Steven Levy's Facebook delivers on expectations as it dives into the inside story of the tech giant and the people behind it
Sixteen years can seem like an eternity in the tech world, yet Facebook has managed to remain relevant despite all the zillion privacy scandals. All this, while ensuring it continues to remain a profit-generating machine. Veteran technology journalist and Wired’s editor-at-large Steven Levy explores just this journey in Facebook: The Inside Story.
When 19-year old Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook to the world (called thefacebook.com back then) on 4 February 2004, it started off as an online slam book of sorts where Harvard students could interact with their college friends. Fast forward to 2020 and there isn’t a day that goes by when the majority of us who are online, aren’t interacting with at least one Facebook product in our day to day life.
Sixteen years can seem like an eternity in the tech world, yet Facebook has managed to remain relevant despite all the zillion privacy scandals. All this, while ensuring it continues to remain a profit-generating machine. Veteran technology journalist and Wired’s editor-at-large Steven Levy explores just this journey in Facebook: The Inside Story. Never before has any journalist got such unfettered access (three years) to Facebook staff as well as its founder. For this book, Levy conducted nine interviews with Zuckerberg. The result is a 530-page tome on what is easily a definitive account of Facebook’s journey so far.
Levy’s writing style is quite approachable and he doesn’t rely too much on jargons when putting his point across. While he has spoken to a lot of influencers in the Valley for this book, at no point does it seem like just one interview after the next. He has seamlessly interspersed story-telling with quotes.
Zuckerberg valued privacy… till growth took precedence over everything else
One of the most striking aspects that we are introduced to at the earliest, is Zuckerberg’s focus on privacy during the first instance of Facebook. Only verified students with a Harvard.edu email address would be allowed on the platform. This was in an era when being anonymous online was de rigueur. Forget sharing photos, in the early noughties even sharing your real name online was a big no-go area. To force people to use their real identities to access Thefacebook was a move far ahead of its time. This focus carried on well into later years, till the time Facebook decided to let software developers use application programming interfaces (APIs) – software that lets two applications talk to each other. These APIs not just increased the influence of Facebook beyond the site in 2011, but would also give developers access to user data which would show its nasty side only in the future. But I am getting ahead of myself.
If you have been following Facebook’s trajectory for the last two years, its disregard for user data privacy was exposed after the Cambridge Analytica data scandal came to light in 2018. One would have believed that privacy was never a priority for Facebook. Period. So when you read the initial account of how Zuckerberg stressed on privacy during Facebook’s infancy, it makes you wonder: What could have become of Facebook if data privacy was front and centre? Would it really be the close to the three-billion-plus-user-base behemoth it is today? Your answer is as good as mine.
Facebook didn’t invent social networking
Levy goes much beyond a typical “this startup was created in a garage” narrative when telling the origin story of Facebook. It makes for the strongest part of the book and puts the current developments around Facebook in a much-needed context.
He has highlighted the various proto-social networks of the era (Sixdegrees, Friendster, MySpace, Google-owned Orkut), Zuckerberg’s hacker mindset much before he entered Harvard, the hot-or-not prototype Facemash which was deservedly panned and the early ownership battles regarding Facebook with the Winklevoss twins. Thanks to the insider access, Levy also drops a lot of easter eggs throughout the book which have a blink-and-you-miss-it feel. Zuckerberg being colour blind; Kevin Systrom (who would go on to co-found Instagram) trying hard to get an engineering role at Thefacebook; Zuckerberg visiting the very same ashram in India that Steve Jobs had in his youth are a few that stand out.
The Book of Change – a manifesto for world domination online
Chapter six of the book blows you away with exactly the details one is craving for beyond the vast media coverage on Facebook. The Book of Change is a revelation, as it is the first time the world gets an unfiltered glimpse into the mind of the 22-year old Zuckerberg. You may love or hate him, but reading this chapter you can’t help but be impressed at his vision so early on in the social networking game. It’s here that you come to know that Facebook in colleges was just a gateway drug. Zuckerberg dreamed of world domination.
This was a journal Zuckerberg maintained in 2006 to note down ideas he had for Facebook. In addition to thoughts, he would also draw out detailed screen navigations and user interface features. Some of these thoughts such as Open Registration would eventually see the light of day in the coming years. Zuckerberg eventually destroyed this book, following the publishing of some of his unfortunate IM chats from his Harvard days on a news site. He didn’t wish to leave any breadcrumbs for future investigations, he claims.
The man who won’t let you easily delete your Facebook account, didn’t want any of his thoughts or memories to stay permanent. Oh, the irony!
Levy got access to 17 pages of this journal. How? He claims to have received it in an envelope at his doorstep. From whom? We don’t know. But it makes for the hero chapter of the entire book.
