Where are you from? “Dobbs Ferry.” What’s your major? “Mostly computer science but also psychology.” Where did you live? “Kirkland House at Harvard.”
I’m meeting with Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, and have already run through the extent of my social networking skills from college. If that didn’t start a conversation, I usually headed back to the bar. Fortunately, Mr. Zuckerberg is not only a programmer, but a talker as well.
On the third floor of your average downtown Palo Alto building, I meet Mr. Zuckerberg after walking through a large room filled with tables and lots of large screen monitors manned by mostly young men wearing the only thing that distinguished this workplace from a hedge fund—T-shirts.
Mr. Zuckerberg’s creation, an Internet service that allows students to post personal information and photos, is nothing short of a twister sweeping college campuses, keeping millions up to date on their friends’ lives and dating status. There was a reputed $1 billion plus offer from Yahoo!, turned down, natch.
Even more remarkable is that Mr. Zuckerberg is all of 22 years old. What is it that made Facebook become so valuable in less than three years? And will 22-year-olds with 200 employees come up with all the good ideas from now on?
Facebook is not an entirely new concept. I remember as a freshman being handed a booklet with pages of student photos annotated with hometowns and majors. It was affectionately known at lots of colleges as Pigbook. But his alma mater Harvard, according to Mr. Zuckerberg, didn’t have one. “Eventually,” Mr. Zuckerberg says, “I just figured, OK, we could just throw one together and that would help people create a page.” (I love when programmers say “throw one together”—when they really mean stay up all night chugging Jolt soda with breaks for Nerf gun battles.) “Within two weeks, two thirds of the school had signed up.” Did he put up posters or send out flyers? “I just told my roommates and it kinda spread from there. By the end of sophomore year, it had expanded to about 30 colleges.”
That was two years ago, now Facebook is massive—some 16 million users, half of whom use it everyday. I watched a 23-year-old family friend, PK, solicit expert opinions gathered around his laptop asking which of the “hotties” he was connected to on Facebook he should pursue. An unscientific survey suggests this is a pretty typical and pervasive use of the service. Good to see college kids haven’t changed much. But what are the implications for the rest of us?
In fact, the success of Facebook may well underscore a major shift in the way we gather information, a trend that Mr. Zuckerberg picked up early on. He describes a class he took at Harvard called Rome of Augustus: “For the final exam, we had to learn the historical significance of something like 500 pieces of art from that period. Having not really read that stuff, I was in a lot of trouble, spending my time building Facebook instead of studying.”
Right before the final, Mr. Zuckerberg went to the course Web site, downloaded all the images and made a new site with a page for each image, along with a box to add comments. Then he forwarded the site’s link to the class list. Within an hour or two, a bunch of his classmates visited the site and filled out all the information about the photos. Mr. Zuckerberg went back and “kind of absorbed it all,” eventually getting an A in the class. He believes that the grades on that final were much higher than they have ever been.
“By taking the understanding that all the individuals have and pooling that knowledge together, you get a better set of knowledge,” he explains, which perhaps is what Facebook is all about. “That’s kind of what we are doing here, but with ‘What’s going on in the world with these people that I care about?’”
Opened up beyond just college kids, there are now some 50,000 unique networks, though not all are serious—here are a few “groups” I found: “Americans are retarded for not using the Metric System,” “Two frightening words: Chuck Norris,” and “Asian women shouldn’t drive Hummers.”
But users have the ultimate control of who they hang out with electronically, and “only see the people that are in their networks” usually meaning the same college, “and the people that are their confirmed friends around Facebook,” perhaps old friends at another school.
This exclusivity has a certain magic. “The power here is that people have information they don’t want to share with everyone. If you give people very tight control over what information they are sharing or who they are sharing with” (share that beer bong photo with my roommate, but not with my sister) “they will actually share more. One example is that one third of our users share their cell phone number on the site.”
