Op-Eds


The Facebook Enigma

By Chris Hoofnagle, The Huffington Post

Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal
By Ben Mezrich
Anchor Books, 272 pp.

The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World
By David Kirkpatrick
Simon & Schuster, 384 pp.

Imagine receiving a visit from Steve Ballmer, where the Microsoft CEO, hulking and as scary as a gorilla, offers you billions of dollars in cash for your "dorm room" project. Imagine saying no, unless Ballmer could meet a condition: you could have both the billions and remain in control of the project.

That is one of many anecdotes shared in David Kirkpatrick's The Facebook Effect that sheds light upon Mark Zuckerberg, the enigmatic and very young founder of Facebook. Zuckerberg is courted by billionaires, fawned over by fans, and worshiped by entrepreneurs, yet he remains a mystery. What animates this man's character and ambition? What are his goals for Facebook? It's an important question -- a Harvard dropout in his mid-twenties controls the hub of a communications system with the personal information of 500 million users.

Different answers are provided in two recent books chronicling Zuckerberg's founding and nurturing of Facebook. Ben Mezrich's Accidental Billionaires, published in 2009, is a sensational narrative account of the company's founding. I read it in a single sitting. It really is that exciting and engaging. Based upon interviews with early competitors (or perhaps co-founders) of the company, Mezrich's book was written without the cooperation of Facebook, and is being adapted to a motion picture to be released in October.

David Kirkpatrick's The Facebook Effect complements Accidental Billionaires. It covers the beginnings of Facebook as told by Zuckerberg and dozens of others interviewed for the book. But its main contribution is the description of the Facebook "effect": its potential for changing the internet. This vision makes clear that Facebook is not a toy for college students to "hook up"; it is a platform for sharing data that can erode the power of existing institutions, even the power of Facebook itself. Throughout the book, Kirkpatrick's skills as a business reporter shine as he takes the reader through incredible stories of the richest and most powerful people in America courting Zuckerberg.

Both books are biased in their own ways -- Accidental Billionaires employs recreated dialogue to situate the reader in the conflict between Zuckerberg and cohorts at Harvard. It reads like a good novel. The Facebook Effect is exciting too, but too deferential to Facebook's worldview, and in some parts, it lacks synthesis and critical analysis. Guffaw inspiring statements riddle the text: "It is comforting that Zuckerberg is so personally passionate about the importance of protecting people from information predators."

Who Is Mark Zuckerberg?

I picked up these books in hopes that they would animate Zuckerberg's character. But this key aspect is underdeveloped in both books. Where are the interviews with the parents, high school friends, ex-girlfriends, etc? Where are the anecdotes elucidating formative moments of Zuckerberg's life? How was he raised?

Accidental Billionaires makes hints at autism spectrum disorder, signaled by Zuckerberg's widely reported awkwardness, and his attachment to cargo shorts and flip flops even in the Boston winters. This is not too strange, certainly not enough to lead to a diagnosis.

On the other hand, The Facebook Effect portrays Zuckerberg as a modern Marcus Aurelius. Quotes attributed to him are careful and insightful. He is unaffected by criticism and has an unshakable vision for Facebook. His surroundings are Spartan and he makes use, unpretentiously, of whatever is around him to do his work. Zuckerberg is not the CEO who writes with a gilt pen; he'd be happy with the Bic found in the couch.

Facebook's founding provides insight onto Zuckerberg, but here too, different portraits emerge. A controversy surrounds the company's founding. Accidental Billionaires proceeds from the perspectives of Eduardo Saverin, a financial supporter and co-founder of Facebook, and the Winklevoss brothers, who allegedly hired Zuckerberg to help create a dating website similar to Facebook. In the last year, after the publication of Accidental Billionaires, a series of salacious allegations have emerged from the Winklevoss litigation. These include allegations of hacking into reporters' accounts to an instant message conversation where Zuckerberg is alleged to have referred to early Facebook users as "dumb fucks" for trusting him.

Accidental Billionaires frames Zuckerberg through the use of several themes carried through the book. For instance, Zuckerberg and his cohorts are ambitious outsiders, who got to Harvard on their own intellectual merit. They were more mercenary, because they had to be. The Winklevoss brothers (and almost everyone else) at the college were the cooler in-crowd. The brothers were already rich and were part of an elite social club with different norms.

Sex -- the lack of it -- is also a central framing device in Accidental Billionaires. Mezrich presents a staid culture at Harvard, where Zuckerberg's crowd was trapped at all-male parties. Women, always viewed from a distance, are portrayed as things to be obtained. Once obtained, perhaps reflecting his subjects, Mezrich describes them as fungible, nameless creatures. Kirkpatrick, on the other hand, begins his book with the opposite picture of Zuckerberg as ladies' man, and is careful to repeat his longtime girlfriend's name at least five times. But neither book portrays women, other than Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook's COO), as ever having a thought.

