In the fall of 2005, Michael Wolf, a top executive at MTV, flew to Palo Alto, Calif., to visit the offices of Facebook. MTV, like seemingly everyone else at the time, was interested in buying the rapidly growing social networking company from its founder, Mark Zuckerberg-then 21, with a fondness for Adidas sandals and a marked ambivalence toward media suitors. When Mr. Wolf arrived at the offices, he found an assistant nailing one of Mr. Zuckerberg’s worn-out sandals to a plaque. The discarded footwear, Mr. Wolf learned, was being presented to one of Mr. Zuckerberg’s acolyte programmers as an award for high achievement.
In a new book called The Facebook Effect (Simon & Schuster), erstwhile Fortune writer David Kirkpatrick recounts the anecdote as part of a richly detailed history of the company and its adolescent founder. Mr. Zuckerberg granted full access to the author, and Mr. Kirkpatrick makes good use of it, developing a well-paced narrative documenting how an introverted son of a dentist and a psychologist from Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., created an Internet behemoth with a few friends, becoming in a few years the kind of tech guru whose sandal-clad feet are now worshiped by computer scientists, engineers and venture capitalists from around the world.
“Modesty of ambition has never characterized successful leaders at Facebook,” writes Mr. Kirkpatrick.
The site may merely seem like a facilitator of collegiate-type socializing, a good way of showing off vacation photos and snooping on your ex-lovers. But Mr. Zuckerberg zealously believes that it is also a powerful evolutionary tool, destined to alter human behavior, ranging from love and governance to human consciousness and world peace.
As a sophomore at Harvard, Mr. Zuckerberg, a computer science major, tinkered in his spare time with ways of reducing campus life into simple dichotomies. One of his first big hits at Harvard was a program called Facemash, which allowed his classmates to compare photos of two of their peers and vote on which was hotter. Mr. Zuckerberg was eventually reprimanded by university officials for uploading pictures without individuals’ consent.
He was undeterred. While past generations of self-obsessed college students justified their navel-gazing by quoting the Oracle of Delphi, “Know Thyself,” Mr. Zuckerberg anticipated a fundamental shift in young people’s philosophical needs: “Show Thyself.” Given the right environment, everyone would share.
ON FEBRUARY, 4, 2004, Mr. Zuckerberg went live with the first version of Facebook, which was essentially a stripped-down way for Harvard students to show off their identities (already polished to a high sheen via the Harvard admissions process) in a digital directory of their peers. It was also an efficient way for a guy with a computer to figure out such things as, say, which classes the hot girls were taking. “I know it sounds corny,” Mr. Zuckerberg told a campus newspaper around this time, “but I’d love to improve people’s lives, especially socially.”
And so a multibillion-dollar global empire was born. Mr. Kirkpatrick argues convincingly that Mr. Zuckerberg’s idea was hardly unique. At the time, various entrepreneurs at campuses around the country were working on similar projects. But Mr. Kirkpatrick details the sequence of events and decisions by which Mr. Zuckerberg and his friends repeatedly outmaneuvered their competition, along the way dropping out of Harvard, moving to Palo Alto, raising capital, throwing parties, writing code, trashing rental houses, watching Tom Cruise movies and growing the company into a global platform. By January of 2010, Mr. Kirkpatrick reports, 11.6 percent of all the time spent in America on the Internet was spent on Facebook. That’s more than double the time on Google.
Throughout it all, Mr. Zuckerberg comes across not only as an insightful, strong-willed entrepreneur but also as a bit of a slob. At one point in the book, his mom apologizes on behalf of her son’s slovenly tendencies by explaining that he grew up with a maid. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the founding of Facebook itself was also untidy, leaving in its wake a series of messy lawsuits-most notably by two alpha Harvard twins, who accused Mr. Zuckerberg of essentially stealing their idea.
That suit was ultimately settled years ago out of court. Yet, in recent months, unflattering details from those early days of Facebook have continued to surface. The Business Insider recently published an IM conversation that apparently took place between Mr. Zuckerberg and another Harvard student shortly after Facebook’s founding, in which Mr. Zuckerberg offers to share his users’ personal information and disparages them for turning it over so readily.
All of which has helped to touch off a sudden wave of Facebook worry. What exactly did we all sign up for? Who is safeguarding those pictures we uploaded of our weddings?
THIS PAST WEEK, Time magazine put Facebook on its cover. Subhead: “With nearly 500 million users, Facebook is connecting us in new (and scary) ways.” In October, a feature film about Facebook, written by Aaron Sorkin, based on Ben Mezrich’s critical 2009 book, The Accidental Billionaires, will arrive in theaters. U.S. senators are now scrambling to attach their signatures to letters of concern.
Not long ago, Mr. Kirkpatrick writes, Mr. Zuckerberg took a monthlong trip around the world, alone with a backpack, during which he “made a brief pilgrimage-by dusty local bus-to the ashram high in the Himalayas, where Steve Jobs and Baba Ram Dass, among others, have sought enlightenment.” Back at the Facebook headquarters, according to Mr. Kirkpatrick, Mr. Zuckerberg would often walk around with a leather-bound diary, in which the young executive would scrawl out by hand his big thoughts on Facebook’s global strategy. Mr. Zuckerberg named the diary the “Book of Change” and decorated it with a quote from Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
And what is that change? “Facebook is founded on a radical social premise-that an inevitable enveloping of transparency will overtake modern life,” writes Mr. Kirkpatrick. Inside the company, they call the concept “radical transparency.”
“If we give people control over what they share, they will want to share more,” wrote Mr. Zuckerberg on Monday, May 24, in The Washington Post. “If people share more, the world will become more open and connected. And a world that’s more open and connected is a better world.”
The Facebook Effect doesn’t shy away from Mr. Zuckerberg’s youthful indiscretions, but Mr. Kirkpatrick shows us that ultimately the rise of Facebook is not some simple story about a creepy engineer, but rather a complex tale about engineering creep-that is, the way in which tech geeks and executives are now aggressively applying algorithm-based solutions to areas of human life traditionally ministered by saints and humanists, tribe elders and scholars.
What does it mean for American society that so many adults are now willingly following codes of social behavior prescribed not by their parents but designed by their kids-college-age computer scientists dreaming not only of improving the world and getting rich but also of more efficiently finding coeds and organizing beer pong tournaments?
Friends and followers, beware.