MySpace is the inevitable comparison. Bought by Rupert Murdoch to help digitize his media empire, success has watered down the meaning of “friends.” Pornstar Jenna Jameson has 1,163,435 MySpace friends, none of whom I would share my cell phone number with.
With Facebook, exclusivity and control somehow means freedom. The more personal control, the more people are willing to let their guard down. “One billion page views a day is cool,” Mr. Zuckerberg admits, “but really what I care about is giving people access to connect and the information they want as efficiently as possible.”
For this, Facebook created a service known as Newsfeed, which caused a strange stir among its users. Newsfeed takes all the information on the site for each person and computes what is the most “interesting” about them, which translates into what is now a very primitive news ticker, but is headed toward being complete stories.
“Before Newsfeed, basically you had to go and you kind of look at people’s profiles you wanted to check up on, but there was nothing to tell you what was the most interesting stuff. Now as soon as they log in, people get a sense of what is going on in their world more efficiently,” Mr. Zuckerberg says.
Mr. Zuckerberg took the protests in stride. “That’s just something that goes along with being revolutionary,” he says. His confidence paid off. “When we launched Newsfeed, someone made a group Students Against Newsfeed and people started joining it, and this trend was mounting. And every single person’s Newsfeed had a story that said ‘man, all these people are joining Students Against Newsfeed’. A lot of companies probably would have altered the code to block that from propagating, and we probably could have but we have this focus on openness so we felt like, no, that’s not the right thing to do. It’s kind of like journalistic integrity.”
The anti-Newsfeed group became very large, with Facebook providing them the tools. And then, people’s opinions changed, Mr. Zuckerberg explains: “I would hear ‘Man, early on I was freaked by Newsfeed and now I don’t know how I can live without it.’ We want to build good things, and that’s the cost of doing it. The net effect was really positive.”
Facebook solved several problems at once—how to leverage the power of connections via the Internet, while at the same time maintain tight personal control. In the era of spam and identity theft, they may have constructed the ultimate daily life tool. Build it, and people will come and do things in unexpected ways.
I don’t get the sense Mr. Zuckerberg is a big fan of traditional media. He was famously photographed at a big media powwow wearing Adidas flip-flops. I snuck a quick glance down and noticed he still had them on. “Actually, I don’t have a TV but I do read newspapers. But how I read them is important. I don’t pick up a physical newspaper—I’ll get sent a link. The experience is very different, given to me by different people. What my friends sent to me or what other people think and send to me.”
In effect, Facebook works in a similar way, only on a grand scale with software helping pull out relevant information. “In the next iterations, you’re going to see real stories being produced. ‘These people went to this party and they did this the next day and then here’s the discussion that was taking place off of this article in The Wall Street Journal. And these two people went to this party and they broke up the next day.’ Whatever, you can start weaving together real events into stories. As these start to approach being stories, we turn into a massive publisher. Twenty to 30 snippets of information or stories a day, that’s like 300 million stories a day. It gets to a point where we are publishing more in a day than most other publications have in the history of their whole existence.”
Is there a bigger meaning in all this? Mr. Zuckerberg would say yes. “As information is available, that really affects how people think about the world, how people think about and absorb things, democracy at a really high level. It’s both an ideal in the abstract that we fight for and work toward as part of our mission, but it’s also a practical value inside the company, we place a really high value on being able to talk about a lot of things, anything.”
The spread of information doesn’t always lead to happy results. Last year, a residential adviser at North Carolina State went snooping on Facebook and ratted out nine students for underage drinking, turning them over to the campus police. Mr. Zuckerberg explains that this kind of thing used to happen a lot, before Facebook users learned the rules of the game. But he understands that this is all just part of the process. “It just took a certain amount of people getting in trouble and then they learned. We need to give people tools to share whatever information they want.” I guess that goes for checking out hotties as well.
Mr. Kessler is author of “The End of Medicine” (HarperCollins, 2006).