Just over eight years after Mark Zuckerberg launched thefacebook in a Harvard dorm room, Facebook has officially gone public today. And, what better time to dig back into the company's history, as documented by everyone from The Harvard Crimson and The New Yorker to Zuckerberg himself? Whether you're figuring out whether to invest or want to see how the world's most popular social network has evolved, we've put together a special IPO day edition of the best writing about Facebook — and several notes from Zuckerberg himself. It's been a rich history, with countless privacy issues, rumors of corporate buyouts, the Beacon debacle, the debut of the now inescapable "Like" button (only two years old!), radical redesigns, and years of IPO mongering.
Author Steven Johnson recently wrote, "I suspect that Facebook will forever live within this dialectic, expanding the boundaries of social sharing and then reacting to pushback from users and critics when it goes too far," and you'll see that privacy ebb and flow has been one of Facebook's many constants. Here's our roundup of the best writing on Facebook that looks at its personalities, evolution, ideas, and its effects on networked life and culture.
Early years: the first 100 million
Facebook's early rollout after the Harvard launch was heavy on Ivy League schools, with Dartmouth, Columbia, and Yale among the first to get access, but the team quickly expanded throughout the rest of the US university system and only a year later started adding high school networks. The site's first four years were marked by nearly endless user outrage over design and privacy changes, which saw the Facebook team backpedalling to something more palatable. Users put up with it all though, and Facebook kept thriving as MySpace began to collapse under its new News Corp ownership.
The Harvard Crimson: Alan J. Tabak - Hundreds Register for New Facebook Website, Feb 9, 2004
"Everyone’s been talking a lot about a universal face book within Harvard," Zuckerberg said. "I think it’s kind of silly that it would take the University a couple of years to get around to it. I can do it better than they can, and I can do it in a week."
CNN Money - Exclusive: Candid 2005 Zuckerberg video
The Harvard Crimson: Kevin J. Feeney - Business, Casual
Zuckerberg had the same devil-may-care attitude this fall, when a federal lawsuit added an expected $20,000 to TheFacebook’s monthly expenses. In total, Zuckerberg says the lawsuit filed by Divya K. Narendra ’04, Cameron S. H. Winklevoss ’04, and Tyler O. H. Winklevoss ’04 of Connect-U could cost TheFacebook upwards of $200,000.
"But whatever, it’s just money," he says. "We’ll just sell more ads or something."
The New Yorker: John Cassidy - Me Media
"I mean, one way to look at the goal of the site is to increase people’s understanding of the world around them, to increase their information supply," he said. "The way you do that best is by having people share as much information as they are comfortable with. The way you make people comfortable is by giving them control over exactly who can see what."
Somehow we missed this point with News Feed and Mini-Feed and we didn't build in the proper privacy controls right away. This was a big mistake on our part, and I'm sorry for it.
"I can do it better than they can, and I can do it in a week."
"And the second phase is now mapping out the stream of everything that everyone does."
2007 - 2008
Newsweek: Steven Levy - Facebook Grows Up
"As he describes it, this is a mathematical construct that maps the real-life connections between every human on the planet. Each of us is a node radiating links to the people we know. "We don't own the social graph," he says. "The social graph is this thing that exists in the world, and it always has and it always will. It's really most natural for people to communicate through it, because it's with the people around you, friends and business connections or whatever. What [Facebook] needed to do was construct as accurate of a model as possible of the way the social graph looks in the world. So once Facebook knows who you care about, you can upload a photo album and we can send it to all those people automatically."
The Facebook Blog: Mark Zuckerberg - Thoughts on Beacon
But we missed the right balance. At first we tried to make it very lightweight so people wouldn't have to touch it for it to work. The problem with our initial approach of making it an opt-out system instead of opt-in was that if someone forgot to decline to share something, Beacon still went ahead and shared it with their friends. It took us too long after people started contacting us to change the product so that users had to explicitly approve what they wanted to share. Instead of acting quickly, we took too long to decide on the right solution. I'm not proud of the way we've handled this situation and I know we can do better.
GQ: Alex French - Boy Genius of the Year: Do You Trust This Face?
Mark: There's this definite evolution happening. Where the first part of the social web was mapping out the social graph. And the second phase is now mapping out the stream of everything that everyone does. All of human consciousness and communication.
Facebook started 2009 by hitting 200 million active users, overtaking MySpace as the world's largest social network. It's impossible to understate the importance of mobile in the second half of Facebook's existence, and the launch of the iPhone in June of 2007 — and Facebook's iPhone app about a year later — helped the social network create what would become a real-time flood of messaging, photography, and status updates streaming to and from its users. The company continued cultivating and growing with the 2010 debut of the "Like" button, and game-maker Zynga gave the fledgling apps and gaming platform a much-needed boost. Facebook continued weaving its way into pop culture with David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network in 2010, with a script that imagined Zuckerberg as a tragic hero. The 2011 launch of Timeline paved the way for Facebook to seamlessly integrate personal data from the rest of the web.
New York: Vanessa Grigoriadis - Do You Own Facebook? Or Does Facebook Own You?
Sharing is actually not my word. It’s the most important Newspeak word in the Facebook lexicon, an infantilizing phrase whose far less cozy synonym is "uploading data." Facebook’s entire business plan, insofar as it is understood by anyone, rests upon this continued practice of friends sharing with friends, and as such it is part of the company’s bedrock belief, as expressed in the first line of its principles: "People should have the freedom to share whatever information they want." "A lot of times users—well, I don’t want to say they undervalue sharing, but a lot of times they don’t want to share initially," said Chris Cox, Facebook’s 26-year-old director of products.
