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On the afternoon of Nov. 16, 2010, Mark Zuckerberg was leading a meeting in the Aquarium, one of Facebook’s conference rooms, so named because it’s in the middle of a huge work space and has glass walls on three sides so everybody can see in. Conference rooms are a big deal at Facebook because they’re the only places anybody has any privacy at all, even the bare minimum of privacy the Aquarium gets you. Otherwise the space is open plan: no cubicles, no offices, no walls, just a rolling tundra of office furniture. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, who used to be Lawrence Summers’ chief of staff at the Treasury Department, doesn’t have an office. Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO and co-founder and presiding visionary, doesn’t have an office. The team was going over the launch of Facebook’s revamped Messages service, which had happened the day before and gone off without a hitch or rather without more than the usual number of hitches. Zuckerberg kept the meeting on track, pushing briskly through his points — no notes or whiteboard, just talking with his hands — but the tone was relaxed. Much has been made of Zuckerberg’s legendarily awkward social manner, but in a room like this, he’s the Silicon Valley equivalent of George Plimpton.
He bantered with Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, a director of engineering who ran the project. (Boz was Zuckerberg’s instructor in a course on artificial intelligence when they were at Harvard. He says his future boss didn’t do very well. Though, in fairness, Zuckerberg did invent Facebook that semester.) Apart from a journalist sitting in the corner, no one in the room looked over 30, and apart from the journalist’s public relations escort, it was boys only. The door opened, and a distinguished-looking gray-haired man burst in — it’s the only way to describe his entrance — trailed by a couple of deputies. He was both the oldest person in the room by 20 years and the only one wearing a suit. He was in the building, he explained with the delighted air of a man about to secure ironclad bragging rights forever, and he just had to stop in and introduce himself to Zuckerberg: Robert Mueller, director of the FBI, pleased to meet you. They shook hands and chatted about nothing for a couple of minutes, and then Mueller left. There was a giddy silence while everybody just looked at one another as if to say, What the hell just happened? It’s a fair question. Almost seven years ago, in February 2004, when Zuckerberg was a 19-year-old sophomore at Harvard, he started a Web service from his dorm.
It was called Thefacebook.com, and it was billed as “an online directory that connects people through social networks at colleges.” This year, Facebook — now minus the the — added its 550 millionth member. One out of every dozen people on the planet has a Facebook account. They speak 75 languages and collectively lavish more than 700 billion minutes on Facebook every month. Last month the site accounted for 1 out of 4 American page views. Its membership is currently growing at a rate of about 700,000 people a day. What just happened? In less than seven years, Zuckerberg wired together a twelfth of humanity into a single network, thereby creating a social entity almost twice as large as the U.S. If Facebook were a country it would be the third largest, behind only China and India. It started out as a lark, a diversion, but it has turned into something real, something that has changed the way human beings relate to one another on a species-wide scale. We are now running our social lives through a for-profit network that, on paper at least, has made Zuckerberg a billionaire six times over.
Facebook has merged with the social fabric of American life, and not just American but human life: nearly half of all Americans have a Facebook account, but 70% of Facebook users live outside the U.S. It’s a permanent fact of our global social reality. We have entered the Facebook age, and Mark Zuckerberg is the man who brought us here. Zuckerberg is part of the last generation of human beings who will remember life before the Internet, though only just. He was born in 1984 and grew up in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., the son of a dentist — Painless Dr. Z’s slogan was, and is, “We cater to cowards.” Mark has three sisters, the eldest of whom, Randi, is now Facebook’s head of consumer marketing and social-good initiatives. It was a supportive household that produced confident children. The young Mark was “strong-willed and relentless,” according to his father Ed. “For some kids, their questions could be answered with a simple yes or no,” he says. “For Mark, if he asked for something, yes by itself would work, but no required much more. If you were going to say no to him, you had better be prepared with a strong argument backed by facts, experiences, logic, reasons. We envisioned him becoming a lawyer one day, with a near 100% success rate of convincing juries.”
The Zuckerberg children were much given to pranks: on New Year’s Eve 1999 their parents were worried about the Y2K bug, so that night Mark and Randi waited till the stroke of midnight, then shut off the power. They were also great undertakers of projects. One year, over winter vacation, they decided to film a complete Star Wars parody called The Star Wars Sill-ogy. “We took our job very seriously,” Randi says. “Every morning we’d wake up and have production meetings. Mark’s voice hadn’t changed yet, so he played Luke Skywalker with a really high, squeaky voice, and then my little sister, who I think was 2, we stuck her in a garbage can as R2D2 and had her walk around.” It will not amaze you to learn that Mark had a Star Wars–themed bar mitzvah, or that he was a precocious computer programmer, beginning on a Quantex 486DX running Windows 3.1. When he was 12, he created a network for the family home that he called ZuckNet; this was at a time when home networks didn’t come in a box. (He clarifies, out of both modesty and a compulsion for accuracy, that they brought in a professional to do the wiring.) He also wrote computer games: a version of Monopoly set at his middle school and a version of Risk based on the Roman Empire.
