The Facebook Effect

 

Author David Kirkpatrick chats about his new book, The Facebook Effect, and provides insight on the social media giant. He speaks at Books & Books on Friday, July 9.

The Facebook Effect 1

By Michelle Rada

Even the most devout archaists, resisting modern trends from iThings to microwaves, are being interpellated into Facebook-world. Maintaining a Facebook-free existence has become increasingly difficult, and not altogether desirable. With features ranging from event planning to relationship tracking, the site has made personal interaction clickable and globally accessible. For better or for worse, Facebook has redefined social networking. Its newfound monopoly over social activity has affected grandmothers and politicians alike.

Long-time technology journalist, David Kirkpatrick set out to uncover the truths lurking under the company’s upstanding public image and a complex corporate history. What he found was a good story (moral import and unlikely hero included). In "The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That is Connecting the World", Kirkpatrick traces the steps of Facebook’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, whose idealistic mindset and stubborn devotion to the website turned its probable failure into inevitable success.

Kirkpatrick profiles (pun very much intended) Zuckerberg’s progress from his Harvard dorm-office days to his unanticipated breakthrough in Palo Alto – all the way to today’s all-powerful Facebook empire (out of the way, Big Brother). Additionally, Kirkpatrick offers considerations about how to properly handle Facebook, giving ideas about the ways it can be used to one’s advantage – or detriment. Essentially, Kirkpatrick advises us on how to avoid social suicide, ala virtual networking.

On Friday, July 9, Kirkpatrick will hold a book signing at the Books & Books in Coral Gables (265 Aragon Avenue). Mid-book tour, Kirkpatrick was able to chat with us (over the phone, not via Facebook Chat) to answer a few pressing questions – and to talk long enough for him to agree on accepting my friend request.

What reactions have you received so far?
There’s a huge fascination with Facebook in my opinion, which I’m trying to help satisfy and to explain things to people. The weird thing about Facebook is that it’s become such a massive landscape element in modern culture so quickly that it almost feels like it was always there to a lot of people.

So what’s interesting is when they really digest just how quickly its grown and that six and half years ago it didn’t even exist. And it’s also impressive that it was started in a dorm room by a 19-year-old in 2004 – and that it’s now 500 million people and growing one million users every day. You know, those are statistics that people have to take a little time to digest – and really, it’s just hard to believe.

So that’s one of the thing that I’m encountering. I’m speaking to a variety of different audiences. On the one hand, this morning I was on a panel with a bunch of really sophisticated Internet marketing people, including people that had created their own social media companies – and their way of looking at Facebook was interestingly much more in line with mine. They view Facebook just as an increasingly central part of the Internet. You almost have to look at it as more than a website or a service in itself. It’s becoming so dominant in terms of how people communicate that it falls into a category by itself. So that’s an interesting view.

On the other hand, there are other kinds of communities that I’ve spoken to in which people are a little less ‘students’ of it – and they’re just fascinated by the stories of what happened when these kids created it. Like how they would have beer pong parties at their house while they were taking breaks from coding. And how they hired a guy that was older than 21 just so somebody could buy the beer, because they were all 20 years old at the time when they moved to Palo Alto. And even then they were experiencing such phenomenal growth that in the summer of 2004, between the time they moved from Harvard to Palo Alto, from the beginning to the end of the summer Facebook grew from 100,000 users to 200,000 users.
And that was when school wasn’t even in session. So then in the fall of 2004, when all the schools opened up again and the demand just soared they luckily got a  $500,000 investment, which allowed them to buy some software and chairs for the office – you know, things like that. And then by November the hit a million, which is just hard to believe.

There are all kinds of amazing things that people find surprising. For example, that Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, as late as November of 2004 (when Facebook was hitting around a million users), was still thinking that Facebook was one of his various projects. He actually had another business that he was simultaneously developing called Wirehog, which he thought might be more interesting and might be the way that he spent most of his time. So that’s just kind of mind boggling to me and a lot of people find it almost hilarious that a 20 year-old kid with a service of a million members doesn’t think it’s interesting enough to even continue with.

And right around that point is when he realized: yeah, I guess it is important enough. His colleagues that were working on Facebook with him at the time (which was called The Facebook then), were hammering him to stop this Wirehog idea and focus on Facebook – and finally he listened to them.

Really, there’s all kinds of ways to react to the story. There are so many ways to look at Facebook, so many lenses through which one can view it. When there are 130 million Americans using something, in some way you have 130 million different points of view on it.

Why is now the right time to write a book about Facebook?
It turns out that, in fact, it’s a perfect time to publish a book because Facebook has been so hugely in the news. There’s been talk of the controversies over its privacy policies, the question of whether Mark Zuckerberg is the right guy to run it, and a number of other issues that have been very much in the public mind lately.

