Zuckerberg on the role of sociology in Facebook’s success

A doctor recommending the liberal arts for pre-med students references Mark Zuckerberg describing Facebook in 2011:

“It’s as much psychology and sociology as it is technology.”

Zuckerberg went further in discussing the social aspects of Facebook:

“One thing that gets blown out of proportion is the emphasis on the individual,” he said. “The success of Facebook is really all about the team that we’ve built. In any company that’s going to be true. One of the things that we’ve focused on is keeping the company as small as possible … Facebook only has around 2,000 people. How do you do that? You make sure that every person you add to your company is really great.”…

On a more positive, social scale, Zuckerberg said the implications of Facebook stretch beyond simple local interactions and into fostering understanding between countries. One of Facebook’s engineers put together a website, peace.facebook.com, which tracks the online relationships between countries, including those that are historically at odds with one another.

Clearly, the sociological incentives are strong for joining Facebook as users are participating without being paid for their personal data. The social network site capitalizes on the human need to be social with the modern twist of having control of what one shares and with whom (though Zuckerberg has suggested in the past that he hopes Facebook opens people up to more sharing with new people).

I still haven’t seen much from sociologists on whether they think Facebook is a positive thing. Some scholars have made their position clear; for example, Sherry Turkle highlights how humans can become emotionally involved with robots and other devices. Given the explosion of new kinds of sociability in social networks, sociologists could be making more hay of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all of the new possibilities. But, perhaps it is (1) difficult to asses these changes so close to their start and (2) the discipline sees much more pressing issues such as race, class, and gender in other areas.

Mark Zuckerberg encouraging people to read sociological material

Mark Zuckerberg has been recommending an important every two weeks in 2015 and his list thus far includes a number of works that touch on sociological material:

Zuckerberg’s book club, A Year of Books, has focused on big ideas that influence society and business. His selections so far have been mostly contemporary, but for his eleventh pick he’s chosen “The Muqaddimah,” written in 1377 by the Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun…

Ibn Khaldun’s revolutionary scientific approach to history has established him as one of the foundational thinkers of modern sociology and historiography…

The majority of Zuckerberg’s book club selections have been explorations of issues through a sociological lens, so it makes sense that he is now reading the book that helped create the field.

A Year of Books so far:

  • “The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’?t What It Used to Be” by Moisés Naím
  • “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” by Steven Pinker
  • “Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets” by Sud hir Venkatesh
  • “On Immunity: An Inoculation” by Eula Biss
  • “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace
  • “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas S. Kuhn
  • “Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge” by Michael Chwe
  • “Dealing with China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower” by Henry M. Paulson
  • “Orwell’s Revenge: The 1984 Palimpsest” by Peter Huber
  • “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander
  • “The Muqaddimah” by Ibn Khaldun

An interesting set of selections. At the least, it suggests Zuckerberg is broadly interested in social issues and not just the success of Facebook (whether through gaining users or producing sky-high profits). More optimistically, perhaps Zuckerberg has a sociological perspective and can take a broader view of society. This could be very helpful given that his company is a sociological experiment in the making – not the first social networking site but certainly a very influential one that has helped pioneer new kinds of interactions as well as changed behaviors from news gathering to impression management.

The more cynical take here is that this book list is itself an impression management tool intended to bolster his reputation. Look, I do really want the best for our users and society! However, would this be the set of books that would most impress the public or investors? Listing sociology books as well as books regarding sociological topics may only impress some.

One way to avoid teardown McMansions nearby: just buy all the properties yourself

Mark Zuckerberg has a way to avoid annoying teardown McMansions next door:

Facebook chief and founder Mark Zuckerberg bought four homes adjacent to his own tony Palo Alto house to prevent a developer from building a McMansion capitalizing on being next to the creator of Facebook.

Zuckerberg paid more than $30 million for the four properties next door and behind his home, and is now leasing them back to the owners, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

The 29-year-old billionaire reportedly bought the houses to prevent a developer from building a McMansion and marketing it as “being next door to Mark Zuckerberg,” according to an unnamed source.

According to public records, the home behind Zuckerberg’s was sold last December to a legal entity affiliated with Iconiq Capital, a San Francisco company that handles Zuckerberg’s finances. Last month, two more properties behind his home and one next door were also bought by associated entities of Iconiq. One of the properties sold for $14 million.

The irony of this is that defeating teardown McMansions requires having more money than the possible property owners. Have less money and residents can often have a fight on their hands.

Another issue: who would pay more money for a home just because it is next to Mark Zuckerberg? Rather than offering opportunities to spy on Zuckerberg, I wonder if this is more of a halo effect for the neighborhood: it’s such a good neighborhood that one of the world’s best-known people live here.

