Was Facebook Inevitable?

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A Harvard dean reflects on the many attempts to build a Facebook at Harvard before Mark Zuckerberg succeeded.

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The dean of Harvard College during Mark Zuckerberg's freshman year, Harry Lewis, has an intriguing duo of posts up on his blog. Lewis is a computer science professor at Harvard and has kept an extensive archive of his email. Last week, he decided to search through them for references to an online "facebook" or "the facebook." What he found is fascinating.

Before Mark Zuckerberg succeeded in building his remarkable site in early 2004, many attempts had been made by other students to get the university's printed book of photos of students onto the Internet. The earliest attempt was initiated in 1994 by James Gwertzman, an executive at PopCap Games, which was acquired by Electronic Arts. Over the next ten years, several groups of students came to Lewis and the university in an attempt to build a campus-wide facebook. None of them was successful, obviously.

On the basis of all these attempts, Harry Lewis suggests that something like Facebook was inevitable at Harvard in those days.

Readers of Kevin Kelly's "What Technology Wants" will see this sequence of events as fitting the pattern he describes. Technology wanted an online facebook... all that was needed to make it a reality was a student who was a bit less respectful of authority than the several wonderful people I have quoted or mentioned here!

The part that was not inevitable, it seems to me, is that Mark Zuckerberg's simple tool would grow into an 800-million user service.

My other favorite bit of all those old emails is that a 1996 meeting of the Harvard Computer Society recorded two, and only two, bulletpoints about an "online Facebook":

- idea is to have one main photo server that other people link to.
- Political issues will be most difficult.

Prescient!

Via Zak Stone

Image: Reuters.


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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