Most adolescent boys spend their high school years worrying about acne and girls. Not Mark Zuckerberg. While at Phillips Exeter Academy, he and a friend developed Synapse, a software program that assessed users’ listening habits and suggested other songs they may like. Synapse received purchase offers of close to $1 million from Microsoft and other tech companies. These same firms also lobbied Zuckerberg to forgo college and immediately come to work for them.
Zuckerberg declined all offers to skip college and to sell Synapse and instead enrolled at Harvard. The Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., native did not seem to be motivated by money. He harbored grander ambitions. By the spring of 2004, his sophomore year, the then 19-year-old had launched Facebook.com. David Kirkpatrick, senior technology editor at Fortune magazine, captures this moment and the subsequent ascension of Facebook in The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That is Connecting the World.
The genius of Facebook is that Zuckerberg has repeatedly shunned profit and increasingly larger buyout offers in favor of designing a service that delivers more utility to its users. Its user base of over half a billion – increasing at a rate of approximately 25 million a month – indicates that the Facebook team has achieved high levels of practical utility. For many people Facebook has, as Kirkpatrick correctly notes, replaced Rolodexes, cellphones, and even e-mail.
Kirkpatrick is an experienced and perceptive observer of technological entrepreneurship. In sharp prose he deftly explains the social capital that Facebook provides its users. The site has generated a remarkable mass appeal that spans countries, generations, and cultures. As an Internet platform, Facebook has made it very easy to stay in touch with friends, family, co-workers, and long-lost acquaintances. David Schlesinger, editor in chief of Thomson Reuters, said, “I think the Facebook News Feed is real news. It tells me news I’m interested in.”
Despite Zuckerberg’s stated desire to ensure that Facebook remains a service-first, profit-second enterprise, significant obstacles remain. With more than 500 million users volunteering various degrees of very personal information – their age, gender, hometown, occupation, favorite movies, hobbies, etc. – Facebook is the advertising industry’s holy grail. Facebook has the means to host ads for very specific targeting demographics.
One of Facebook’s greatest challenges in the years ahead will be to continue growth and appropriately monetize its efforts without compromising the personal information of its users. Although users freely offer their personal information on the site, perceived breaches of confidentiality have aroused considerable uproar. The specter of government intervention – antitrust, solicitation of private information, and so on – also remains a very real possibility. Kirkpatrick even opines that Facebook may soon house more data about citizens than do their own governments.
Zuckerberg is somewhat of a philosopher-software king. When asked, “Why don’t you sell the company?” he has said, “I don’t really need the money. And anyway, I don’t think I’m ever going to have an idea this good again.” Kirkpatrick’s unmitigated access to the technology industry’s corporate titans, Facebook’s highest-ranking executives among them, paints Zuckerberg as both a genius and a visionary. Zuckerberg genuinely aims to create the most applicable and practical Web tool in the world. He views Facebook as a vessel for good and provides this vision to his employees in order to maximize consumer utility.
Zuckerberg’s repeated testimonials deferring to the needs of the user should not be overblown, however. The fiercely competitive Zuckerberg may well hope to become more relevant, more powerful, and even wealthier than his Palo Alto rivals, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Given the way things have gone for him in the past six years, it’s not at all far fetched to imagine that it will all come true.
Jackson Holahan is a freelance writer in Columbus, Ga.