Zuckerberg went to a local high school and then to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he showed an aptitude for two incongruously old-fashioned pursuits: ancient languages and fencing. He also co-wrote with a classmate a music-recommendation program called Synapse that both AOL and Microsoft tried to buy for around a million dollars. But Zuckerberg would have had to drop out of school to develop it. He decided to go to Harvard instead. Zuckerberg’s life at Harvard and afterward was the subject of a movie released in October called The Social Network, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher. The Social Network is a rich, dramatic portrait of a furious, socially handicapped genius who spits corrosive monologues in a monotone to hide his inner pain. This character bears almost no resemblance to the actual Mark Zuckerberg. The reality is much more complicated. He’s not a physically imposing presence: maybe 5 ft. 8 in. (173 cm), with a Roman nose, a bantam-rooster chest and a close-fitting cap of curly brown hair. He dresses like a frat boy, in T-shirts and jeans, though his fingernails are fastidiously neat.
His most notable physical feature is his chin, which he holds at a slightly elevated angle. In the movie, this played as him looking down his nose at you, but in real life it’s more like he’s standing on his tiptoes, trying to see over something. Zuckerberg has often — possibly always — been described as remote and socially awkward, but that’s not quite right. True: holding a conversation with him can be challenging. He approaches conversation as a way of exchanging data as rapidly and efficiently as possible, rather than as a recreational activity undertaken for its own sake. He is formidably quick and talks rapidly and precisely, and if he has no data to transmit, he abruptly falls silent. (“I usually don’t like things that are too much about me” was how he began our first interview.) He cannot be relied on to throw the ball back or give you encouraging facial cues. His default expression is a direct and slightly wide-eyed stare that makes you wonder if you’ve got a spider on your forehead. Most alarmingly, if your signal-to-noise ratio drops below a critical threshold, Zuckerberg will turn his head and look off to one side as if he’s hearing noises offstage, presenting you with his Roman-emperor profile. “If you’re not making compelling points, he kind of just tunes out,” Bosworth says. “He’s not trying to be rude.
He’s just like, ‘O.K., you’re not the best use of this time anymore.’ He’s going to find a better use of his time, even if you’re sitting right there.” In spite of all that — and this is what generally gets left out — Zuckerberg is a warm presence, not a cold one. He has a quick smile and doesn’t shy away from eye contact. He thinks fast and talks fast, but he wants you to keep up. He exudes not anger or social anxiety but a weird calm. When you talk to his co-workers, they’re so adamant in their avowals of affection for him and in their insistence that you not misconstrue his oddness that you get the impression it’s not just because they want to keep their jobs. People really like him. The Zuckerberg of the movie is a simple creature of clear motivations: he uses his outsize gifts as a programmer to acquire girls, money and party invitations. This is a fiction. In reality, Zuckerberg already had the girl: Priscilla Chan, who is now a third-year med student at University of California, San Francisco. They met at Harvard seven years ago, before he started Facebook.
Now they live together in Palo Alto. As for money, his indifference to it is almost pathological. His lifestyle is modest by most standards but monastic for someone whose personal fortune was estimated by Forbes at $6.9 billion, a number that puts him ahead of his Palo Alto neighbor (and fellow college dropout) Steve Jobs. Zuckerberg lives near his office in a house that he rents. He works constantly; his only current hobby is studying Chinese. He drives a black Acura TSX, which for a billionaire is the automotive equivalent of a hair shirt. For Thanksgiving break, he took his family to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando.
He bought a wand at Ollivander’s. One of the interests Zuckerberg lists on his Facebook page is “Eliminating Desire.” “I just want to focus on what we’re doing,” Zuckerberg says. “When I put it in my profile, that’s what I was focused on. I think it’s probably Buddhist? To me it’s just — I don’t know, I think it would be very easy to get distracted and get caught up in short-term things or material things that don’t matter. The phrase is actually ‘Eliminating desire for all that doesn’t really matter.’ ” This would all be so much dorm-room philosophizing if it weren’t for the fact that Zuckerberg is a billionaire at an age when most people are vigorously maximizing their desires, and also for the fact that he appears to be making good on it. In July, Zuckerberg went to a conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, where he was seated at a dinner with Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J. It must have been an interesting dinner, because in September, Zuckerberg announced that he would put up $100 million of his personal Facebook equity to help the Newark school system.