The other element that makes this a good time is that there’s a big movie coming out – a major league Hollywood movie – called "The Social Network", which comes out in early October. It takes a completely different view of what Facebook is and how it got started. It’s a fictionalized account of the first year of Facebook – which is a very distorted history based on the screenplay that I’ve seen. With every bit of evidence that I’ve gathered, it [the movie] is not really the true story at all. So it’s a good time to get the true story out.

And of course there’s a tremendous amount of interest in Facebook – it’s the largest Internet server in the U.S. by far. People spend far more time there than in any other site. It’s actually getting up close to Google in terms the number of people that use it.

So focusing on the dispute over Facebook’s privacy controls – what’s your take on it? And have you been able to discuss the issue with Zuckerberg?
A little bit. I certainly discussed it a lot with him when I was reporting for the book – and I have a whole chapter on privacy, which leads off with a bunch of quotes from him. The things that he believes about privacy are quite controversial. He believes that everyone just has one identity, that everyone is really just one person. And if you’re the kind of person, as so many of us are, who shows one face at the office, one face at a party with your friends, and one face with your family – then he [Zuckerberg] considers that essentially dishonest. And when he says that you have one identity, what he’s saying is that he believes that individuals and the world would be better if people were more consistent across all the places where they spend time. And in fact, you could argue that Zuckerberg is designing Facebook to push people in that direction.

Another element in the way he [Zuckerberg] thinks about privacy is that he decided, before he even created Facebook, that the world is going through a fundamental shift: it’s becoming more transparent. He saw that more and more of what we all did was becoming viewable and seen by other people, and there was nothing we could really do about it. So what he figured was that he would build a service that took that for granted and essentially encouraged the phenomenon by incorporating its inevitability into the way it [the service] was designed.

So, Facebook launched with a lot of privacy control. And something that a lot of people that get caught up in the Facebook privacy controversy sometimes forget, is that Facebook from the beginning has had more privacy control than any service on the Internet by far. The fact that you could determine who saw your data was the reason why people put so much information about themselves on Facebook. Just to give an elementary example – my 18-year-old daughter is on Facebook and she has 700 friends on there or something like that, but I’m not one of them. So she can do all these things on Facebook and use it very freely. She can put up photographs and be tagged in her friends’ photos, post status updates, and comment on people’s walls – and I can’t see that. So she’s much more comfortable doing all that stuff knowing that her dear old Dad can’t spy on her, right? That’s genuine privacy control. And that’s why she’s comfortable having such complex and rich interactions with her friends there. So it’s important to keep that in mind when you look at the changes Facebook’s making.

But just going back to Zuckerberg’s beliefs, he does believe that the world is becoming more transparent. So a lot of the changes that he’s made to Facebook over time have been to push its members to share more. He really believes that people will get more out of Facebook, and indirectly get more out of there lives, if they share more information about themselves with the people they care about. And he’s continuously thinking of ways to encourage people to do that more and to make it easier for them to do that more.

But with many of the changes that Zuckerberg has made with Facebook he’s pushed a little too far – and he’s exposed a little too much information about people for them to be comfortable with at that moment, which sometimes has led to a lot of problems. But what happens is that time and time again is that he’s encountered resistance, made a minor tweak or two, gotten into a dialogue with the people who were protesting, more or less addressed their problems – and moved forward in a two-steps-forward-one-step-backwards fashion. In the end, he has continually exposed more and more data about people. And they have basically been comfortable with that because the way Facebook works, and the reason that it’s exciting and satisfying to use, is because so much information is available about you to your friends. And Zuckerberg keeps pushing that.

Another thing that’s important to keep in mind when you look at Mark Zuckerberg and his attitude toward privacy – you have to realize that there have been a series of incidents throughout Facebook’s history in which there has been a big pushback against something that Zuckerberg has made Facebook do. And in almost every case, in the end, the users of Facebook decided they loved it. The best example of that is the Newsfeed. When it was first launched, the Newsfeed, which is the central feature of Facebook today, was the subject of the biggest protest that Facebook ever experienced. And in the fall of 2006, ten percent of the members of the service were actively protesting the fact that the Newsfeed had launched.
Yet, Zuckerberg was quite confident that it was still a good thing to do so he added a few proxy controls to it without abandoning it. And then, lo and behold, literally within three months – it was the most popular part of Facebook and it has basically been the central function of the service ever since. And so he looks back on that and thinks: ‘Wow, the exact thing that 10 percent of my users told me briefly was a huge invasion of their privacy later became the most popular thing on the service.’ So, each time a new privacy controversy emerges, I can’t really blame him for asking himself: ‘Well, are people just mad about this temporarily?’