One of the most devastating revelations from these 17 pages is the existence of a phenomenon called Dark Profiles — a feature which let Facebook create a shadow profile for you even if you weren’t on Facebook - by extracting data shared by your friends. So say, I wasn’t on Facebook at the time, and I searched my name on Google, a search result with my partly filled profile page on Facebook would show up. This would make onboarding new users that much easier.
Dark profiles or shadow profiles were always a matter of speculation over the years. While Facebook denies their existence, it’s ex-product VP Chamath Palihapitiya claimed that they did exist and were even searchable on Google.
The human side of Mark Zuckerberg
From a 20-something always seen in his trademark grey T-shirt to the suited CEO appearing before the Senate for a hearing, Zuckerberg has come a long way. Post the Cambridge Analytica scandal, his expressions have often invited words such as robotic, expressionless and other things that don’t elicit any human emotion.
Levy does highlight some moments in Zuckerberg’s life where he was vulnerable. Chief among them being his breakdown while in the middle of a funding deal in the early days. During a meeting with venture capital firm Accel in 2005, Facebook was being offered double the amount that The Washington Post was willing to invest. Zuckerberg took a loo break. After Zuckerberg didn’t return for a long time, his partner went to check on him, only to find Zuckerberg lying on the floor of the men’s room, weeping his eyes. Zuckerberg wasn’t comfortable going ahead accepting money after having given a word to The Post. It harks back to a time where conscience mattered to Zuckerberg more than big bucks.
And then there are the bizarre instances of his staff blow-drying his sweaty armpits just as he’s about to give a keynote address at F8!
As Facebook grows older, the jealous side of Zuckerberg also rears its ugly head. When in 2016, Zuckerberg was on a trip to Nigeria, the fact that the youth there loved using Instagram more, was a mild annoyance to him. Although Zuckerberg has said that he wasn’t jealous of Instagram, the defence mounted to justify that is flaky. I had argued back in 2018 how Instagram’s growth was sure to rile up things at the mothership Facebook. The exit of Instagram founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, without so much as a ‘Good bye and good luck’ from Zuckerberg, didn’t need stating the obvious.
Zuckerberg was also ruthless when it came to competition. After failed attempts to buy out another emerging social network, Snapchat, the Menlo Park company straight-up copied Snapchat’s features. Zuckerberg did the same with others including Twitter, Quora, FourSquare and many more. While a lot of the copying attempts failed miserably, Stories (lifted from Snapchat) hit the jackpot.
In many instances of the book, it seems as though Levy is taking Zuckerberg at face value and not really digging in with counter questions. The tone almost makes you feel empathy towards Zuckerberg as a “poor little rich kid who just set out to code and make a social network”. The fact that Zuckerberg is a genius is not under dispute in the book, or to anyone who has used Facebook. But Levy sometimes gets carried away when putting that point across. In comparison, Levy’s interactions with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg have a lot more bite to them.
Growth comes at a cost
Levy gets down to brass tacks in Part 2 of the book, wonderfully explaining the growth phase of Facebook. “Move fast and break things,” is an oft-heard mantra in the Facebook world which refers to innovating at lightning pace and not bothering if it would lead to disastrous consequences. In the initial days of Facebook, this quote was so entrenched in the company culture that new hires were asked to forget about the code-deployment cycles at their previous companies (which would go on for a couple of weeks at the very least) and be quick. If any code took the site down, a company-wide email was sent out, “Congratulations! You brought the site down. Which means you are moving fast.”
On the basis of your mileage and propensity to follow the nuts and bolts of technology, this middle portion of the book can get a bit dense. Even though Levy has tried to break things down for the non-tech savvy audience, things aren’t that easy to grasp always. At times it feels there are just too many people dipping in and out of every chapter.
Levy more than makes up for it in the final segment which is all about shining a light on all the controversies that rocked Facebook since the day Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States. The last five years have been one scandal after another where Facebook management was caught with its pants down. Whether it was fake news on its platform, Russian meddling in US elections, Cambridge Analytica data breach, the Facebook-powered Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, the New Zealand mosque shooting broadcast live on Facebook, the revelation that Facebook used a VPN app to scrape user mobile data to acquire competition, Zuckerberg and his team were consistently blindsided. Through conversations with Zuckerberg, Sandberg and a lot of top Facebook brass, Levy highlights the level of unpreparedness at the top.