He isn’t even from Newark. Zuckerberg has a personal connection to the teaching profession — Chan taught grade school after Harvard — but more than that, he finds the state of education in the U.S. mathematically inelegant. “It just strikes me as this huge issue that teaching isn’t respected or compensated in our society for the economic value that it’s actually probably producing for society,” he says. On Dec. 9, as part of a campaign organized by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, he pledged to give away at least half his wealth over the course of his lifetime. When The Social Network came out, Zuckerberg rented out a bunch of movie theaters and took the whole company to see it. Afterward they all went out for appletinis, his signature drink in the movie. He’d never had one before. “I found it funny what details they focused on getting right,” he says. “I think I owned every single T-shirt that they had me wearing. But the biggest thing that thematically they missed is the concept that you would have to want to do something — date someone or get into some final club — in order to be motivated to do something like this.
It just like completely misses the actual motivation for what we’re doing, which is, we think it’s an awesome thing to do.” The reality is that Zuckerberg isn’t alienated, and he isn’t a loner. He’s the opposite. He’s spent his whole life in tight, supportive, intensely connected social environments: first in the bosom of the Zuckerberg family, then in the dorms at Harvard and now at Facebook, where his best friends are his staff, there are no offices and work is awesome. Zuckerberg loves being around people. He didn’t build Facebook so he could have a social life like the rest of us. He built it because he wanted the rest of us to have his. Facebook is the realization of a dream. but it’s also the death of a dream, one that began in the late 1960s. That’s when the architecture of the Internet was first laid out, and it’s a period piece. The Internet is designed the way it is to accommodate any number of practical considerations, but it’s also an expression of 1960s counterculture. No single computer runs the network. No one is in charge. It’s a paradise of equality and anonymity, an electronic commune. In the 1970s the communes faded away, but the Internet only grew, and that countercultural attitude lingered.
The presiding myth of the Internet through the 1980s and 1990s was that when you went online, you could shed your earthly baggage and be whoever you wanted. Your age, your gender, your race, your job, your marriage, where you lived, where you went to school — all that fell away. In effect, the social experiments of the 1960s were restaged online. Log on, tune in, drop out. We all know how that ended. When the Web arrived in the early 1990s, it went mainstream. The number of people on the Internet exploded, from 2.6 million in 1990 to 385 million in 2000, and we messed up the scene. The equality and anonymity that made the Internet so liberating in its early days turned out to be disastrously disinhibiting. They made the Internet a haven for pornographers and hatemongers and a free-for-all for scammers, hackers and virus writers. Zuckerberg is two generations removed from the 1960s. He has no sentimental feelings about equality and anonymity. He started Facebook as a way for people on college campuses to communicate with and keep track of one another — and occasionally poke each other and leer at each other’s pictures — but in a broader sense he was firing the first shot in his generation’s takeover of the Internet. Zuckerberg just wanted people to be themselves.
On earlier social networks like Friendster and Myspace, identity was malleable and playful, but Facebook was and is different. “We’re trying to map out what exists in the world,” he says. “In the world, there’s trust. I think as humans we fundamentally parse the world through the people and relationships we have around us. So at its core, what we’re trying to do is map out all of those trust relationships, which you can call, colloquially, most of the time, friendships.” He calls this map the social graph, and it’s a network of an entirely new kind. Facebook didn’t stay on campus. Zuckerberg and his partners — including his roommate Dustin Moskovitz and Sean Parker, who had co-founded Napster — led Facebook on a Risk-style forced-march campaign to conquer the world. By the end of 2004, Facebook was on several hundred U.S. college campuses. In 2005 it expanded to high schools and foreign schools, in 2006 to workplaces and eventually to anybody over the age of 13. Its growth was astonishing. In December 2006 it had 12 million users.
By December 2009 it had 350 million. It grew because it gave people something they wanted. All that stuff that the Internet enabled you to leave behind, all the trappings of ordinary bourgeois existence — your job, your family, your background? On Facebook, you take it with you. It’s who you are. Zuckerberg has retrofitted the Internet’s idealistic 1960s-era infrastructure with a more pragmatic millennial sensibility. Anonymity may allow people to reveal their true selves, but maybe our true selves aren’t our best selves. Facebook makes cyberspace more like the real world: dull but civilized. The masked-ball period of the Internet is ending. Where people led double lives, real and virtual, now they lead single ones again. The fact that people yearned not to be liberated from their daily lives but to be more deeply embedded in them is an extraordinary insight, as basic and era-defining in its way as Jobs’ realization that people prefer a graphical desktop to a command line or pretty computers to boring beige ones. This is another area in which the angry-robot theory of Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t really pan out: he understands a remarkable amount about other people.
Sometimes it seems like the understanding of an alien anthropologist studying earthlings, but it’s real. “In college I was a psychology major at the same time as being a computer-science major,” he says. “I say that fairly frequently, and people can’t understand it. It’s like, obviously I’m a CS person! But I was always interested in how those two things combined. For me, computers were always just a way to build good stuff, not like an end in itself.” There are other people who can write code as well as Zuckerberg — not many, but some — but none of them get the human psyche the way he does. “He has great EQ,” says Naomi Gleit, Facebook’s product manager for growth and internationalization. “I’ll often ask him for advice about, like, a girl issue that I’m dealing with. And he’ll very rationally give me his opinion on the situation.” His mother Karen, a psychiatrist who left the profession to manage her husband’s office, attributes what she calls Mark’s “sensitivity” to the fact that he was raised with three sisters.