Zuckerberg has got this idea that he’s got to go with his instinct. In a way, one could say that he views it as the users of Facebook not really knowing what they want because they don’t really know what’s possible for Facebook to do next. So each time he makes a change, there’s a part of the community – particularly the bloggers and the pundits – who throw their hands up and say: ‘Oh my God! You’re screwing it up again!’ But the reality is that the users of Facebook have more or less liked everything he’s done.

And another interesting thing about this privacy controversy is that it’s really been a controversy of the pundits, the privacy experts, the press, and government officials – it has not been a protest of the members of Facebook. There was even a ‘Leave Facebook Day’ and 20,000 of Facebook’s 500 million members left – and 20,000 out of 500 million is not even a measurable amount

Were people comfortable with disclosing the details you needed for the book?
Facebook’s people where very forthcoming with me. I was extremely fortunate that Facebook agreed to cooperate so fully - and Zuckerberg was also extremely enthusiastic to have a fair and journalistic account of the company written. I was very fortunate that he thought I was a good guy to do that.

Even though people talked extremely freely, and many of the more embarrassing or revealing things that they told me went into the book – at Facebook they still think it’s a very fair book and they’re not unhappy with it. I’m even visiting Facebook on my book tour next week.

If you think about it, Mark Zuckerberg’s whole thing is transparency – that’s what he thinks he’s bringing to the world with Facebook. It’s allowing the world to become more transparent and allowing people to share more information. And he [Zuckerberg] really believes that stuff, so when you ask him a question he’s pretty honest. He practices what he preaches: he’s pretty transparent about a lot of what he’s done – maybe not completely transparent, but more than most CEOs.
And the other thing is that I was pretty lucky to be writing a book about a company almost entirely comprised of 25-year-olds because they really don’t have a strong sense of what they shouldn’t say.

In the book, you detail Zuckerberg’s every move – from taking a semester off college to high-stakes business decisions. Hypothetically, is there any point in which you would have acted differently? Do you disagree with any of Zuckerberg’s decisions?
Oh yeah, certainly. Even though I don’t think he’s doing anything so horrific with the recent changes, I think he’s done a horrible job communicating to his users about why he makes a lot of the changes he makes. I guess one smart thing that he’s done is that he’s cooperated with a serious journalist to write a whole book about it, but I’m not the guy who should really be explaining this stuff – it should really be him. I don’t think he’s done nearly as good of a job as he should have of articulating the reasons for a lot of the changes that Facebook goes through. In fact, Facebook makes a lot of changes without even telling people they made them. They just sort of appear and you just have to realize that it works differently. So that general attitude that he has I think needs to change.

They had a big event in April called F8, which was an event for the developers who have built software and applications on top of Facebook – and there was no part of that conference which was educating the users.  It was all for the developers, even though the changes that they announced there had huge implications for the users. So that was a big mistake.
I’m sure I can think of plenty of other things that he’s done that I disagree with. I certainly don’t agree with everything he’s done, but the main thing is this general attitude of communication. If he’s going to be so pushy about encouraging people to share more, I think he needs to engage in more dialogue with them to explain that to them.
   
In your opinion, how has Zuckerberg changed since his Harvard dorm-room-programming days?
Well he’s gone from 19 to 26, and those are pretty critical years to mature and grow up. And he’s had to do that while he was running a company that’s grown to 1,500 employees and 500 million users, which isn’t easy. I think he’s done a pretty darn good job of it. He’s a very impressive leader for the company.

Zuckerberg has had to deal with things he did when he was younger. And it’s easy to forget how much younger he was when he did those things – like when he pulled tricks on people or practical jokes, or just had a more cavalier attitude about the information that people put on Facebook. I mean, these are things that a 19 or 20-year-old would quite predictably do. And he doesn’t do that kind of thing any more.

Also, I think he’s gradually become more comfortable become something of a public person and speaking in public. Although recently he spoke at a conference and did a pretty bad job of it – and he got criticism for being way too uptight on stage. But I think in general, even despite that, he’s done a really good job of maturing as a public figure, which he has to be now. He can’t lead a company with 500 million customers in effect and not be something of a public person.

Though, one thing that hasn’t changed is that he basically works around the clock. Zuckerberg works way into the night, frequently until two or three in the morning, pretty much every night. He sleeps in late in the morning and walks into the office mid-morning or mid-day. So he still functions like an engineer and sort of behaves like a geek and a programmer kind of guy. He still likes to have drinking parties with his friends and he does a lot of things that 26-year-olds would normally do because, well, he still is only 26.

Do you think disclosing Facebook’s inside story will change the way users interact with the site?
I don’t know if it will change how they interact with the site, but I certainly have advice that I give in terms of how people should use Facebook. The main thing I hope that people will appreciate as a result of reading the book is just what an amazing accomplishment it is to have built this system and you can’t just take it for granted. It is a very fragile undertaking and depending on things that may happen it could be destroyed. People love using it and it’s good to know what went into making it and what the risks are that it faces.

