Ironically Facebook and Its 500 Million Friends Remain Largely a Mystery

Zachary Houle

In the beginning, Mark 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...

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.)

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