Zuckerberg, Bound

A new book about the founder of Facebook has us wondering uneasily what we signed up for

In the fall of 2005, Michael Wolf, a top executive at MTV, flew to Palo Alto, Calif., to visit the offices of Facebook. MTV, like seemingly everyone else at the time, was interested in buying the rapidly growing social networking company from its founder, Mark Zuckerberg—then 21, with a fondness for Adidas sandals and a marked ambivalence toward media suitors. When Wolf arrived at the offices, he found an assistant nailing one of Zuckerberg’s worn-out sandals to a plaque. The discarded footwear, Wolf learned, was being presented to one of Zuckerberg’s acolyte programmers as an award for high achievement.

In a new book called The Facebook Effect (Simon & Schuster, 2010), erstwhile Fortune writer David Kirkpatrick recounts the anecdote as part of a richly detailed history of the company and its adolescent founder. Zuckerberg granted full access to the author, and Kirkpatrick makes good use of it, developing a well-paced narrative documenting how the son of a dentist and a psychologist from Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., created an Internet behemoth with a few friends, becoming in a few years the kind of tech guru who is now worshiped by computer scientists, engineers and venture capitalists from around the world.

“Modesty of ambition has never characterized successful leaders at Facebook,” Kirkpatrick writes.

The site may merely seem like a facilitator of collegiate-type socializing, a good way of showing off vacation photos and snooping on your ex-lovers. But Zuckerberg zealously believes that it is also a powerful evolutionary tool, destined to alter human behavior, ranging from love and governance to human consciousness and world peace.

As a sophomore at Harvard, Zuckerberg, a computer science major, tinkered in his spare time with ways of reducing campus life into simple dichotomies. One of his first big hits at Harvard was a program called Facemash, which allowed his classmates to compare photos of two of their peers and vote on which was hotter. Zuckerberg was eventually reprimanded by university officials for uploading pictures without individuals’ consent.

He was undeterred. While past generations of self-obsessed college students justified their navel-gazing by quoting the Oracle of Delphi, “Know Thyself,” Zuckerberg anticipated a fundamental shift in young people’s philosophical needs: “Show Thyself.” Given the right environment, everyone would share.

On Feb. 4, 2004, Zuckerberg went live with the first version of Facebook, which was essentially a stripped-down way for Harvard students to show off their identities in a digital directory of their peers. It was also an efficient way for a guy with a computer to figure out such things as, say, which classes the hot girls were taking. “I know it sounds corny,” Zuckerberg told a campus newspaper around this time, “but I’d love to improve people’s lives, especially socially.” And so a multibillion-dollar global empire was born. Kirkpatrick argues convincingly that Zuckerberg’s idea was hardly unique. At the time, various entrepreneurs at campuses around the country were working on similar projects. But Kirkpatrick details the sequence of events and decisions by which Zuckerberg and his friends repeatedly outmaneuvered their competition. By January 2010, Kirkpatrick reports, 11.6 percent of all the time spent in America on the Internet was spent on Facebook. That’s more than double the time on Google.

However, unflattering details from the early days of Facebook continue to surface. The Business Insider recently published an IM conversation that apparently took place between Zuckerberg and another Harvard student shortly after Facebook’s founding, in which Zuckerberg offers to share his users’ personal information and disparages them for turning it over so readily.

All of which has helped to touch off a sudden wave of Facebook worry. This past week, Time put Facebook on its cover. Subhead: “With nearly 500 million users, Facebook is connecting us in new (and scary) ways.” In October, a film about Facebook, written by Aaron Sorkin, based on Ben Mezrich’s critical book, The Accidental Billionaires (Doubleday, 2009) will arrive in theaters.

The Facebook Effect doesn’t shy away from Zuckerberg’s youthful indiscretions, but Kirkpatrick shows us that ultimately the rise of Facebook is not some simple story about a creepy engineer, but rather a complex tale about engineering creep—that is, the way in which tech geeks and executives are now aggressively applying algorithm-based solutions to areas of human life traditionally ministered by saints and humanists, tribe elders and scholars.

What does it mean for American society that so many adults are now willingly following codes of social behavior prescribed not by their parents but designed by their kids—college-age computer scientists dreaming not only of improving the world and getting rich but also of more efficiently finding coeds and organizing beer pong tournaments?

Friends and followers, beware.