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Ruling the planet

‘Facebook’, says the excitable author of this hero-gram, ‘may be the fastest-growing company of any type in history.’

4 September 2010

12:00 AM

4 September 2010

12:00 AM

The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World David Kirkpatrick

Virgin, pp.153, 11.99

‘Facebook’, says the excitable author of this hero-gram, ‘may be the fastest-growing company of any type in history.’

‘Facebook’, says the excitable author of this hero-gram, ‘may be the fastest-growing company of any type in history.’

‘Thefacebook.com’ went live on 4 February 2004, as an on-line directory for students at Harvard, inviting them to upload a picture of themselves and some basic info, such as their ‘relationship status’, favourite books, music, movies and a quotation. Once they had set up their own profiles, they could ask others to be their ‘friend’ and direct a jokey ‘poke’ (never defined) at them. Thefacebook offered no content whatsoever of its own, being merely a platform for content uploaded by its users.

By the end of the first week, more than half of all Harvard undergraduates had signed up; by the end of the month, three-quarters. Within a few weeks, it had expanded to Columbia, Stanford and Yale, and then moved on to other Ivy League universities.

In June of that year, a financier offered the creator of Thefacebook, Mark Zuckerberg, then just 20, $10 million for it. ‘He didn’t for a minute think seriously about accepting,’ says David Kirkpatrick admiringly. By March of the following year, he was offered $75 million, by Viacom, and he didn’t accept that either, nor a subsequent offer of $1.5 billion. And he hasn’t yet sold up or lost control of the company, at present worth somewhere between $10 and $15 billion.

Facebook now has half a billion active users around the world. Although Google boasts more, Facebook is the site on which most time is spent:

In 17 countries around the world, more than 30 per cent of all citizens — not internet users but citizens — are on Facebook . . . They include Norway (46 per cent), Canada (42 per cent) and the United Kingdom (40 per cent).

David Kirkpatrick, ‘Fortune magazine’s chief tech writer in New York’, chronicles this rise to world domination with the utmost devotion. Every step of the way — not just every innovation on the site, but every personnel change within the company, every refinancing, every row and legal challenge, every new server acquired, every significant meeting, every office or house move — is raptly recorded, right down to the clothes his hero wore on a particular day and the soft drinks he drank. Kirkpatrick first met Zuckerberg in 2006 and he treasures his access to him, as every page of this book confirms.

Is such disciple- ship merited? Zucker- berg’s leadership of Facebook has been impressively consistent, in that he has never wanted to sell up or even to concentrate on increasing revenues but has always pursued the growth and enhancement of the site itself, ‘building something that actually makes a really big change in the world’, he says.

One of the reasons he’s been able to do that so far, Kirkpatrick reveals, is because, when the company was incorporated back in 2004, his chief executive was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Sean Parker, who had been fired twice from the companies he had been involved in and who was determined to structure the board in such a way that no future investor could ever overrule Zuckerberg. ‘Zuckerberg will almost certainly continue to rule over Facebook with absolute authority,’ Kirkpatrick says, before adding blithely: ‘He wants to rule not only Facebook but in some sense the evolving communications infrastructure of the planet.’

Worth knowing a bit about him, then. Mark Zuckerberg is the second oldest of four children of a dentist father and psychologist mother from New York State. He won prizes in high school for maths, astronomy, physics and classical languages — preferring ancient languages he didn’t have to speak, because his accent was bad in modern ones. Short, introverted, looking younger than he was, he invariably dressed in baggy jeans, a T-shirt with a message or picture and rubber sandals.


He wasn’t forthcoming with strangers:

His tendency was to say nothing until others fully had their say. He stared. He would stare at you while you were talking and stay absolutely silent.

It’s difficult to tell whether he’s listening to, or even hearing, you, people report.

‘From his early years, Zuckerberg had a technical bent: the theme of his bar mitzvah was Star Wars,’ says Kirkpatrick, not joking (he never jokes). When he arrived at Harvard, he brought with him a giant whiteboard, ‘the geek’s consummate brainstorming tool’. Within a week, he had devised a programme, which soon became popular on campus, called Course Match, designed to help students pick courses based on who else was taking them.