Wired: Fred Vogelstein - Great wall of Facebook
"You have a bunch of machines and algorithms going out and crawling the Web and bringing information back," he says. "That only gets stuff that is publicly available to everyone. And it doesn't give people the control that they need to be really comfortable." Instead, he says, Internet users will share more data when they are allowed to decide which information they make public and which they keep private. "No one wants to live in a surveillance society," Zuckerberg adds, "which, if you take that to its extreme, could be where Google is going."
Time: Lev Grossman - Person of the Year 2010: Mark Zuckerberg
Suddenly the advertisement has a social context. It is presented to your friends, by you, carrying your personal endorsement. For marketers, this is a holy grail. "What marketers have always been looking for is trying to get you to sell things to your friends," Sandberg says. "And that's what you do on Facebook."
The New Yorker: Jose Antonio Vargas - The Face of Facebook
Privacy, he told me, is the "third-rail issue" online. "A lot of people who are worried about privacy and those kinds of issues will take any minor misstep that we make and turn it into as big a deal as possible," he said. He then excused himself as he typed on his iPhone 4, answering a text from his mother. "We realize that people will probably criticize us for this for a long time, but we just believe that this is the right thing to do."
"Why? Why Facebook? Why this format? Why do it like that? Why not do it another way?"
New York: Mark Harris - Inventing Facebook
Other than Timberlake, who had chatted with Parker briefly when he was in contention for the role, the actors never met the men they were playing, and that’s the way the director wanted it. "Fincher was adamant about us playing what was in this script," says Armie Hammer, who does double duty as both Winklevosses. "He didn’t want us to meet the real people and come back saying, ‘No, no, they say it happened completely differently; we have to do it like this!' "
All Things D: Full D8 Interview Video: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Businessweek: Brad Stone - Facebook Sells Your Friends
Instead of allowing advertisers to be flashy and creative, Zuckerberg and his colleagues want to provide them with more data to improve their targeting ability.
Vanity Fair: David Kirkpatrick - With a Little Help From His Friends
"I think the best way to describe me is as an archetypal Loki character," Parker begins, "like Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. I’m like the prankster or Puck in mythology. He’s not trying to cause harm, but rather to pull back the veil that masks your conventional, collectively reinforced understanding of society."
The other question, the ethical question, he came to later: Why? Why Facebook? Why this format? Why do it like that? Why not do it another way? The striking thing about the real Zuckerberg, in video and in print, is the relative banality of his ideas concerning the "Why" of Facebook. He uses the word "connect" as believers use the word "Jesus," as if it were sacred in and of itself: "So the idea is really that, um, the site helps everyone connect with people and share information with the people they want to stay connected with…." Connection is the goal.
"We just believe that this is the right thing to do."
"When you try to have this division between your personal self and your professional self, what you really are is stiff..."
The New Yorker: Ken Auletta - A Woman's Place
Conventional wisdom holds that getting so close to employees can compromise objectivity and the ability to make tough management decisions. "I dramatically disagree with that," Sandberg says. "I believe in bringing your whole self to work. We are who we are. When you try to have this division between your personal self and your professional self, what you really are is stiff... That doesn’t mean people have to tell me everything about their personal lives. But I’m pretty sharing of mine." Being open with your employees, she believes, means that nothing is a surprise to them—even if you fire them.
The New York Times: Nick Bilton - A Walk in the Woods With Mark Zuckerberg
"Zuckerberg said money wasn’t an object and that if I wanted the job — and why wouldn’t I, he questioned — the paperwork was already ready to go back at the office," said the person, who ran a small start-up Mr. Zuckerberg was trying to acquire. "The entire experience was totally surreal. I really felt like I was on a date."
"I really felt like I was on a date."
Wired: Steven Levy - Exclusive: Inside Facebook’s Bid to Reinvent Music, News and Everything
"Our primary business model and it always will be, is advertising," says Dan Rose, Facebook’s VP of Platforms and Partnerships. "Our platform makes Facebook more interesting so people spend more time on it, because I’m learning about my friends and I’m sharing things about myself and I’m discovering new things. And it also makes it possible for us to put an ad in front of you that’s likely to be interesting to you."
Vanity Fair: Dana Vachon - The Code of the Winklevii
It’s unlikely that Mark Zuckerberg thinks about them at all. In his own mind he must have outplayed them in the only real game there is—that of an organism pursuing its own self-interest. Now he was 400 miles north in Palo Alto—where the twins themselves were raised until the age of four—receiving rock stars and heads of state, credited by some with enabling the Arab Spring, one of the youngest billionaires in recorded history. And they were here in a mock-Sardinian villa, lambasting him to a stranger.
In its biggest acquisition yet, Facebook acquired Instagram earlier this year for a billion dollars, and today's $16 billion IPO values the company at over $100 billion, giving it considerable spending power in the coming years. More importantly, it's got nearly a billion users spending ever more time on the site (even if they're not actively loading facebook.com) via integration with Facebook's Open Graph. Mark Zuckerberg's letter to investors revealed a deep "social mission" at the core of the company, and there seems to be no end in sight to all the sharing.
People sharing more - even if just with their close friends or families - creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others. We believe that this creates a greater number of stronger relationships between people, and that it helps people get exposed to a greater number of diverse perspectives.
New York: Paul Ford - Facebook and Instagram: When Your Favorite App Sells Out
The Atlantic: Alexis Madrigal - The Jig Is Up: Time to Get Past Facebook and Invent a New Future
But fascinating technology startups, companies who want to allow regular people to do new stuff in their daily lives? Few and far between. Take a look at Paul Graham's ideas for frighteningly ambitious startups. Now take a look at the last 30 or so startups on Techcrunch. Where are the people thinking big? What I see is people filling ever-smaller niches in this "ecosystem" or that "ecosystem."