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18 Jul 2010 07:31
Last month Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, stood in front of an industry conference in Las Vegas and announced that email was on the way out. Figures showed that only 11% of teenagers use email on a daily basis, she said; most preferred to send messages via social networks such as Facebook.
Even though she herself couldn’t imagine life without it, she predicted that email “is probably going away”.
Sandberg’s figures weren’t quite right; they referred to data on how many American teenagers were using email to communicate with their friends on a daily basis, not how they were using it in general. The Facebook Effect. In the summer of 2006 Kirkpatrick, a former technology writer for Fortune, found himself invited to dinner with Facebook’s youthful CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, as part of the company’s charm offensive. He subsequently won unprecedented access to Zuckerberg and 39 of his top employees to gather material for this book, a kind of official history of the company and the most comprehensive account of its rise yet.
Polishing the machine
Facebook began life in a student room in 2003, and its original function was to enable Zuckerberg and his fellow Harvard students to rate each other’s attractiveness and flirt with each other electronically; thus was born Facebook’s signature double entendre, the poke. Before long Facebook had morphed into an all-purpose public facility, allowing students to huddle together in groups and forge whatever electronic connections they liked. To Zuckerberg’s surprise—he suspected it might be a fad—Facebook rapidly spread to other universities, then to schools and then to everyone else. The statistics are mind-boggling. In January of this year Facebook claimed 350-million active users, who spend a collective eight billion minutes there every day.
Facebook’s arrival was timely, coming as it did just as more of us got used to spending time hooked up to fast internet connections. Kirkpatrick shows us how brilliantly Zuckerberg polished his new machine, constantly cleaning its minimalist look and cultivating its hunger for ever more data. The site’s real engine of growth, though, was its built-in network effect. Like any other communications network, Facebook’s usefulness grew as more people signed up and found each other; that, in turn, became a powerful incentive for new arrivals to pass the word on.
Previous books about Facebook, such as Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires (the film of which, The Social Network, hits the screens in October), have focused on the squabbles and personal relationships of those involved in its early life. Kirkpatrick’s wide-ranging access allows him to pay more attention to what Zuckerberg was trying to achieve. In his sometimes oafish determination to realise his vision, Zuckerberg turns out to be as much ideologue as engineer. For him, Facebook is primarily a social movement, not a publishing platform: as he tells it, he is motivated not by money (he consistently refuses to sell up) but by a passion for radical transparency. Sharing our data and making our lives publicly available to each other turns us, he believes, into better people. A narrower gap between public and private reduces the potential for hypocrisy and connivance, making it harder, for example, for people to cheat on their partners.
More fragile than it appears
But as critics point out, such “radical transparency” also makes it easier for Facebook to monitor what we’re up to, and many people are uneasy with this. “As the service’s engineers built more and more tools that could uncover such insights,” Kirkpatrick records, “Zuckerberg sometimes amused himself by conducting experiments. For instance, he concluded that by examining friend relationships and communications patterns he could determine with about 33% accuracy who a user was going to be in a relationship with a week from now. To deduce this he studied who was looking at which profiles, who your friends were friends with, and who was newly single, among other indicators.”
Although Facebook now seems an established fixture of the net, the company is more fragile than it appears. Companies powered by a network effect tend to wilt as quickly as they flower. Concerns about privacy have plagued Facebook for the past few years; if another social networking universe were to come along with a credible guarantee to protect our data, it could wither as quickly as did Bebo and Friendster before it. The company now finds itself sandwiched between the sensitivities of its users and the commercial imperative.
Kirkpatrick’s story ends with the arrival of Sheryl Sandberg, whose job it is to make Facebook more attractive to advertisers. She has done well. Facebook makes the bulk of its money by helping companies target potential customers more effectively than mainstream media, and last year—the first that it began turning a profit—it took an estimated $800-million in revenues. The effect of all this on the marketing and advertising industries has only just begun to be felt.
Kirkpatrick has written the definitive account of Facebook’s breathless rise to power. But the story of how it tries to wield that power without scaring away its 350 million users is going to be even more of a white-knuckle ride.
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