Quick Review: Catfish

Perhaps we could consider the movie Catfish a companion to the more publicized film The Social Network (reviews from Brian here, Joel Sage here): both films consider the effects that Facebook and other digital technologies have on our world. But while The Social Network was a stylized retelling of the founding of Facebook, Catfish covers the lives of more ordinary people as they use these technologies to search for love. Here are a few thoughts about this film:

1. The story revolves a guy, Nev, from New York and a girl from Michigan, Megan, who build a relationship built around a Facebook friendship, IM chats, text messages, and phone calls. Both parties are looking for love though why they are doing this ends up being the plot twist of the film.

1a. I think what makes this film work is that Nev is an appealing character. Even though he hasn’t met Megan in the early stages of the film, he falls hard and ends up giggling and swooning like a teenager. But when things turn out to be more complicated than this, he still finds a way to make sense of it all.

2. More broadly, the film presents a question that many people wonder about: can two people really build a lasting relationship through Facebook?  While this is an interesting question, research on Facebook and SNS (social networking site) use suggests most younger people are not looking to meet new people online. Rather, they are reinforcing existing relationships or reestablishing past relationships. And this film deserves some credit: whereas a film like You’ve Got Mail suggests that email and other electronic communication work the same way as traditional dating (and the typical romantic comedy happy ending), this film introduces some complications.

3. The Social Network seems to suggest that technology helps keep us apart. (A side note: this seems to be an argument from the older generation talking about younger generations. One thing I wonder about The Social Network: was it so critically acclaimed because it fed stereotypes that older people have about younger people? How much did the characters in this film resonate with the lives of younger film-goers?) In that film, Zuckerberg founds Facebook in order to join the in-crowd, is being sued by two people after arguments related to developing community-building websites,  and at the end, he is shown still searching for a connection with a girl he lost years ago. Catfish seems to make an opposite argument: despite the imperfect people who try to connect online, the film suggests there is still some value in getting to know new people. When Nev’s love becomes complicated, he doesn’t just withdraw or call it quits – he tries to move forward while still getting to know Megan.

4. This film claims to be a documentary though there is disagreement about whether this is actually the case. Regardless of whether the film captures reality or is scripted, it is engaging. (The presentation seems similar in tone to Exit Through the Gift Shop, reviewed here.) Have we reached the point in films where the line between what is real and what is written doesn’t matter? And should we care or do we just want a good story?

Overall, this film seems more hopeful about the prospects of Facebook and other digital technology. With a documentary style and an engaging storyline, Catfish helps us to think again about whether people can truly get to know each other online.

(This film was generally liked by critics: it has a 81% fresh rating, 109 fresh out of 134 total reviews, at RottenTomatoes.com.)

Winklevoss twins continue lawsuit against Facebook

The key conflict in The Social Network (reviewed here and here) is the lawsuit that the Winklevoss twins bring against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. This lawsuit is continuing as the Winklevosses seek a larger settlement:

If they prevail, their legal appeal would overturn the settlement, now worth in excess of $160 million because of the soaring value of the privately held company.

The Winklevosses won’t say exactly how much they would seek in their high-stakes grudge fest with the billionaire Facebook founder, but by their own calculations they argue they should have received four times the number of Facebook shares. That would make any new settlement worth more than $600 million based on a recent valuation of Facebook at more than $50 billion…

Facebook has won multiple court rulings, and legal experts say the Winklevosses are likely to lose this one too…

The controversial origins of Facebook — who actually founded it and how — have been the subject of renewed debate since Hollywood offered its dramatization of the conflicting stories from the Winklevosses, both portrayed in “The Social Network” by actor Armie Hammer, and former Zuckerberg friend and Harvard classmate Eduardo Saverin, portrayed by Andrew Garfield. In 2005, Saverin sued Facebook for diluting his stake in the company and reportedly reaped a $1.1-billion settlement.

Zuckerberg has called the film, which received eight Academy Award nominations including best picture, “fiction.” In it, his character tells the Winklevosses: “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”

But that’s exactly what the Winklevosses said they did.

The article suggests that the Winklevosses can’t really lose here: if the courts say they shouldn’t receive more money, they still get to receive the initial settlement. We can ask how much The Social Network influenced the decision to seek more money. There were relatively few people in the media who concentrated on the veracity or one-sided nature of this story. For many who saw this Oscar-nominated film, Zuckerberg looks like a jerk.

Of course, this movie and portrayal should have little influence on the courts. And the Winklevosses say they have new evidence for the courts to consider. But I suspect the case was brought in part because of the positive portrayal of the Winkevosses in this film. If this case were in the court of public opinion (and perceptions), would the Winklevosses win?

