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09.08.10

The Truth Behind 'The Social Network'

As the movie The Social Network rolls toward theaters, Rebecca O’Brien writes about Zuckerberg’s reputation around Harvard, his fraternity nickname, and why Facebook was such a hit.

As the movie The Social Network rolls toward theaters, Rebecca O’Brien writes about Zuckerberg’s reputation around Harvard, his fraternity nickname, and why Facebook was such a hit. Plus, View Our Complete Coverage of The Social Network

Hollywood biopics are often the inverse of political autobiographies: heavy on sex and drugs, light on weighty questions of morality and leadership. If the script leaked online and the trailers are any indication, the new movie The Social Network, which purports to tell the story of Mark Zuckerberg and the founding of Facebook, will play like a conversation between Hamlet and Joe Francis, as secretly recorded by Richard Nixon. It is paranoid, sleazy, and grim.

“The whole notion of Mark as either an evil genius or as a deeply status-obsessed person doesn’t ring true to me at all,” says one of Zuckerberg’s former classmates.

As the film tells it, during the winter of 2004, Zuckerberg, a curmudgeonly, craven genius, bristling against authority and embittered by the culture of wealth and privilege that excludes him, creates a social network to impress vapid women and the callow preppies of Harvard’s exclusive, all-male final clubs. The film’s Zuckerberg, as played by Jesse Eisenberg, hates Harvard students, disdains fraternities, and answers to nobody. Zuckerberg, with a kind of mad scientist’s zeal, seeks popularity, profit, and revenge. In the words of the film’s ubiquitous ad campaign, he is “Poet. Prophet. Billionaire.”

That completely misses the point. Zuckerberg is, indisputably, a savant. He has also, by most accounts, broken agreements and rules. After talking to one of Facebook’s co-founders and students who were at Harvard when Zuckerberg and I were classmates, there’s one outstanding question about the creator and CEO of the 500 million-member website that today is valued at somewhere between $24 billion and $32 billion. Zuckerberg was an antiauthoritarian who, through some combination of outmaneuvering, technical wizardry, and intuition, became the guy in charge. But can we trust the antiauthoritarian once he becomes the authority?

* * * * *

Back before he was a household name, before thefacebook.com, Mark Zuckerberg was a dorm room name, especially in Kirkland House, where he and I lived as sophomores. I often saw Mark and his friends sitting around a table in the dining hall, lingering over plates of popcorn chicken and cups of soda.

There are always a handful of kids at Harvard who are notorious before arriving on campus, and Mark was among them. As a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, Mark had created an adaptive music player (think iTunes Genius), prompting Microsoft to offer him a few million dollars and a job, which he turned down to go to college. This, we thought, was cool and rebellious.

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“The whole notion of Mark as either an evil genius or as a deeply status-obsessed person doesn't ring true to me at all,” says one of Mark’s classmates at both Exeter and Harvard, who knew Mark in high school through several classes and extracurricular activities. “He always struck me as kind of oddly comfortable in his own skin.”

“The whole anti-authority thing,” he continues, “rings true with me. He took a certain amount of enjoyment out of not necessarily breaking rules, but just pointing out that people who have responsibility for things are kind of stupid. I think he did enjoy kind of demonstrating his own superiority by skirting things.” At Exeter, for example, Zuckerberg kept finding ways to evade firewalls and sites that were blocked.

“It was this mundane, competitive narcissism,” the Exeter classmate says. “Kind of believing that the rules you're expected to live by are just not really legitimate.”

When Zuckerberg came to Harvard in the fall of 2002, he joined a fraternity, one of those “lame” organizations that The Social Network so crudely mocks. To his friends at AEPi—one of Harvard’s fraternities, reputationally Jewish—during freshman year, Mark (or “Zuck”) was known by his frat name “Slayer.” In his capacity as AEPi’s Exchequer, I’ve been told by fellow AEPi pledges, Zuckerberg systematically hunted down dues. Later, once Zuckerberg left Harvard, he would return for career recruiting events, and stop by AEPi parties with a supply of booze. This hardly seems like the kind of guy who would found a website to impress or get even with people in final clubs.

Mark gained campus notoriety in November 2003, when he created Facemash. The idea behind Facemash was simple: a website on which you could compare the attractiveness of two Harvard students, voting with the click of a mouse. The site, which was open to the world and which used official Harvard headshots, went viral over email lists, nabbing 22,000 votes from over 450 people.

Clicking through Facemash filled one with that particular kind of Internet-induced ickiness, combining the titillation of an anonymous chatroom with the meanness of an old-fashioned slam book. It was callow, it was distasteful, and it was a lot of fun.