This was shortly followed by ‘Facemash’, inviting votes on pictures of the hottest person on campus, also popular. But Zuckerberg had illicitly downloaded the photos from the official ‘facebooks’ of the Harvard houses. After complaints, he was disciplined by the Administrative Board, put on probation and required to see a counsellor.

Then he had the idea that you could sidestep all such problems of privacy and intrusion and rights by getting people to upload their own information. Facebook users have been energetically invading their own privacy ever since, much assisted by the arrival of the digital camera. Among its other dominances, it has become by far the world’s largest photo site, following the invention of ‘tagging’.

Being primarily a business study — full of poignant observation of how much some people made by getting a share of the company early and how much others missed out on — Kirkpatrick is only passingly interested in evaluating what the ultimate impact of Facebook on individuals and society will be, although he hopes it will be benign. ‘A communications system that includes people of all countries, all races, all religions, could not be a bad thing, could it?’ he asks. It could, of course, depending on who controls it and what use they make of it.

Zuckerberg has repeatedly run into trouble with Facebook’s users over successive innovations, such as the ‘News Feed’, launched in September 2006, which algorithmically selects snippets about the activities of users and delivers them to the home pages of their Friends. So now instead of you positively choosing to tell people what you are up to, as in a phone call or email, Facebook does it for you. Many users found the feature ‘too creepy, too stalker-esque’. ‘It was as if you could see every single person you knew over your backyard fence all the time.’

Zuckerberg responds to such complaints by offering new privacy controls, but he believes these to be all temporary measures and that we face a future of ‘radical transparency’.

‘The reality is that nothing on Facebook is really confidential,’ Kirkpatrick concedes. And being on Facebook is more or less obligatory in some circles — how people contact each other, without bothering with phone numbers or email addresses. ‘People who are not on Facebook are increasingly seen, among some groups, as unreachable by friends and acquaintances.’

‘In five years, there won’t be a distinction between being on and off Facebook,’ predicts one of Zuckerberg’s former business partners. ‘It will be something that goes with you wherever you are communicating with people.’

Zuckerberg contrasts his company with its big rival, Google, which builds up information by surveillance, tracking stuff that’s going on, ‘crawling the Web’. On Facebook, people choose to upload the information themselves and then share it, he points out. He believes his company to be nothing less than morally good as a result. ‘You need to be good in order to get people’s trust.’

But Facebook is a giant experiment of which we do not yet know the outcome. It has all simply happened too fast and grown too big for the consequences to be well understood. ‘For better or worse, Facebook is causing a mass resetting of the boundaries of personal intimacy’, Kirkpatrick says blithely, pointing out that ‘if you are friends with someone on Facebook, you may learn more about them than you learned in ten years of offline friendship.’ It is even more disturbing when you learn facts about those you are most intimate with via Facebook, see new pictures of them there and discover their plans that way.

‘The older you are, the more likely you are to find Facebook’s exposure of personal information intrusive and excessive.’ Kirkpatrick notes. It can be a problem between between parents and children:

Some families have instituted a rule that as a condition of having a computer and using Facebook the parents get access to their child’s profile. They are frequently distressed by what they find there.

Privacy matters, and Facebook is demolishing it. But perhaps Zuckerberg’s belief in the virtues of ever-increased connectivity, ever more sharing, should not be lightly dismissed.

In Some Versions of Pastoral, William Empson muses on the lines in Gray’s ‘Elegy’ about those who have died without ever being known to the world — ‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/ And waste its sweetness on the desert air’. The verse is politically complacent, making a social arrangement look natural, he points out.

But then he adds, unforgettably:

And yet what is said is one of the permanent truths; it is only in degrees that any improvement of society could prevent wastage of human powers; the waste even in a fortunate life, the isolation even of a life rich in intimacy, cannot but be felt deeply and is the central feeling of tragedy.

That isolation we all know and it’s one of the reasons Facebook has grown as it has.


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