I think it’s also very important to understand how Mark Zuckerberg thinks. That way, as you observe Facebook continuing to change over time, you’ll be able to have a much better sense of why. Once you get to know Zuckerberg, it begins to be a little easier to understand why Facebook changes so frequently.

As for my advice for how I think people should use Facebook – the number one thing I’d say is that to really use Facebook the way it was intended and to get the best use of it as it was designed, you really should limit the friends that you accept to people you really know, in the real world, and care about to some degree at least. Now, I have over 1,000 friends so I obviously don’t completely practice that myself. But I also have another 850 or 900 people who have requested friendship with me that I have not accepted because I didn’t know them. I’m not into collecting Facebook friends to show that I have more than you. I don’t think people should do that because if you accept people as Facebook friends who you don’t really know, your Facebook experience declines. By making someone your friend on Facebook, in fact, you’re subscribing to information about them – and if you’re not really interested in them, that information is going to basically feel like spam. You’re not going to care what these people do that are supposedly your ‘friends.’

Facebook is supposed to be a system to learn about the people you already care about. It’s not really a place to meet new people and all that. I don’t think it works that well to meet new people, although in the games it’s not so bad and sometimes people do meet new people and find that quite useful. But mainly, don’t accept friends you don’t like – otherwise Facebook can get boring.

And this is often a problem for baby boomers like myself, who think it’s impolite to not accept anyone who asks for your Facebook friendship. But then they suddenly have hundreds of friends they don’t know and Facebook seems really boring to them, so they quit and effectively destroy it for themselves.

Another piece of advice is that, even though Facebook has extremely good privacy control and there’s a lot of control that you can exert over who sees your data, it’s not in a safe with a lock. So don’t have the illusion that anything you put on Facebook is really, truly, secure – because there are a lot of ways that information can bleed out of Facebook.
The way I use Facebook is to not put anything in it that I would be uncomfortable seeing on the front page of the newspaper. I think that test is a good one for people to apply. So you really don’t want to put your most intimate secrets on Facebook, or the photos that betray your most intimate information. That’s not what you should share there because there are a lot of ways that that information might escape your control.

What are your predictions for Facebook’s prospects in the short- and long-term future? Is it the perfect social networking website or will it eventually be replaced?
Well I think eventually it will be replaced, just like everything is, especially on the Internet – which is the place where things are replaced the fastest. But then again, you look at Google, which has now been around for over 10 years. Basically, I think if it continues to provide a genuine service it has got a long life. And anything that has got 500 million users just doesn’t go away very fast.

In terms of where it’s going, the only thing that one has to remember about Facebook is that it is going to continue to change. Mark Zuckerberg is aware that he is competing with an enormous number of other companies that are trying to take his business away. Innovation on the Internet is more intense and fervent than anywhere else in business, so he’s going to keep experimenting, keep pushing, keep tweaking, keep changing, keep remaking – so you can expect Facebook in two years to look quite a bit different than it does now.  It’ll probably have a lot of features that it doesn’t have now. I mean right now they’re testing something called Facebook Questions, which is a way to ask your friends questions about anything you want and people who aren’t your friends also. That will probably become a standard feature and it’ll add a lot more information there, which will probably help with some of the marketing work they do – but it will also just make it a richer experience.

In terms of Facebook’s long-term strategy and predictions about where it might go, one of the things that’s hard for people to understand but is nevertheless true, is that Facebook does not view its future as being a website. Partly because of Zuckerberg believing that he will not be able to innovate as quickly, he wants to turn Facebook into something that’s much harder to compete with. And that is: a platform for this infrastructure that’s used across the Internet. It isn’t so much a website as a service that any website can use. And that’s the change they’re in the middle of making now.

Are you on Facebook? What are your privacy settings?
Yes, I’ve been on Facebook for more than three years. I’m pretty conservative when it comes to my settings. Anything I put on Facebook can only be accessed by my friends – I have my settings made so that only my friends can see my data. Although I do have over 1,000 friends, which is a pretty large number, I’m just a pretty public guy.

Will you accept my friend request?
If you request me I probably will. I’m trying to promote my book and you’re a journalist writing about this phenomenon. If it were the typical ‘meet someone at a conference’ thing I probably wouldn’t want to be friends with you unless I’m genuinely interested in your information. We need to think harder about the way we use such an integral part of our lives.

On Friday, July 9, Kirkpatrick will hold a book signing at the Books & Books in Coral Gables (265 Aragon Avenue). If you pester him long enough, he’ll consider accepting your friend request.

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