According to Accidental Billionaires, Zuckerberg and his early collaborators were primarily motivated by sex. The idea was to use computers to cut out the inefficient social interaction needed to gain access to sex. It's Dr. Strangelove for the adolescent male.

I dwell on the sex theme to make a larger point: social networking systems can be anti-social. Too often, tech firm leaders see others as objects, to be counted in CPCs or CPMs, or as "targets" and "waste," as Joseph Turow has observed. Take Zuckerberg's progenitor to Facebook, Fashmash, as an example. It was modeled on the website, "Am I Hot or Not," where users could voluntarily post a sexy picture and run a gauntlet of internet critics. Zuckerberg took the voluntarism out of this system for Facemash. He found ways to download all the pictures from the existing electronic facebooks at Harvard and combined them into an attractiveness rating system.

We've all ranked the attractiveness of our cohorts, but to create a computer system to do so publicly, without their consent, at an elite private school, takes things to a different level. This is a result of more than lack of access to sex; it reflects an estrangement from women altogether.

A social network can also be anti-social in mixing the context of relationships. By merging people from different contexts, it circumscribes one's dynamism and freedom in all contexts. Just consider this passage from The Facebook Effect:

"You have one identity," he [Zuckerberg] says emphatically three times in a single minute during a 2009 interview... "The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly." [...] "Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity."

This passage is one of the many strange contradictions shared about Zuckerberg. How could a young liberal, so interested in changing the world, be so committed to such a rigid and retrograde idea about personality?

What Does Zuckerberg Want?

The Facebook Effect has more elevated themes that are less cohesive about Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg frames Facebook as a "utility," he wants to "change the world," and he has an ambivalence, perhaps even a hostility, towards advertising.

There is a great deal of tension in these themes. No entrepreneur wants to give birth to a "utility" because utilities are slow and unresponsive. Their vision is muddied by commissions and bargaining with unions. Utilities give consumers few choices.

Perhaps Zuckerberg means something different by "utility." He might mean that Facebook is something useful that can "change the world," like email or the postal mail system. The Facebook Effect includes lots of revolutionary rhetoric in this vein, and even a photograph of a Facebook logo above a raised fist. But it is not clear what about the world needs changing, or what end goal Zuckerberg has in mind for Facebook.

Zuckerberg clearly does not want to sell the company to a firm that will vulgarize it with ubiquitous ads. But he seems to have done this himself, with a large array of popular advertising gimmicks, such as virtual gifts. In some ways, Facebook has mimicked the advertising world instead of changing it. Facebook's ad model is based upon driving demand for new products, just like the big media advertising that Zuckerberg is said to despise. Ads are inserted in to the conversation, into relationships, somewhat like product placement. Isn't that more manipulative than a mass media ad?

What Does Zuckerberg Think About Privacy?

Kirkpatrick emphasizes that the key to understanding Facebook is the company's commitment to "radical transparency." Soon after, we hear that Zuckerberg cares a great deal about privacy. Kirkpatrick continues in this vein, quoting any one-liner he can on privacy without critical engagement. Kirkpatrick's text lacks synthesis and critical analysis here. For instance, Facebook is seen as creating new breathing room for libertines. But what is a libertine? Is it possible for everyone to be a libertine, or by definition, does it require a particular distance from societal norms and society itself? Jean Des Esseintes, the anti-hero libertine of Huysmans' Against Nature, found it necessary to leave Paris in order to live a strange, indulgent life. Des Esseintes could not find freedom in Paris; will we in the fishbowl of Facebook?

Kirkpatrick's privacy chapter would suggest not. Much of it is devoted to a series of anecdotes detailing the consequences of fairly conventional transgressions publicized on Facebook. They pale in comparison to Des Esseintes' hiring of prostitutes to act out scenes from "The Temptation of Saint Anthony". Yet, employers are not tolerating even boring badness. Employers are operating in a legal landscape that supports liability for negligent hiring and a public relations landscape of instant negative publicity. They have little room to grant individuals private space. Zuckerberg himself should understand this. After all, his first president, Sean Parker, was forced out of leadership because of a minor run in with police.

Conclusion

Who is Mark Zuckerberg? Accidental Billionaires and The Facebook Effect help answer the question. Zuckerberg is young, and thus we should view some of his ideas and transgressions with tolerance. He's not just interested in money (although not indifferent either). He wants to maintain control of Facebook, even in the face of flexible, flush offers of cash. He wants Facebook to be a useful tool, but to do so, he thinks that everyone should become more transparent. He's willing to make you more transparent. He wants to connect the world, but in so doing, he will become the Ma Bell of the internet. Perhaps we'll call him Pa Poke someday.

9/3/2010