Facemash managed to offend a lot of people, including Harvard University, seeing as Facemash violated all sorts of usage, privacy, and property codes. Mark was hauled before the Ad Board, Harvard College’s administrative board, and rumor had it around Kirkland House that he was almost thrown out of school.

Facemash exposed a few of Harvard’s vulnerabilities—or, perhaps I should say, Harvard’s openings. First, Harvard was simply too sprawling to provide the kind of meaningful online community that students wanted. Second, college students were anxious about their image on the Internet. Finally, there was an unmet demand for an online “register” of some sort, a place where students could see each other not just in their official Harvard representations (those improbably persistent, unflattering freshmen ID photos) but exert control over the expression of their protean self-development.

In the wake of Facemash, the Harvard Crimson editorial board published a piece entitled “Put Online a Happy Face,” urging the school to create a campus-wide facebook. This had been a refrain across the school in recent months.

“I actually didn't think that Harvard was the kind of place where it really mattered what final club you were in,” says Mark’s acquaintance from Exeter and Harvard, drawing contrast to the film’s script, which portrays final club members as revered Olympian gods. “But Harvard was competitive enough that how many friends you had generated weird competition. That was much more reflective of the kind of social economy at Harvard.”

This context is critical to understanding Zuckerberg’s MO when he launched Facebook, in February 2004. Chris Hughes—Zuckerberg’s Harvard roommate and later Facebook’s communications czar—and I had “friended” the old-fashioned way: We were French A conversation partners. Hughes explained to me in a recent interview that Facebook was “one in a series of really simple ideas that came out of H-33 [their dorm room] in Kirkland House.” First, CourseMatch, which allowed students to see what classes other students were taking, then Facemash, then Facebook.

“In general, in our room, we were always talking about what people were doing on the Web, what people needed to do to make their lives work better,” Hughes said. “Mark was the coder of the group, and also really the driving force behind a lot of the brainstorming and conversation.”

In creating Facebook, then, Zuckerberg had hit on the school’s weakness. Harvard does a lot of things. It churns students through lectures and labs. It launches curricular reviews and stem-cell initiatives; it raises money, and buys up property (or at least, it used to). But Harvard could not manufacture community. Facebook could.

Thefacebook.com was the logical successor to Friendster, MySpace, and various blogging sites that had taken off in recent months. “None of them had really figured out how to make people feel comfortable sharing information in a trusted, controlled environment,” Hughes told me. “It has been one of Facebook's defining features.”

“The story about how we got started in Facebook is not particularly exciting,” Hughes added. “From what I’ve heard, the movie has turned it into a story of sex, a story of bad ambition, thrown in some drugs and scandal, and that is what sells movies, but unfortunately the reality was a lot more boring than that.”

Indeed. If only our lives at Harvard were actually as scandalous as Aaron Sorkin imagined; if only final club parties were actually that fun; if only Harvard women were so buxom.

* * * * *

The first article on thefacebook.com in the Crimson (for which I was a writer) was written in early February 2004 by Alan Tabak, one of the paper’s student-life reporters. He picked up the story from the “dayslot,” a hodgepodge of random topics disseminated by an editor. “I was not assigned the story directly,” Tabak wrote to me last week. “A sure sign that thefacebook.com in its infancy was not considered a big deal.”

In the article, Mark himself shrugged off his own site. “[Thefacebook.com] is basically the same thing on a different scale. It’s not very novel.” Zuckerberg exhibited a typically cavalier, insurgent attitude—and a recklessness with words: “I think it’s kind of silly that it would take the university a couple of years to get around to [building a facebook],” he said. “I can do it better than they can, and I can do it in a week.”

“At the time that I wrote the article,” Tabak remembered, “it really did seem as if thefacebook was nothing more than a remedy for the fact that Harvard College did not have an accessible online facebook. I reported Mark's assurances that thefacebook would never be used for profit and probably would not even be expanded beyond Harvard.”

Tabak noted that when he started researching the first article, thefacebook had about 400 users—“I was user 424 when I registered in order to research the story,” he said—but by the time he was finished with the piece only a few hours later, membership had climbed past 600.

About a week later, Tabak wrote a second article about thefacebook.com. By now, the site had over 4,000 members, including—according to Zuckerberg—about 55 percent of Harvard undergraduates. To put that into perspective, only 3,077 undergrads voted for Undergraduate Council president the past December, less than half the student body.

