Facebook founder's story no longer his alone
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 6:28 PM
-- The Harvard dormitory where Facebook was born is a red brick and ivy-draped campus castle that, beyond just being a place to sleep and study, has long prided itself as a community of the best and the brightest.
But Kirkland House - where a curly-haired 19-year-old prodigy named Mark Zuckerberg hid out in his room for a week writing the computer code that would eventually redefine the way people interact on the Internet - is wary of threats to its sanctuary. "Do not copy or lend your key to anyone," it instructs residents. "Do not allow anyone access to the House unless you know him/her."
Ever since Zuckerberg dropped out at the end of his sophomore year, he has worked to create an online world where such rules no longer apply.
Facebook - with 500 million users, the world's largest social networking site - began as a tool for communication between people who knew each other and were bound by shared and exclusive interests. Zuckerberg required those signing up to have a Harvard e-mail address, months after the university nearly expelled him for hacking its computers and jolting the campus with a site that encouraged students to rank their classmates' looks.
That site, called Facemash, made fast enemies. But with its successor, Zuckerberg vastly expanded what it means to make friends.
Zuckerberg, now 26, has built Facebook into an international phenomenon by stretching the lines of social convention and embracing a new and far more permeable definition of community. In this new world, users are able, with a few keystrokes, to construct a social network well beyond what would ever be possible face-to-face. We are encouraged to disclose personal information freely, offering up the stuff of everyday life as material worthy of the biggest stage. In Zuckerberg's world, the greatest status is conferred on those who "friend" others fast and frequently, even those they've never met.
"I'm trying to make the world a more open place," Zuckerberg says in the "bio" line of his own Facebook page.
This week, ready or not, the publicity-shy wunderkind - whose own story has largely escaped the public's attention despite widespread fascination with the network he created - is being forced into the open in a way far beyond his control.
On Friday, Hollywood lays out its version of his story in a movie called "The Social Network." The script by Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing") depicts Zuckerberg as a socially inept and intellectually corrupt genius, fighting wars with both friends and rivals for the right to call Facebook his own.
The movie comes a week after Zuckerberg, in the last chance to shape his image independently, appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show to announce a $100 million donation to the long-troubled Newark, N.J., school system, casting himself as the nation's brightest young face of philanthropy.
"When you look at the gift to Newark what it demonstrates is his recognizing that he can't leave it to the movie to define his image to the general public because he has no image," says David Kirkpatrick, author of "The Facebook Effect," a book chronicling Zuckerberg's story that was written with the cooperation of the man and his company.
Central to this tale: the contradiction between the blank slate that is Zuckerberg, and his campaign to get people to bare their souls via Facebook.