Quick Review: The Social Network

Much has been written about the movie The Social Network since it was released earlier this year. Adding to the positive buzz about the movie, commentators think it will be up for some Oscars and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg was recently named “Person of the Year” by Time (more on this shortly). While sagescape has already offered his views (from Harvard itself), I have some thoughts after finally seeing this movie in the theater:

1. This story revolves around two primary themes and plot devices: social status and two court cases.

1a. Social status. Zuckerberg is portrayed as a computer genius who is desperate for social acceptance on a campus where the rich, beautiful, and athletic get attention. The movie begins and ends with this as he tries to reestablish a relationship with his one-time girlfriend. He is shown wanting to be accepted into Harvard’s prestigious social clubs and is petty when his friend Eduardo has an opportunity to enter one of these clubs himself. Ultimately, the story is not that different than any film about high school or college: people have cliques and personal vendettas, nerds and the rich/beautiful don’t travel in the same circles, and all of them spend years trying to get a leg up on others.

1b. The two court cases involve people suing Zuckerberg regarding Facebook. On one hand, this is a useful plot device as we see all of the pertinent characters providing testimony at depositions as they retell how Facebook began. On the other hand, this seems to make the court cases out to be particularly important moments in Facebook’s history. These court cases tie back into the issue of social status as those suing Zuckerberg suggest he was out to improve his own status and Zuckerberg still seems interested in knocking them down a peg or two.

1c. As others have noted, these two themes seem to be quite dependent on the book used as the main source for this film. Since this book details one of the two court cases, this is what may be responsible for the plot structure. However, other texts, such as The Facebook Effect, are much more favorable toward Zuckerberg and treat these issues as minor irritants on the way to Facebook’s success. Both court cases were settled out of court with money payouts and non-disclosure agreements so we may not really know what happened.

2. Zuckerberg is not a likable character in this film. But we don’t really learn much about his background or what makes him tick. The most we know from this film: he is eccentric, doesn’t have many friends, likes his own ideas, and tells it as he sees it. This does not endear him to many people in the film.

3. I imagine the story of Facebook’s origins will be up for more interpretation as time goes on. And I think these stories will depend heavily on the angle of the storytellers and the relationship the author/interpreter/commentator has with Mark Zuckerberg.

4. Because of the emphasis on these two issues, we don’t see much about how Facebook grew. We see a lot of the initial work in the dorm and early on in California but not much after Facebook has its one millionth user. Obviously, much has happened since then as Facebook has now over 500 million users and has spread around the globe.

5. Much has been said about Justin Timberlake’s role as Sean Parker. He is an energizing figure but doesn’t play a huge role. In fact, his character has an ignominious end with the company toward the end of the film. And this final stretch of the film featuring Parker seemed to drag on a bit.

6. Without this film, I don’t think there is any way Zuckerberg would have been named Time’s Person of the Year. Yes, he helped found a company that has grown incredibly quickly and become a part of people’s lives. But in terms of being consequential for human events or world history, does Zuckerberg really rank up there? And why pick him out this year as opposed to previous years when Facebook was also gaining popularity? But perhaps once You were named Person of the Year in 2006 (yes, I mean You), Person of the Year lost some of its gravitas.

Overall, this is an interesting film about a popular social phenomena. Whether this is the real story or not, it is an engrossing look at an enigmatic former Harvard student whose website idea has changed how people connect.

(This film received positive reviews from critics: the reviews were 96% fresh, 248 fresh out of 257 total reviews, at rottentomatos.com.)

Of “non-genius” and gratitude

In a previous post, I commented on the surreality of watching The Social Network, the recent movie about the founding of Facebook, at a movie theater just off the Harvard University campus.  Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg is getting a lot of scrutiny in the movie’s wake, including over at the NYTimes where Robert Wright suggests that–contrary to the movie’s portrayal–Zuckerberg may not be a genius.  Wright asks rhetorically:

[C]an you be considered a genius, a visionary, if the globally dominant network you built wasn’t the fruit of far-reaching vision — if, indeed, the network’s internal momentum was such that it was almost destined to build itself, and the question was only which driven and capable entrepreneur would happen to be standing at the right place at the right time when it started to unfold?

I think that Wright’s observations are relevant–if familiar to anyone who’s ever gotten advice about finding a job.  The platitudes about “making your own luck” and “something will turn up eventually if you keep trying” may have played out on a vastly larger scale for Zuckerberg than they do for most of us, but the difference is in degree rather than kind.  Deep down, we all know that the race is not always to the swift (sorry Orkut, Friendster, et al.) and that the real world is less of a meritocracy than we delude ourselves into thinking.

To which I say:  thank goodness.  I think Wright’s right in his observation of the mechanics, but I disagree with his implication.  Zuckerberg may have benefited (unfairly!) from “positive network externalities,” but so have we all.  We all benefit from centuries of mathematical, scientific, and agricultural discoveries that allow us plentiful food and leisure.  Particularly in the U.S., we benefit from a long-running, stable democracy that few of us have made significant sacrifices for–and none of us started.

Thank God for positive network effects.  It doesn’t take a genius to remember that our response to the Zuckerbergs of the world must not be jealousy but gratitude for the unmerited, unearned gifts we ourselves have received.