The Facebook Effect

By David Kirkpatrick

It sometimes helps to read a book from back to front. The Acknowledgments that come at the end of The Facebook Effect begin as follows:

Thanks go first to Mark Zuckerberg. Had he not encouraged me to write this book and cooperated as I did so, it would likely not have happened. As I proceeded, I often said to myself and to others how much I liked writing a book about someone so committed to transparency. He tried hard to answer even questions that had embarrassing answers.

One understands quite clearly from this that the “inside story” you are about to read (or have just read) was never intended as a critical or objective analysis. In various other places Kirkpatrick’s role as in-house propagandist for the company is made gratingly explicit.

A splashy launch event was planned for May 24, 2007, at a big hall in San Francisco. Facebook called the event f8, a name that subtly proclaimed it was Facebook’s “fate” to become a platform. Zuckerberg even emerged from his shell to solicit advance attention from a journalist, me, whom he invited inside the company for an exclusive story as he prepared for f8.

A couple of pages later on, the nature of the relationship is made even more clear: “When I was reporting in 2007 prior to f8, Facebook had me speak with one close ally of the company . . .”

Facebook had me speak . . . . Thanks go first to Mark Zuckerberg. Had he not encouraged me to write . . . . And, bringing the story up to date:

“You’re a rock star now,” says Anikka Fragodt, Zuckerberg’s trusted personal assistant (since February 2006), who with three other Facebook employees (and me) has joined for a promotional swing through Europe.

Did you get that? Kirkpatrick has “joined” Facebook “for a promotional swing through Europe.” In the entertainment industry these people are known as “junket whores.” They are not journalists. If one had begun with the Acknowledgments one would have been forewarned. Or, still working from back to front, one would have seen the final paragraphs of the Postscript:

A friend of mine lives in Palo Alto a few blocks from Facebook’s offices. One weekend he was returning late at night from a long day of family activities with a car full of irritable children. He and his wife were relieved to be finally home. But as he approached his driveway, his car’s headlights silhouetted a man standing on the sidewalk, blocking his path.
The small man with curly hair didn’t notice them. He was oblivious, immobilized, hands clasped behind his back, head down, lost in thought. There was a gravity in the man’s demeanor. My friend paused. Despite his family’s exhaustion, his instinct told him not to interrupt. He waited. After a minute or so, the pensive Mark Zuckerberg looked up and continued slowly down the sidewalk.

This is truly sickening. Standing in someone’s driveway and blocking them from entering is rude beyond belief, but Zuckerberg is excused because the value of his thoughts – what thoughts? did he set his alarm? did he forget to return a call? does it even matter? – outweighs the convenience of the car full of ordinary mortals. They recognize – by “instinct”! – the presence of greatness. Zuckerberg, on the other hand, despite it being late at night (and presumably dark), is “oblivious” to the car (headlights on?) attempting to pull into its driveway. And apparently remains oblivious even as he walks away.

Humanity, know thy place.

Stripping away the hype and misinformation that now surrounds Facebook is a challenge, but still a worthwhile exercise. In a few more years it may be impossible. So, using Kirkpatrick, let’s turn around and begin at the beginning, with Mark Zuckerberg – not Kirkpatrick’s mythical figure, but someone a little more real we can put together from the evidence – and the founding of the company.

One is on safe ground saying that Zuckerberg is a hard-working and highly intelligent young man. When you combine this with his being a child of privilege and a computer nerd, the predictable result is someone both withdrawn and arrogant. Hauled on to the carpet at Harvard for violating various codes of policy he displayed surprise and consternation that institutional “rules” should apply to him. Or, as his worshipful hagiographer puts it: “The fact that he was doing something illicit [taking Harvard students’ private information without permission] gave Zuckerberg little pause. He could be a bit headstrong and liked to stir things up. He didn’t ask permission before proceeding. It’s not that he sets out to break the rules; he just doesn’t pay much attention to them.” The first versions of Facebook were credited as “A Mark Zuckerberg production,” with his chosen title being “Founder, Master and Commander.” Later he had two sets of business cards printed, one simply giving his title (“CEO”), the other being more forceful (“I’m CEO . . . bitch!”).