Wherever it comes from, this acute awareness of how other people’s brains work characterizes all of Zuckerberg’s projects, even the projects he did before Facebook. Facemash — the samizdat website he made his sophomore year, where Harvard students could compare the relative hotness of their peers — was crude, some said offensive, but it hooked people. They wanted it. (You can go even further back: one day in the ZuckNet era, Mark turned to Randi and said, “I bet I can make Donna come upstairs in five seconds.” He’d rigged his sister’s computer to announce that it was self-destructing in 5, 4, 3, 2 … and up the stairs she came.) Whereas earlier entrepreneurs looked at the Internet and saw a network of computers, Zuckerberg saw a network of people. This is not, on the face of it, a thunderously radical vision, but it’s turning out to be an incredibly powerful one. Consider: in 2005 one of the most competitive markets on the Internet was photo sharing. Into this space charged Facebook, and it can truly be said that the company brought a knife to a gunfight. “It was possibly the least functional photos product on the Internet,” says Bret Taylor, Facebook’s chief technology officer.
“The resolution of the photos was not good enough to print. There were no real organizing capabilities.” Facebook had only one thing the others didn’t: people. If you put up a photo of somebody, you could tag that photo with his or her name. As it turned out, that, more than anything else, was what people wanted. They didn’t want to organize their photos by folder; they wanted to organize them by who was in them. As Zuckerberg would say, that’s how people parse the world. Facebook launched its crappy photo-sharing service in late October 2005. By 2007 it was getting more traffic than Photobucket, Flickr or Picasa. Now Facebook hosts over 15 billion photos on its site, and people upload 100 million more every day. This is the modus operandi of Facebook and the ecosystem of developers who create applications for it: move into a market and take it over by making it social, as the in-house parlance has it. They have one big weapon, the social graph, and it’s a category killer. Games are another good example. There’s a company called Zynga that makes games designed to be played on Facebook. They’re laughably simple by today’s big-budget, high-concept standards, but they’re social. In FarmVille, you can visit your friends’ farms. In Mafia Wars you can take a hit out on your friends.
Mafia Wars currently has 19 million players. FarmVille has 54 million. Investors value Zynga, which is only four years old, at $5.4 billion. That’s more than Electronic Arts, which is the second largest games publisher in the world. But Facebook is in the process of taking over something even bigger than a market. Even if you’re not on Facebook, you may have noticed traces of it here and there across the Web, as if seeds from inside its walled garden had scattered in the wind and taken root. Websites entreat you to log onto them using your Facebook ID — the New York Times does, and so do Myspace and YouTube. Tiny cornflower-blue buttons invite you to Like things and Share them on Facebook. Your Facebook membership is becoming the Internet equivalent of a passport: a tool for verifying your identity. Most people think of Facebook as a way to enviously ogle their co-workers’ vacation pictures, but what Zuckerberg is doing is fundamentally changing the way the Internet works and, more importantly, the way it feels — which means, as the Internet permeates more and more aspects of our lives and hours of our day, how the world feels.
Right now the Internet is like an empty wasteland: you wander from page to page, and no one is there but you. Except where you have the opposite problem: places like Amazon.com product pages and YouTube videos, where everyone’s there at once, reviewing and commenting at the top of their lungs, and it’s a howling mob of strangers. Zuckerberg’s vision is that after the Facebookization of the Web, you’ll get something in between: wherever you go online, you’ll see your friends. On Amazon, you might see your friends’ reviews. On YouTube, you might see what your friends watched or see their comments first. Those reviews and comments will be meaningful because you know who wrote them and what your relationship to those authors is. They have a social context. Not that long ago, a post-Google Web was unimaginable, but if there is one, this is what it will look like: a Web reorganized around people. “It’s a shift from the wisdom of crowds to the wisdom of friends,” says Sandberg. “It doesn’t matter if 100,000 people like x. If the three people closest to you like y, you want to see y.” Now take it off the Web. Put it on TV. Imagine a slate of shows sorted by which of your friends likes them, instead of by network. Now put it on your phone.
Take it mobile. “We have this concept of serendipity — humans do,” Zuckerberg says. (The clarification is vintage Zuckerberg.) “A lucky coincidence. It’s like you go to a restaurant and you bump into a friend that you haven’t seen for a while. That’s awesome. That’s serendipitous. And a lot of the reason why that seems so magical is because it doesn’t happen often. But I think the reality is that those circumstances aren’t actually rare. It’s just that we probably miss like 99% of it. How much of the time do you think you’re actually at the same restaurant as that person but you’re at opposite sides so you don’t see them, or you missed each other by 10 minutes, or they’re in the next restaurant over? When you have this kind of context of what’s going on, it’s just going to make people’s lives richer, because instead of missing 99% of them, maybe now you’ll start seeing a lot more of them.”
