New York Times
Books of The Times
Company on the Verge of a Social Breakthrough
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
Published: June 7, 2010
Responding to growing user concerns about privacy and growing scrutiny from American and European regulators of privacy practices, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and chief executive of Facebook.com, last month tried to explain his company’s core principles in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post.
Facebook, he said, was built around a few simple ideas: that “people want to share and stay connected with their friends and the people around them”; that if people have “control over what they share, they will want to share more”; and that “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.”
Not only has the promotion of user sharing fueled the company’s business, enabling data mining and highly directed advertising, but it’s also been part of the company’s almost utopian credo.
“Members of Facebook’s radical transparency camp, Zuckerberg included,” David Kirkpatrick writes in “The Facebook Effect,” “believe more visibility makes us better people. Some claim, for example, that because of Facebook, young people today have a harder time cheating on their boyfriends or girlfriends. They also say that more transparency should make for a more tolerant society in which people eventually accept that everybody sometimes does bad or embarrassing things.”
Mr. Kirkpatrick — who for many years was the senior editor for Internet and technology at Fortune magazine — was encouraged by Mr. Zuckerberg to write this book and was granted extensive access to him and his associates. Their cooperation has resulted in a mostly sympathetic — at times, gushingly laudatory — account of the company, though Mr. Kirkpatrick does not shy away from dissecting its missteps and successive disputes over privacy. He gives the reader a detailed understanding of how the company grew from a 2004 Harvard dorm-room project into the world’s second-most-visited site after Google.
Facebook is not only the world’s largest social network, but Mr. Kirkpatrick suggests that it may also “be the fastest-growing company of any type in history.” He reports that over 20 percent of the 1.7 billion people on the global Internet now use Facebook regularly, including 35.3 percent of the American population. The number of users is growing at the remarkable rate of 5 percent a month , he says, and the average user, astonishingly enough, spends almost an hour there each day.
But while Mr. Kirkpatrick has some interesting observations on Facebook’s evolution and future as it grapples with competitors like Twitter, his examination of the company’s social and political impact (helping people to self-organize) is pretty familiar, touching upon its use by Obama supporters in the 2008 campaign and its use in Colombia to organize protests against the hostage-taking FARC guerillas. His meditations about Facebook’s impact on advertising and the broader media landscape are similarly glancing and predictable.
The portrait of Mr. Zuckerberg, now 26, that emerges from this volume is that of a brilliant, sometimes naïve, frequently prescient visionary, who has evolved over the years from an impulsive college student fond of baggy jeans, rubber sandals (even in winter) and T-shirts, into a Silicon Valley executive (even known to don a dress shirt and tie), speaking around the world to promote his company’s global ambitions. He’s the wunderkind who has repeatedly resisted the temptation to sell his company for vast amounts of money in order to retain control, a chief executive with an almost missionary zeal when it comes to getting people to share information.
In the course of recounting Facebook’s story, Mr. Kirkpatrick provides a succinct history of the rise of social networking, arguing that the company triumphed through a combination of luck, timing and its creator’s determination that the service work smoothly on a technical level: after all, an early social networking site called sixdegrees.com, which began in 1997, was hobbled by the slowness of dial-up modems, and another precursor called Friendster was plagued by debilitating outages and slowdowns .
Mr. Kirkpatrick also contends that Facebook’s “ultimate success owes a lot to the fact that it began at college,” where “people’s social networks are densest and where they generally socialize more vigorously than at any other time in their lives,” and that its genesis at Harvard also lent it an elitist aura that made it a status magnet for early users.
Much of Facebook’s history — from a lawsuit brought by three Harvard students who claimed that the original idea for the site belonged to them, to attempts by Viacom and Yahoo to acquire the company for hundreds of millions of dollars — is well known by now. But Mr. Kirkpatrick still does an animated job of evoking the collegiate atmosphere that reigned at the company, even after its move to Palo Alto, Calif.: the all-nighters, the dorm-like lifestyle, the Red Bull-fueled work sessions and the beer-fueled parties.
At the same time, he reminds the reader of the smart and fortunate design choices — like the site’s clean, minimalist look, and the momentous 2005 decision to add photo hosting to the site — that drove the company’s astonishing growth around the world to the point where it is now closing in on 500 million users.
So far, Mr. Kirkpatrick says, Mr. Zuckerberg has pursued “growth over money,” but asks what guarantee Facebook users could get that the chief executive’s “good intentions will last indefinitely.” In a worst-case, Frankensteinian scenario, Mr. Kirkpatrick ominously adds, “possibly in some future when Zuckerberg has lost control of his creation, Facebook itself could become a giant surveillance system,” as the company “will always be able to see our data,” no matter what protections it might “offer our data from the potential depredations of others.”