In his defence, he was very young and, much too soon, very rich. Also, and I don’t want to lean on this too heavily, there is something in such an attitude that found a perfect match with the new information economy. The most important thing to keep in mind about social networking is that there is nothing social about it. It is profoundly narcissistic. To be master and commander of such an environment means being at the top of the food chain, using other people, letting the writhing, writing masses create content while you get paid for the ads. Reducing people to streams of data to be mined. Reducing “people” to “users” and “consumers” through profiles designed to define them as such. (Zuckerberg: “A lot of the information people produce is inherently commercial. And if you look at someone’s profile, almost all the fields that define them are in some way commercial – music, movies, books, products, games. It’s a part of our identity as people that we like something, but it also has commercial value.”) The “gift economy” of “sharing” for the public; profits for the capitalists at the top. Welcome to Web 2.0: The game that plays you. Zuckerberg, who was not much interested in doing homework when there were bigger fish to fry, knew how to work the system from the beginning:

Zuckerberg kept making little Web programs, like one he created quickly to help himself cram for his Art in the Time of Augustus course. He had barely attended the class all first semester. As the final loomed, he cobbled together a set of screens with art images from the class. He emailed the other class members an invitation to log in and use this study aid and add comments alongside each image. His classmates took his cue. After they all used it, he spent an evening scrutinizing what they’d said about the images. He passed the final.

What made social networking such a big deal was the perhaps surprising fact that so many people liked being used. Anything, it seemed, was better than the loneliness and boredom of the Internet and the derangements brought on by blogger psychosis. And so social networking became a drug. Early on, Facebook executives called the effect their product had “the trance,” understanding that what they were doing was essentially pushing a narcotic (not coincidentally, their first big advertiser would be a gambling site). There was never any economic benefit to Facebook; indeed, quite the opposite. It was a site to capture eyeballs and waste time. Though the line for the media would always be that it was never “about the money” (patent nonsense that Kirkpatrick repeats ad nauseam), the company’s raison d’etre was to monetize information by building it into an advertising platform. Even so, like many of the other titans of the digital economy (Amazon, Google) it was often hard to tell exactly what Facebook was doing that was making money. Microsoft bought into the company at a valuation of $15 billion at a time when it had yet to show a profit. “We’re creating a real economy on the Web!” went the buzz in Facebook’s graffiti-decked corridors of power. Some observers remain unconvinced.

(You may gather from this that I am not connected. In fact I was briefly on Facebook, but then cancelled my account. Which, I learned, does not cancel, delete, or do much of anything to change my account’s status. One can log out of Facebook but, like the Hotel California, one can never leave. I wonder if this is reflected in their much-ballyhooed numbers. Just what does it mean to be “on” Facebook, anyway?)

The other important thing to keep in mind about Facebook is that it was not in any way Zuckerberg’s invention. In fact, the idea was practically as old as the Internet itself (he came to it in the first place as a work project he had been assigned). As with all such great fortunes (Bill Gates and Microsoft, Brin and Page and Google) the product was nothing; ripeness was all. As Kirkpatrick notes, a phenomenon like Facebook could not have emerged much before when it did because it needed certain developments in programming to make it work. Nor could it have occurred much later, when the field had become overgrown. As one of the first social network developers ruefully admits, “We were early. Timing is everything.” And this is not sour grapes. It’s a fact.

Nor was Zuckerberg particularly visionary or innovative. Even some time after Facebook’s rise he remained committed to developing a file-sharing site, Wirehog, that went nowhere. At various other points he had to be pushed by the zeitgeist. Web 2.0 was a wave the company rode, not something they summoned into being.

But nothing succeeds like success, and all of this is now trumped by the myth. The myth that Facebook was never about the money, that it was “changing the world,” that it was creating something entirely new, that it was at all concerned about privacy. With regard to the latter point it is worth noting how initial versions were basically designed as programs for stalking (or mocking) girls at Harvard. Nothing much has changed since then. And to be fair, this is in large part because the public has gradually lost all interest in privacy anyway. Meanwhile, from a business perspective, the thing about privacy is that it is important only insofar as it allows information to be monetized. Facebook doesn’t particularly care about protecting your privacy. What it cares about is protecting its own interest in your private information (hence, as one observer put it, “What happens on Facebook’s servers stays on Facebook’s servers”).

This is the saddest story. The book’s dustjacket borrows the mirror conceit from the Time magazine cover that made “You” the person of the year. I’ve said it before, but it stands repeating that as part of this phenomenon “you” are nothing but a data entry clerk, a user/consumer infected with a zombie virus, sitting in an autistic Facebook trance like one of the people being harvested at a slot machine in a casino, feeding it coins (or debit cards) until leaving bankrupt and in a daze. And as for that Man of the Year image in the mirror? In 2010 it morphed into an unflattering headshot of Mark Zuckerberg. But then wasn’t that always the face behind the one-way mirror, watching us?

There was a time when I thought differently about these things. A time when I had hope. But no more. This Internet is a nightmare from which we will be lucky to awake.

Review first published online March 7, 2011.

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