worldwide. This is where the book begins to weaken a bit, particularly in the section on privacy. Kirkpatrick brands Zuckerberg at points as a bit of a champion on privacy, even though Facebook has notoriously done things that are an affront to the user’s right to remain private while using the service. Kirkpatrick notes that Facebook was designed to provide people with one identity with the belief that “in a more ‘open and transparent’ world, people will be held to the consequences of their actions and be more likely to behave responsibly.”

As a justification to erode the ability of the user to control what information gets passed around Facebook, I find that to be a pretty weak argument. From personal experience, I used to have a friend who texted messages to Facebook while driving. I called this friend out on her risky behavior right on her Facebook news feed earlier this summer, which merely led to my comment being deleted by her, which, after a bit of a shouting match on my part for having the comment turfed, led me to being “unfriended”. She hasn’t spoken to me since.

If Zuckerberg thinks he is going to build a Utopian society through transparency of information, he’s not living in the real world. This is not to speak of the fact that human resource departments in many companies are trolling Facebook to find pictures of drunken debauchery and other negative expressions of behavior as an excuse not to hire people. (A 2009 poll of US employers found that 35 percent of companies had rejected applicants because of information they found on social networks.) A lack of privacy leads to real consequences that can, in turn, have a negative impact on one’s life – we are not saints as human beings, after all.

It is to Kirkpatrick’s discredit that he didn’t grill Zuckerberg on this, nor did he go out and interview people who are concerned about privacy on Facebook. For instance, Kirkpatrick doesn’t mention that the Canadian Privacy Commissioner ruled in 2009 that Facebook was not complying with the country’s privacy laws in the relevant chapter on the subject, though he does mention this briefly in the last chapter of the book about Facebook’s future and possible government intervention into the service as it becomes bigger and bigger. It seems as though Kirkpatrick sidesteps some real issues and makes excuses for the site’s stance, even offering up this contradictory line: “[M]any people do not understand or take advantage of Facebook’s often-complicated controls for their own information.” If the user experience regarding setting one’s privacy controls is complicated, would that not be a failing of Facebook – not the user? Shouldn’t Facebook do more to address the issue of privacy, instead of arbitrarily setting the default privacy setting as “open”? Not everything posted for a few friends is worth sharing with everyone, after all.

Of course, the matter of personal responsibility—what one chooses to post on a social media website—should be taken into consideration when discussing privacy issues, just as taking personal responsibility for the safety of yourself and others while driving—and foolishly texting—will be considered should an accident occur. The problem with Facebook, however, is that you sometimes can’t control your own content. If someone takes a picture of you at a party with a lampshade on your head, they can post this to Facebook and tag you as the person with the lampshade. It’s then up to you to remove that tag, if you’re interested in preserving your privacy, but the picture doesn’t get deleted as it resides on another person’s account.

This is opt-out as opposed to opt-in, and to me, is not a respectful approach to privacy. It’s getting to a point where Kirkpatrick even notes that some frat parties now have darkened rooms for taking shots of alcohol where it’d be impossible to get a good picture on a cellphone or digital camera due to the lighting conditions. If Facebook is trying to make the world a more open and transparent place, in effect the company is helping to drive certain illicit behaviours further underground (or at least, is helping to hide them) with its approach to privacy (or lack thereof).

There are similar issues with the chapter on how Facebook made it possible for developers to make their own applications to run on top of the social network. Kirkpatrick waves his pom-poms and says, “The platform brought Facebook a gravitas it never before possessed. It caused both technologists and ordinary users to sense that this service was more than they’d reckoned. In Silicon Valley and among techies worldwide, it suddenly became uncool not to have your own Facebook profile.”

While this might be true, Kirkpatrick didn’t go out and talk to some of these developers to gain some perspective. I used to work for a web development firm that came up with a Facebook application that made it possible for people to send a message to their friends at a future date. (Handy if you want to break up with someone via Facebook at a predetermined time, or if you’re going to be away camping when a friend is having their birthday party.) The problem was that Facebook had a habit of updating their application programming interface, or API, on Thursday mornings without telling anyone, which usually resulted in the application crashing, leading developers at the company I worked for to have to hustle every week to fix up code so that it was compatible with the changes Facebook made. Had Kirkpatrick gone further afield and talked to other people outside of Facebook culture, he might have come upon stories like this. 

Additionally, The Facebook Effect, as with any book about emerging technology, already is a little past its “best before date” in some respects. It covers everything right up to about early 2010, but it already feels a bit behind the times, which is a tough criticism because Facebook is such a moving target that it would be impossible to lasso it effectively to the ground. This, of course, means that you’ll find nothing here about the recently launched Facebook Places, which allows you and your friends to check into locations, Foursquare-style – though Kirkpatrick does note in the concluding chapter that the future of the company might be built on offering such geo-location based services.

You’ll also find nothing here about Quit Facebook Day, which occurred in May 2010 after Torontonians Matthew Milan and Joseph Dee organized a mass protest of sorts in response to the way the site manages and stores user information. More than 37,000 people logged off Facebook for good on 31 May, which might seem like a drop in the bucket against the tens of millions of people signing up each month, but the protest did force Facebook to backpedal and offer up increased privacy controls in response to the user base erosion. Since Facebook seems to have no end to its success, a book about the site is bound to suffer from having no natural conclusion, other than to attempt to crystal ball-gaze into the future.

One can position The Facebook Effect as a single circle on a Venn diagram, with The Accidental Billionaires posited as another circle. Where the two overlap is probably a closer approximation of the truth behind Facebook’s meteoric rise, and a more sobering account of the various issues that the network raises. That overlap, though, represents a book that hasn’t yet been written.

For now, people interested in Facebook and what it represents will probably have to read both books and make up their own minds as to whether or not Zuckerberg is a creative genius or an outright plagiarist. The Facebook Effect obviously makes a case for the former, but it’s too bad that Kirkpatrick didn’t go farther afield to find out the other half of the equation, to make a more fair and balanced read. Overall, though, The Facebook Effect is a zippy, engaging book, and it’s definitely well-written and, for the most part, thought out. Given the prominence of the social networking site on the world stage in such a compressed timeframe, its subject begs for a closer examination of both the pros and cons that being friends with some 500 million people can bring.

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