Facebook wants to populate the wilderness, tame the howling mob and turn the lonely, antisocial world of random chance into a friendly world, a serendipitous world. You’ll be working and living inside a network of people, and you’ll never have to be alone again. The Internet, and the whole world, will feel more like a family, or a college dorm, or an office where your co-workers are also your best friends. Facebook occupies two Palo Alto office buildings that are a few minutes apart. On the outside, they’re brutalist concrete bunkers. On the inside, they’re decorated in a quirky, postindustrial Silicon Valley style you might call Flourishing Start-Up Chic — high ceilings, concrete floors, steel beams, lots of windows. There’s a giant chessboard, and the word hack has been doodled and graffitied everywhere. The halls are littered with RipStiks, those two-wheeled skateboards that you move by wiggling, which Zuckerberg doesn’t ride. (He tried once and fell off; that was enough.) Silicon Valley companies squabble incessantly and viciously over personnel. Employees change hands like poker chips, and right now Facebook has the best hand at the table.
Everyone at Facebook was a star somewhere else: Taylor, for example, led the team that created — maybe you’ve heard of it? — Google Maps. You don’t get a lot of shy, retiring types at Facebook. These are the kinds of power nerds to whom the movies don’t do justice: fast-talking, user-friendly, laser-focused and radiating the kind of confidence that gives you a sunburn. Sorkin did a much better job of representing Facebook when he wrote The West Wing. Facebook employees get treated well — three free, good meals a day; unlimited snacks; free dry cleaning — but make no mistake: the main attraction is Zuckerberg’s vision. All the key engineers tell the same conversion story. “I was like, I’m not interested. I’m working on a serious problem. Facebook is a complete waste of time,” says Chris Cox, Facebook’s vice president of product, who was doing a master’s in artificial intelligence at Stanford at the time. “And the interview completely changed my mind. I saw the vision. I came in, and I saw it on a whiteboard.”
The company is on its seventh headquarters in almost as many years. It keeps outgrowing its offices, and pretty soon it will outgrow these. Zuckerberg is scouting for a Microsoft-style campus for Facebook. This is because, in addition to adding a lot of users, Facebook is starting to make a lot of money. The users are Zuckerberg’s contribution, but the money is largely attributable to Sheryl Sandberg. Coiffed, elegant and terrifyingly smart, Sandberg, 41, arrived at Facebook in early 2008. Before that, she ran Google’s ad business, and before that, she was Lawrence Summers’ chief of staff at the Treasury Department. She spent her time talking to Bono about curing leprosy. Now she is the first meeting Zuckerberg takes on Monday morning and the last on Friday afternoon. “I never thought I’d work in a private company,” she says. “But from the outside in D.C., you watched what was going on out here, and it really felt like it was changing the world. And I always wanted to work in places that felt like they were going to have an impact on the world.” For all its technological, social and philosophical complexity, Facebook has only one major source of revenue: advertising. Before Sandberg arrived, Zuckerberg grew that part of the business slowly. He refused to sell banner ads. He felt that overly obtrusive ads would compromise the personal feel of the site, so he confined them to little rectangles on one side of the page. Facebook still doesn’t sell banner ads.
But Sandberg has been able to attract a roster of A-list advertisers, such as Nike, Vitaminwater and Louis Vuitton, by pointing out things they hadn’t noticed about Facebook, like how much it knows about its users. Google can serve ads to you on the basis of educated guesses about who you are and what you’re interested in, which are based in turn on your search history. Facebook doesn’t have to guess. It knows exactly who you are and what you’re interested in, because you told it. So if Nike wants its ads shown only to people ages 19 to 26 who live in Arizona and like Nickelback, Facebook can make that happen. In the world of targeted advertising, Facebook has a high-powered sniper rifle. It also has social. Facebook users have the option, should they choose to exercise it, to “like” certain advertisements. When you anoint an ad in this fashion, it moves out of its assigned place at the edge of the page and into your News Feed and therefore into the News Feeds of your friends. Suddenly the advertisement has a social context. It is presented to your friends, by you, carrying your personal endorsement. For marketers, this is a holy grail. “What marketers have always been looking for is trying to get you to sell things to your friends,” Sandberg says. “And that’s what you do on Facebook.”
