The Ballad of Mark Zuckerberg

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The Facebook founder's evolution from entrepreneur to evangelist: an adventure in multimedia 

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Mark Zuckerberg, these days, isn't just known as one of the world's youngest billionaires, or as the CEO of a company that just filed Silicon Valley's biggest-ever IPO. He has also become, through his leadership of Facebook, a kind of PR person for publicity itself, working to connect the world of the web one friend at a time.

It wasn't always that way, though. For Zuckerberg, it's been a slow, and sometimes painful, evolution from an entrepreneur of the social web to an evangelist for it.  


Phase 1: The Fickle Founder 

Business Insider reported this week on a series of IM chats between the 19-year-old Zuckerberg and Adam D'Angelo, his best friend from high school (and the guy who would later become Facebook's CTO). In the chat below, Zuckerberg and D'Angelo discuss a dating site Zuck is developing for fellow Harvard students -- and consider how it'll fit in with "the Facebook thing."

Zuckerberg: I ... hate the fact that I'm doing it for other people haha. Like I hate working under other people. I feel like the right thing to do is finish the facebook and wait until the last day before I'm supposed to have their thing ready and then be like "look yours isn't as good as this so if you want to join mine you can...otherwise I can help you with yours later." Or do you think that's too dick? 

D'Angelo: I think you should just ditch them 

Zuckerberg: The thing is they have a programmer who could finish their thing and they have money to pour into advertising and stuff. Oh wait I have money too. My friend who wants to sponsor this is head of the investment society. Apparently insider trading isn't illegal in Brazil so he's rich lol. 

D'Angelo: lol

Later, Zuckerberg would go on to suggest that he was interested in Facebook in part for its ability to be sold and in part for its ability to drive another product he'd been building: the file-sharing service Wirehog. In an IM chat with an unnamed confidant about the lawsuit heard round the world, Zuckerberg declared: "I won't pay the legal fees. The company that buys us will haha." 

"Cool hopefully that'll be soon so you can move on and just work on what you want to," the confidant replied. 

To which Zuckerberg responded, "Well it just needs to propel Wirehog." 


Phase 2: The Ambivalent Entrepreneur

Should Facebook be a community site for colleges and universities, or a community site for the whole world? Early on in its existence, when Zuckerberg was living in Palo Alto and working, with a small team, to build up the site, he seemed convinced that he'd made a really great product ... for college students. 

The video above, with its shots of murals and kegs, is well worth watching. The transcript, though, is especially revealing: 

I think Facebook is an online directory, for colleges, and it's kind of interactive. So if I want to look you up, or get information about you, I just go to the Facebook and type in your name, and it brings me up, like, hopefully, all the information I'd care to know about you -- or, like, a good amount of the information I'd want to know about you.

When we originally got started at Harvard, it was just me programming what was a facebook, really, at the time, for Harvard, because they didn't have anything like that. So I realized we didn't really have anything like that. But I realized that, because I didn't have people's information, like a school would, I needed to make it interesting enough so that people would want to use the site, and would want to put their information out. Otherwise, it wouldn't be useful for other people, and therefore it wouldn't go. ... I think that the goal that we went into it with wasn't to make an online community, but sort of like a mirror for the real community that existed in real life.

[Interviewer: And where are you taking Facebook at this point? You're going to expand to those other schools that you're not at, and then ... what?]

I mean, there doesn't necessarily have to be more. You know, I mean, like a lot of people are focused on, like, taking over the world, or doing, like, the biggest thing, getting the most users. And I mean, I think, like, part of making a difference and doing something cool is focusing intensely. There is a level of service that we could provide when we were just at Harvard that we can't provide for all of the colleges. And there's a level of service that we can provide when we're a college network that we wouldn't be able to provide if we went to other types of things. So, I mean, like, I really just want to see everyone focus on college, and create, like, a really cool college directory product that just, like, is very relevant for students, and, like, has a lot of, like, information that people care about when they're in college. So. I don't know what that is. And it's not everything that's on TheFacebook now.

Zuckerberg reiterated that community-focused thinking in an interview he gave for the documentary Our Time. "We had a very simple focus and idea," he said. 

The goal wasn't to make a huge community site; it was to make something where you could type in someone's name and find out a bunch of information about them .... In the last tech bubble, most sites were run using these really expensive machines, which made it that you had to go and basically raise money before you could do anything. We ran the site, originally, for $85 a month, renting computers for the first three months.