Thefacebook.com had an anti-authority, subversive edge to it that appealed to people. Not only was it filling a need that the school wasn’t filling, but there was the vague sense that we weren’t supposed to have this information. Facebook was small and nimble, grassroots. It was exclusive (only Harvard email addresses could be members), but within this safe space, Facebook was wide open.

Chris Hughes says Mark’s post-Facemash status might have contributed to the local success of Facebook, but says that the keys to the global phenomenon were built into the platform from the start. “I think a lot of Facebook’s success had to do with building a network that was engineered for people to connect with people they were already friends with. To share with those people in a relatively closed environment. It was about enabling those connections, not with making new friends.”

Professor Benedict H. Gross, who was dean of Harvard College from 2003 until 2007, the time period in which Facebook transformed the school, expressed admiration for Zuckerberg, and says he now sends good undergraduates from the Math Department out to work with Zuckerberg in Palo Alto. “I was immediately impressed with his talents, and I’ve been even more impressed by the way that Facebook has transformed social life.”

* * * * *

The Social Network deals with the founding of Facebook in the context of an early controversy: Just after thefacebook.com launched, three Harvard seniors accused Mark of stealing their idea for a site called Harvard Connection (later ConnectU), which Mark, they alleged, was supposed to help them build.

Evidence certainly seems to support that Mark had made promises to Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (super-jocks and members of a final club), and their business partner Divya Narendra, but never followed through, choosing instead to launch thefacebook.com.

This suit was settled out of court, and might have been left behind years ago, were it not for a few more disturbing stories about Mark’s character, evidence of abuse of power that has surfaced in recent months.

In March 2010, the website Business Insider ran a story—surprisingly under-circulated—in which sources (Business Insider got access to instant messages and emails, and conducted “more than a dozen” interviews) claim that Mark Zuckerberg, anxious about an upcoming article on the ConnectU scandal, hacked into the email accounts of two Crimson reporters, using login data he found by applying failed thefacebook.com passwords to Harvard email accounts. Later that summer, Business Insider sources show him hacking into ConnectU founders’ email addresses, forming fake Facebook profiles, and tinkering with the ConnectU site.

Business Insider also has an instant-message exchange that supposedly took place between Zuckerberg and a friend in February 2004, in which Mark boasts about all the private information he’s gleaned as Facebook czar, and calls the Harvard students that trust him “dumb fucks.” (A Facebook spokesperson told Business Insider: “We’re not going to debate the disgruntled litigants and anonymous sources who seek to rewrite Facebook’s early history or embarrass Mark Zuckerberg with dated allegations.”)

It’s amazing, I’ve often reflected to my friends, how “dumb” we all were, not just for what we put on Facebook, but what we wrote in emails, in instant messages. (Just ask Mark Zuckerberg.) None of us really knew to have our guards up about this kind of stuff. There was a kind of playfulness about it. In the words of a friend of mine, a fellow Crimson reporter: “We had no idea.”

It wasn’t just that we had no idea. We were excited. Putting up our own information, making us accessible, speaking for ourselves, seemed the right and daring thing to do.

Now, all this “freedom” seems restrictive, terrifying. As I consider the manifold stories about Zuckerberg that have come to light, I am reminded of the recent controversies over WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. Now these two men, both renegade computer geeks with a strong sense of self-righteousness and an antiauthoritarian streak, find themselves in the harsh spotlight that they once shed on the Establishment. Its adherence to the facts aside, The Social Network raises some critical questions: Should we care if Mark Zuckerberg is a genius entrepreneur or creepy opportunist? Is it fair to criticize his character? Does it matter if the CEO of a company founded on a platform of privacy and information sharing has a cavalier attitude toward (some might say a blatant disregard for) rules and personal data?

I spoke to Hughes about some of the privacy problems that Facebook has faced over the years, the so-called Facebook backlash, which began when the site began to sell ads and expand and has continued as people grow nervous about their Internet presence.

"Facebook has had to really be much more thoughtful about its own terms of use and privacy,” Hughes told me. “I don't think that Facebook has ever really disrespected individuals' privacy or ownership over their information."

It is somewhat ironic that Mark, like his company, has been accused of breaching individuals’ privacy. It is also somewhat fitting that his behavior as a college student has tarnished his name. In the Facebook era, this is what we fear most of all.

Rebecca Davis O'Brien is a writer based in New York City. She served as an associate managing editor and columnist at the Harvard Crimson and has written for The New York Times, Parade, and Forbes.com, among other publications. Her first book (working title: The King's English), a memoir of her two years working at a boarding school in Jordan, will be published by Algonquin Books in 2011.