Facebook has a dual identity, as both a for-profit business and a medium for our personal lives, and those two identities don’t always sit comfortably side by side. Looked at one way, when a friend likes a product, it’s just more sharing, more data changing hands. Looked at another way, it’s your personal relationships being monetized by a third party. People have to decide for themselves which way is their way. If “liking” an ad the same way you “like” a news article or a photo of your spouse seems creepy to you — it’s more or less the definition of what Marx called commodity fetishism — you don’t have to do it. Like everything on Facebook — like Facebook itself — it’s voluntary. But plenty of people are willing, even eager, to make their social lives part of an advertising pageant staged by a major corporation. When Nike put up an ad last year during the World Cup, 6 million people clicked on it. Facebook is a privately held company and doesn’t release financial statements, but Sandberg sounds confident. “I think it’s totally fair to say we are a very good business,” she says. “Not ‘we will be,’ but ‘we are.’ ” Zuckerberg confirms that Facebook is profitable, and not just technically: it’s cash flow–positive. Analysts and journalists, who know less but can say more, estimate Facebook’s 2010 revenue at anywhere from $1.1 billion to $2 billion. Facebook is the way it is because of who Zuckerberg is.
The color scheme is blue and white because Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind: there are a lot of colors he can’t see, but blue he can see. Likewise, Zuckerberg has a metaphoric vision, a big-picture vision, for Facebook. And as with his literal vision, there are a few things he has trouble seeing. Take, for example, privacy. There’s a school of thought that goes something like, Mark Zuckerberg is a scheming profiteer who uses his control of Facebook to force people to share more and more of their personal lives publicly, sucking up their innermost thoughts like some kind of privacy vampire so he can feed their data to advertisers and increase traffic to his network, thereby adding to his massive personal fortune. This is a red herring. Cynicism and greed are not character traits that appear in Zuckerberg’s feature set. Facebook doesn’t sell your data to advertisers. (It uses the aggregated statistics of its millions of users to more effectively target the ads it serves, but that’s a long way from the same thing.) And he doesn’t force anybody to share anything. The idea would genuinely, honestly horrify him. But he does have a blind spot when it comes to personal privacy, which is why that issue keeps coming up. It came up in November 2007 when Facebook launched Beacon, an advertising system that told your friends about your buying habits. You could turn off the alerts, but it was tricky, and as a result, people lost control of their information.
Girlfriends found out about surprise engagement rings. Family members found out about Christmas presents. You didn’t have to be a computer genius to see that coming; in fact you pretty much had to be one to not see it coming. Users hated Beacon. A month after it launched, Zuckerberg apologized, and he eventually scrapped it. Incredibly, the same thing happened all over again in 2009, when Facebook rolled out a complicated new set of privacy controls. Again, users saw their information going places they didn’t want it to go. Again they revolted. Zuckerberg has a talent for understanding how people work, but one urge, the urge to conceal, seems to be foreign to him. Sometimes Facebook makes it harder than it should be. It is biased in favor of sharing. That is, after all, what Facebook is for. “The thing that I really care about is making the world more open and connected,” Zuckerberg says. “What that stands for is something that I have believed in for a really long time.” Pressed to define it, Zuckerberg gamely expands. “Open means having access to more information, right? More transparency, being able to share things and have a voice in the world. And connected is helping people stay in touch and maintain empathy for each other, and bandwidth.” Empathy and bandwidth — you could inscribe the words on Zuckerberg’s coat of arms. And they are without a doubt both good things.
But are they good for everybody all the time? Sometimes Zuckerberg can sound like a wheedling spokesman for the secret police of some future totalitarian state. Why wouldn’t you want to share? Why wouldn’t you want to be open — unless you’ve got something to hide? “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” Zuckerberg said in a 2009 interview with David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect. This is a popular attitude among the Silicon Valley elite, summed up by a remark Google CEO Eric Schmidt made last year on CNBC: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Zuckerberg will defend privacy to the death — and he relies on a fair amount of it himself — but there’s still a level on which, for him and for a lot of other people driving the Web’s evolution, it’s a technical, economic and aesthetic inconvenience. Exchanging information at less than full power is just inefficient. (“People are very sensitive about privacy, and I think they’re right to be,” Zuckerberg says. “But we still just come to work every day and make the decisions that we think are best for the product.”) As a result, technology has nudged us to the point where we’re hemorrhaging data.
Look at the flap over Google Maps Street View or the TSA scanners or WikiLeaks. Zuckerberg doesn’t register on any particular political seismometer — hours after meeting the director of the FBI, he had to be reminded of Mueller’s name — but he does remark about WikiLeaks that “technology usually wins with these things.” And he’s right: the Internet was built to move information around, not keep it in one place, and it tends to do what it was built to do. But what makes life complicated in the postmodern technocratic aquarium we’re collectively building is that there actually are good reasons to want to hide things. Just because you present a different face to your co-workers and your family doesn’t mean you’re leading a double life. That’s just normal social functioning, psychology as usual. Identity isn’t a simple thing; it’s complex and dynamic and fluid. It needs to flex a little, the way a skyscraper does in a high wind, and your Facebook profile isn’t built to flex. For all of Zuckerberg’s EQ, Facebook runs on a very stiff, crude model of what people are like. It herds everybody — friends, co-workers, romantic partners, that guy who lived on your block but moved away after fifth grade — into the same big room. It smooshes together your work self and your home self, your past self and your present self, into a single generic extruded product. It suspends the natural process by which old friends fall away over time, allowing them to build up endlessly, producing the social equivalent of liver failure.
