By David Kirkpatrick
Sunday, September 26, 2010; B02
Movies often have Web sites, but it's not so often that Web sites have movies. Facebook, of course, is not just any Web site; in the 6 1/2 years since founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg started the social networking service in his Harvard dorm room, it has acquired 500 million active users worldwide. It may be the fastest-growing company in history. And now, yes, it is the inspiration for a movie, "The Social Network," opening Oct. 1. Even before Hollywood got involved, however, Facebook was the subject of quite a bit of lore -- not all of it true.1. Facebook is used mostly by college kids.
When Zuckerberg started Facebook in the spring of 2004, it was just for his classmates -- but that chapter lasted only a matter of months. The site opened to students with e-mail addresses from other colleges later that year, to high schoolers in 2005 and to all adults in 2006. While Facebook's base still skews young, about two-thirds of its 134 million American members are older than 26. Outside the United States, Facebook's fastest growth has been among middle-age women.
In country after country, it has become so central to social life that if you are not on it -- regardless of your age -- you are probably not in very close contact with your friends. In my own research, for example, I have found that Facebook messaging is beginning to replace e-mail among the Italian educated elite and among businesspeople in Colombia. And in Indonesia, Facebook's third-largest country, if you use the Internet you are almost certainly a member: Of the 30 million people online there, 27.8 million of them use Facebook.2. Facebook keeps changing to help sell advertising.
Zuckerberg is constantly making changes to Facebook's features and interface, and some of these changes have left users with less control over how their personal data is displayed to the outside world. In one such instance late last year, each user's list of friends was made public; the resulting outcry by privacy advocates and a small but vocal group of users forced Facebook to retreat this spring.
The company's critics presume that these changes reflect a profit motive -- they note that exposing users' data makes it easier for advertisers to target them. While it may, my many interviews with Zuckerberg suggest a different agenda. For one thing, he doesn't seem to see ad revenue as an end in itself; he sees it as a way to pay the bills as he expands his service. (If his primary motivation were short-term financial success, he might have accepted Microsoft's 2007 offer, which would have paid him, at age 23, more than $4 billion for his share of the company. He didn't even consider it.)
Zuckerberg seems to see himself less as an entrepreneur than as a social revolutionary who is using his company as a lever to change the world. "Making the world more open and connected" is the company's motto; for Zuckerberg, it is a mantra. He believes that Facebook offers people worldwide a broadcast platform, and he hopes they will use it to become more effective citizens. As a result, decisions at Facebook are calibrated not so much for short-term profitability as for their effect on extending the service to more users. Staffers unabashedly used the word "ubiquity" to describe the company's goal to me.
Zuckerberg's fixation on constant development is also motivated by a healthy dose of paranoia: Over the course of my conversations with him, it became clear that he believes that if Facebook ever stops changing, a smaller, nimbler competitor -- something like Facebook once was -- will sneak up and eat his lunch.3. Facebook users are up in arms about privacy.
Some say they are, but actions speak louder than words, and Facebook has continued to grow through each privacy controversy. The biggest one took place in September 2006, when Facebook introduced its News Feed feature, which presents the latest information about each user to all of his or her friends. Although 10 percent of users initially joined Facebook groups protesting this change, the News Feed quickly became the most popular feature on the site. Today, it more or less defines Facebook.
Another indication that most users don't care much about privacy is that so many of them accept friend requests from people they don't know very well -- if at all. This is in part because a culture of competition, driven by a desire to rack up the most friends, has caught hold among many users. Others are uncertain about whether they can politely decline such requests. Yet, becoming someone's "friend" on Facebook typically means giving that person access to personal information. In an experiment, security firm Sophos invited Facebook users to befriend someone named Freddi Staur, whose profile contained almost no information but showed a photo of a small green plastic frog. The request was accepted by 41 percent of users.4. Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from other students at Harvard.
Whether he did is the dramatic question at the heart of "The Social Network," based on Ben Mezrich's book "The Accidental Billionaires." Zuckerberg briefly worked for a group of older students who were building an online social network they called Harvard Connection (later renamed ConnectU), but he launched his own site, which he originally dubbed Thefacebook, before they could complete theirs. The older students felt betrayed and filed a lawsuit against Zuckerberg, charging that he'd ripped off their idea. He settled the claim out of court, reportedly paying the students stock worth tens of millions of dollars.
But a little context is helpful. Zuckerberg and the older students were greatly influenced by services already in operation, including Friendster, which launched in March 2003. Moreover, social networks were appearing at colleges all over the country that school year, including at Yale, Columbia and Baylor. A sophisticated service called Club Nexus had launched at Stanford in 2001.
So while Zuckerberg might have borrowed some ideas from Harvard Connection, many of these ideas were already borrowed -- from Friendster and Club Nexus.5. Facebook could soon go the way of Friendster and MySpace.
Friendster was created by a guy who said part of his motivation was to help people find dates; MySpace (which launched in August 2003) was initially used for much the same purpose. Facebook, by contrast, was conceived as a much broader communication tool. Friendster and MySpace were never as technologically sophisticated as Facebook, nor did their leaders possess a fraction of Facebook's paranoia about competitors.
And neither of those services ever became nearly as large as Facebook. It is the largest service on the Internet by far in terms of hours of use, and it has become the world's largest repository of photos; its users would be loath to abandon all those pictures, since many don't keep copies elsewhere.
All this means that Facebook has grown into something much more than a fad. It may eventually be replaced by something else, but not without a fight.
David Kirkpatrick is the author of "The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World." He will be online to discuss this piece on Wednesday, Sept. 29, at 11 a.m. ET. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.