There are big sites on the Internet which are like, '15 percent of our users come back monthly.' And we're like, 'alright, that's cool -- like 70 percent of our users come back every day.'

In a 2005 interview at Stanford, Zuckerberg described how Facebook's design aesthetic emphasized its focus on depth over breadth when it came to the kind of social experiences the site fostered.

So, when we're designing stuff, we look not necessarily just about what any given user is going to experience, but what's kind of better for the whole community and the whole product. And, I mean, it's kind of like these trade-offs are going on all over the place in the product. Probably the most that you see every day is that you can't see the profiles of people at other schools. You know, I mean, that's a really major trade-off in the application.

For those of you who aren't familiar with this, we split up the user base by what school they go to and we'd make it so that people at a given school could only see the profiles and contact information of people at their school. And the reason for this was mostly to -- because we realized that the people around you at your school are the people who you're going to look up mostly anyway. And if we made the space too broad, and let anyone see your information, then that'd probably be fine, and you'd look up some people. But you also probably wouldn't put up your cell phone. You know, and more than a third of people on Facebook have their cell phone up there. And that's something that's useful for the application. So, in designing it, this was a tradeoff that we made.

I kind of thought about this for a while. And I was like, well, what would be more useful: Would it be better for people to be able to see everyone, and maybe not feel like this was a secure environment in which they could share their interests and what they thought and what they cared about, or would it be better that more information and more expression was available, but to a smaller audience -- which is probably the relevant audience for any person?

So, I mean, there's a lot of decisions like that that are getting made. And a lot of them are gut-level. So, I mean, we try to be as academic about it as possible in trying to think rigorously through the different results that we'll get if we go in different directions. But, I mean, a lot of it is just, like, you define your objectives, what you're going for -- in this case, to optimize for the best of the whole community, and the whole user base -- and over the long term. And that's important, too: long-term versus short-term. And then just kind of operate and do what you think will be best along that line.

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Phase 3: The Apologist

In 2006, the public anger aroused by NewsFeed and Mini-Feed made clear that Facebook had evolved into a community property -- into, in other words, something that expanded far beyond Zuckerberg's original vision (such as it was) for the site.

We really messed this one up. When we launched News Feed and Mini-Feed we were trying to provide you with a stream of information about your social world. Instead, we did a bad job of explaining what the new features were and an even worse job of giving you control of them. I'd like to try to correct those errors now.

When I made Facebook two years ago my goal was to help people understand what was going on in their world a little better. I wanted to create an environment where people could share whatever information they wanted, but also have control over whom they shared that information with. I think a lot of the success we've seen is because of these basic principles.

We made the site so that all of our members are a part of smaller networks like schools, companies or regions, so you can only see the profiles of people who are in your networks and your friends. We did this to make sure you could share information with the people you care about. This is the same reason we have built extensive privacy settings -- to give you even more control over who you share your information with.

Somehow we missed this point with News Feed and Mini-Feed and we didn't build in the proper privacy controls right away. This was a big mistake on our part, and I'm sorry for it.


Phase 4: The Futurist 

Though the News Feed apology smoothed over an immediate PR disaster, it reflected a broader problem for Facebook and its founder: that they seem to be a solid several years ahead of their users when it comes to their conceptions of privacy norms. "The world moving towards more transparency could be the trend driving the most change over the next ten to twenty years," Zuckerberg said in The Facebook Effect. And as he told Jeff Jarvis for Jarvis' own paean to publicness, the book Public Parts, "On balance, making the world more open is good. Our mission is to make the world more open and connected."

Our mission

But, then, not everyone agrees with that mission. Which means that Zuckerberg increasingly plays the role not just of Facebook's founder, not just of its executive, but also of its missionary -- convincing people that innovations like frictionless sharing are not only good for users, but good for the community of users as a cultural network.


Phase 5: The Evangelist

Zuckerberg, Jeff Jarvis has declared, "sees Facebook as a next step in the net's evolutionary scale toward humanity." And so the young CEO has become a kind of evangelist for the future he is helping to create. "To get people to this point where there's more openness -- that's a big challenge," he told David Kirkpatrick. "But I think we'll do it. I just think it will take time." 

He could be right; after all, he has nearly eight years of experience to back him up. "If I were starting now," Zuck has said, "I'd do it very differently -- but I knew nothing back then."


Images: Reuters.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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