On Facebook, there is one kind of relationship: friendship, and you have it with everybody. You’re friends with your spouse, and you’re friends with your plumber. When it comes to privacy, it’s entirely possible that Zuckerberg will turn out not to be wrong, just prescient. Social norms change. People hated Facebook’s News Feed when it was introduced in 2006. They thought it was creepy and intrusive. Zuckerberg stood his ground, and now Facebook is unimaginable without it. He moved the chains, and we went with him, setting up our defense that much farther toward the end zone. “The world is changing,” Cox says. “When caller ID came out, people went psycho. You know, because, Oh my God, now people are going to know I’m calling them! This is terrible! I’m going to end up being tracked, and Big Brother and Orwell and all that! The reality is now you won’t pick up a call unless you know who’s calling you.” But there is another danger, which is that instead of feeling forced to share, we won’t be able to stop ourselves from sharing — that we will willingly, compulsively violate our own privacy.
Relationships on Facebook have a seductive, addictive quality that can erode and even replace real-world relationships. Friendships multiply with gratifying speed, and the emotional stakes stay soothingly low; where there isn’t much privacy, there can’t be much intimacy either. It’s like an emotional Ponzi scheme, where you keep putting energy in and getting it back tenfold, even though the dividends start to feel a little fake. An article published earlier this year in European Psychiatry presented the case of a woman who lost her job to a Facebook addiction, and the authors suggested that it could become an actual diagnosable ailment. (The woman in question couldn’t even make it through an examination without checking Facebook on her phone.) Facebook is supposed to build empathy, but since 2000, Americans have scored higher and higher on psychological tests designed to detect narcissism, and psychologists have suggested a link to social networking. According to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 81% of its members have seen a rise in the number of divorce cases involving social networking; 66% cite Facebook as the primary source for online divorce evidence. Openness and connectedness are all well and good, but someone should give two cheers at least for being closed and disconnected too.
For all its industrial efficiency and scalability, its transhemispheric reach and its grand civil integrity, Facebook is still a painfully blunt instrument for doing the delicate work of transmitting human relationships. It’s an excellent utility for sending and receiving data, but we are not data, and relationships cannot be reduced to the exchange of information or making binary decisions between liking and not liking, friending and unfriending. It’s as if Zuckerberg read E.M. Forster’s famous rallying cry in Howards End, “Only connect,” and took it literally: only connect, do nothing else. (There’s no chance that this actually happened. I asked Zuckerberg if he’d read Forster and got the spider stare. He’d never heard of him.) However much more authentic the selves we present on Facebook are than they were in the anonymous Internet wilderness that came before it, they still fall far short of our true selves, and confusing our Facebook profiles with who we really are would be a terrible mistake. We are running our social lives over the Internet, an infrastructure that was not designed for that purpose, and we must be aware of the distortions it creates or we will be distorted by them.
The standard cliché for describing viral technology like Facebook has always been, “The genie is out of the bottle.” But Facebook inverts that. Now Facebook is the bottle, and we’re the genie. How small are we willing to make ourselves to fit inside? You don’t hear these kinds of questions asked much at Facebook headquarters. The place hums with a sense of high purpose, a feeling that the world is changing for the better, and this is where the change is coming from. “It shocks me that people still think this is like a trivial thing,” Bosworth says. “Like it’s a distraction or it’s a procrastination tool. I don’t get it. This is so fundamentally human, to reach out and connect with people around us.” Sam Lessin, Facebook’s project manager, has known Zuckerberg since college. He left his own start-up to go to work for him. “You get at most one — if you’re incredibly lucky, two — shots, maybe, in your lifetime to actually truly affect the course of a major piece of evolution. Which is what I see this as.” How big could Facebook get? It’s big enough that it’s starting to bump up against governments as well as other companies. Mueller’s visit wasn’t a one-off.
He was there because Zuckerberg has a better database than he does. Facebook has a richer, more intimate hoard of information about its citizens than any nation has ever had, and the U.S. government sometimes comes knocking, subpoena in hand, looking to borrow some. “We feel like it’s our responsibility to push back on that stuff,” Zuckerberg says, “so oftentimes someone will come with a subpoena, and we’ll go to court and say, ‘We don’t think this is enough.’ Ultimately I think this stuff gets used for good.” Conversely, some governments fear Facebook’s great database and the ease with which Facebook can be used to form networks and spread information. China has blocked the site since 2009. Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have all banned it at one point or another. Zuckerberg will be visiting China over the holidays — his girlfriend has family there — and you can’t help but wonder if he’ll be doing some stealth market research. That’s almost a fifth of the world’s population he’s not reaching. But even without China, there’s a distinct feeling of manifest destiny about Facebook. Plot its current growth on a curve and it hits a billion members in 2012.
