Facebook, which went online in early 2004, is now old enough to be the subject of retrospectives. There is a new movie about the company, The Social Network, coming out this fall. There is also a recent book, The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That is Connecting the World by David Kirkpatrick. I recently finished this book and have a few thoughts about the story of Facebook:
1. The idealism of Facebook comes throughout the story. Even from its early days, the founder Mark Zuckerberg was more interested connecting people than in just making money. This has driven many of the decisions made by the company and created friction between Zuckerberg and his coworkers as some wanted a greater emphasis on profits. At the end of the book, Kirkpatrick elicits some interesting thoughts from Zuckerberg regarding the differences between Google and Facebook. Zuckerberg describes Google as a passive company that tries to categorize the information that is already out there. In contrast, Facebook is a company that helps people express themselves and divulge information.
2. The growth in terms of number of users is remarkable. Kirkpatrick mentions several times seven or eight countries where 30% or more of the residents are on Facebook (not just 30% of Internet users).
3. The potential for profits comes from Facebook’s unique user database. With users voluntarily uploading information about themselves, advertisers can then target messages to particular groups. While most advertising is aimed at vague categories or misses its mark altogether, Facebook offers the opportunity to really reach certain segments.
4. While Facebook might have a unique mission, the story of its early history sounds similar to other tech companies. The founder has an idea that builds upon his previous work, he finds others to help him out, some of the key people drop out of college to focus on the company, and for years the company operates more like a frat house than a legitimate business.
5. Kirkpatrick recognizes that Facebook has had its issues and he points out when he disagrees with the company. However, several times he suggests that users ability to protest Facebook’s actions (like when privacy settings have been changed) is only made possible because of Facebook’s genius.
6. The main founders were from Harvard. There is little discussion in the book about how the advantages the founders had (generally wealthy families, exemplary educations, the connections one can make at a place like Harvard) could help make Facebook possible compared to starting a company like this elsewhere.
7. The big question that comes after reading about Facebook: how exactly does this or will this change the world? Does it improve the world? Kirkpatrick seems to buy into the big ideas of Zuckerberg: the book opens with the story of how a single man in Columbia was able to kick-off a nation-wide protest against the existing government through Facebook.
I am more skeptical. While this online world does seem to represent something new (people voluntarily giving up their privacy and forming communities), I don’t think it has yet translated into much real-world action. Does being open online (even though openness really is more often sculpting an idealizing image of oneself) necessarily lead to being more open in the real world? Perhaps greater results will be seen when younger generations who are always used to having Facebook around grow up.
In summary, this is an intriguing look at how Facebook has developed and about the ideals that motivate its founder.