There are 6.9 billion people in the world, 2 billion of whom are on the Internet. Is there a point at which all of them are on Facebook? “That’s one reality that I think is totally possible,” Cox says. “But Mark’s vision is not that it’s all happening in this blue-and-white zone that we built, but that it’s happening everywhere. Literally everything you use could be a conduit between you and people around you. The television could. The GPS on your car could. Your phone could. iTunes could.” Zuckerberg is more cautious. He’s noncommittal about how far Facebook can go. (Far, obviously, but to him it hinges on the ultimate extent of Internet penetration in the world, which in turn hinges on the adoption of smart phones in areas where Internet-connected computers are scarce.) Criticize Facebook and Zuck doesn’t duck, exactly, though his positivity can be a bit relentless. For example: Isn’t it possible that Facebook creates more interpersonal connections but that those connections are of a lower, less satisfying quality? “That’s been a criticism that people have had for a while,” he says. “But this isn’t zero-sum. I think what we’re doing is enabling you to stay in touch with people who you otherwise wouldn’t. When I’m at home and I want to talk to my girlfriend, I don’t IM her. I walk downstairs, and we talk.” (Really? You don’t IM in the house?
“Only when you’re in bed at the same time,” he says. “Because then it’s just ironic.” And then he laughs in the easy, natural way he doesn’t do much in public.) All technologies come with trade-offs, but for now Zuckerberg just doesn’t seem that interested in the other side of the trade, the downside. There are some eloquent, persuasive critiques of life on Facebook out there, including Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget and MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle’s forthcoming Alone Together. But they don’t fuss him, particularly. “They’re just looking at it through a completely different lens,” he says. “And I appreciate that. Because it would be impossible for me to dissociate myself to that extent, to get that perspective. I mean, people write all kinds of different things, from ‘It’s the greatest thing that’s ever existed’ to ‘It’s the worst thing that’s ever existed.’ ” Zuckerberg tries to put himself in the heads of people who don’t have his weapons-grade mental hardware, his immunity to peer pressure, his absolute mastery of his privacy settings and his gift for inspiring loyalty. In other words, most of the people who use Facebook. But it’s a stretch. His EQ has its limits.
He’ll play at fallibility — “Almost any mistake you can make in running a company, I’ve probably made,” he says — and he readily owns up to miscalculations like Beacon. But this is a guy so sure of himself that he walked away from a million-dollar payday when he was barely out of high school, who turned down a billion-dollar offer for Facebook from Yahoo! when he was 22 and whose self-control is so total that he drives an Acura when he could afford a Bentley. No wonder he doesn’t see how challenging Facebook can be for the rest of us. He’s his own perfect customer. And he’s just getting started. What looks like a meteoric rise to the rest of us, he sees as an opening act. Because now that Facebook has scaled up to a species-level event, the real work can start: taking a 550 million–person network out on the highway and seeing what it can do. Zuckerberg could take the company public, but neither he nor Facebook needs the cash right now, so what’s the point? Why give up control to a bunch of shareholders? This isn’t the go-go ’90s, when the goal was to sell up and cash out. It isn’t, and never has been, about the money. “I think the next five years are going to be about building out this social platform,” Zuckerberg says, on a long walk around Facebook’s neighborhood in Palo Alto in December.
“It’s about the idea that most applications are going to become social, and most industries are going to be rethought in a way where social design and doing things with your friends is at the core of how these things work. If the last five years was the ramping up, I think that the next five years are going to be characterized by widespread acknowledgment by other industries that this is the way that stuff should be and will be better.” This won’t make life any easier for people who aren’t on Facebook. The bigger social networks get, the more pressure there is on everybody else to join them, which means that they tend to pick up speed as they grow, and to grow until they saturate their markets. It’s going to get harder and harder to say no to Facebook and to the authentically wonderful things it brings, and the authentically awful things too. But while this happens, Zuckerberg is going to be growing too.
The Zuckerberg who built Facebook won’t be the same person as the Zuckerberg who runs it. He’ll be getting older, traveling, maybe getting married, having kids, and as his life outside Facebook gets more complicated, maybe Facebook, the world he built in his own image, will get more complicated too: more sensitive to the richness that exists outside it, in the real world, and to the richness that passes through it in such enormous volumes every second of every day. But for all its flaws, there was no other way for Facebook to begin. Only someone like Zuckerberg, someone as brilliant and blinkered and self-confident and single-minded and social as he is, could have built it. “The craziest thing to me in all this,” he says, “is that I remember having these conversations with my friends when I was in college. We would just sort of take it as an assumption that the world would get to the state where it is now. But, we figured, we’re just college kids. Why were we the people who were most qualified to do that? I mean, that’s crazy!” He shakes his head, with the same perplexed expression as when the director of the FBI crashed his meeting. Then he decides. “I guess what it probably turns out is, other people didn’t care as much as we did.”