In the pursuit of growth, Facebook never really gave a damn about its potential to harm democracies or societies, that might come with it. As soon as Facebook had hired Google veteran Sheryl Sandberg as its COO in 2008, the duties between Zuckerberg and her were split. While Zuckerberg would focus on the product, Sandberg would handle “everything else” which included policy work. Separating product (which is powered by engineering) and policy (which involves looking at the product’s social impact) was a flaw which would come to hound Facebook as it was exploited to a dystopian degree by the fake news factories and Russian troll accounts operating Facebook Pages. They were just using Facebook the way it was designed to be used. Thanks to lack of any policy overview, they were successful in spreading misinformation and weaponising Facebook.
Although Facebook heads claim they didn’t see a lot of the issues coming, there’s enough evidence of how advice, given in advance, was blatantly ignored. Any decision that would stop Facebook’s growth was never considered. For instance, a Filipino journalist Maria Ressa got a taste of bots and pro-establishment bloggers spreading fake propaganda on Facebook (which was getting ranked higher than genuine news) in the Philippines, back in 2015. She reached out to Facebook about this, but didn’t see any proactive action forthcoming. It reached a point where Ressa point-blank told Facebook authorities in August 2016, “If you don’t do anything about this, Trump could win.”
One of the turning points in Facebook’s history was the 2016 US Presidential elections. With the 2020 elections approaching, I would have loved to know how Facebook is preparing. Tricks that were used in 2016, will lead to little success. Knowing hackers, there are definitely new tactics on the horizon. I felt Levy didn’t really manage to extract those out of Zuckerberg or any of the top honchos of Facebook, which was a downer.
Sheryl Sandberg gets a raw deal
Sheryl Sandberg is the second most important person at Facebook today. As compared to Zuckerberg, one gets a feeling that Sandberg has got a pretty raw deal in the book. Levy doesn’t hold back any punches when evaluating her role during all the various scandals that Facebook went through. Post the 2016 elections, Sandberg was almost an absent COO. One can sympathise with that, given she had just lost her husband a year ago. But it’s during the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, that one learns how Sandberg didn’t really rise up to be the leader that one would expect her to be. Her shutting down the then chief security officer, Alex Stamos, for stating a fact in a board meeting, is just one instance of her high handed behaviour.
At some point, you feel bad for the way Sandberg has been written about. But when you read of instances of Sandberg not paying any heed to warnings given way in advance, you can’t keep the sympathy up. A genocide caused by a company, which you are the COO of, doesn’t reflect very nicely on you. On the topic of fake news, Sandberg maintains in a 2019 conversation with Levy, that maybe fake news existed but no one was thinking about it back in 2015. There are enough examples in the book which point to the contrary.
I’ll go out on a limb and say that I wouldn’t be surprised if Sandberg is the next big ticket departure from Facebook.
The trio who transformed Facebook at various stages
Apart from Sandberg who is still around Zuckerberg, there are two other personalities who are no longer with the company but who really catapulted Facebook at crucial points in its journey.
One of the most memorable scenes from the 2010 David Fincher film, The Social Network, was Sean Parker essayed by Justin Timberlake explaining Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg the goldmine that Facebook would become. Levy maintains that their real-life encounters weren’t as dramatic, but Sean Parker (co-founder of Napster and Valley networker par excellence) crossed paths with Zuckerberg at the most critical initial junctures of his growing company. Levy brings home the point that it was Parker who took on the boring work of gathering funds for Facebook, a task that didn’t interest Zuckerberg at all. In fact, early Facebookers have gone so far as to say that were it not for Parker, Facebook would’ve been gobbled up by venture capitalists. Parker ensured early on that that never came to pass. Parker was eventually let go after he was arrested at one of his wild house parties where cocaine was consumed.
One of the critical phases in Facebook’s journey once it figured out the platform was growth. Enter first-generation Sri Lankan Facebook VP Chamath Palihapitiya, who had already earned his chops at AOL. Palihapitiya was brought on board by Parker at a time when growth at Facebook had plateaued to 90 million users. By focussing on a metric called monthly active users (to note who was consistently using Facebook for a month and retaining those users), improving search engine optimisation for Facebook results on Google and adding a new feature called “People You May Know”, Palihapitiya’s team solved the growth problem at Facebook, taking it closer to the billion users mark.
A major venture such as Facebook certainly has many more important personalities, but Parker and Palihapitiya are important because these Facebook growth hackers would eventually regret what they enabled during their time at Facebook.
In 2017, Palihapitiya expressed “tremendous guilt” for having co-created a tool that was “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” He claimed that neither he nor his kids were on Facebook and he would keep it that way. In the same year, Parker also acknowledged that the social-validation feedback loop, that Facebook and all its contemporaries were boosting, was in fact exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” Parker had said.
There is a whole Rolodex of names who today regret their role at Facebook in helping it get to where it is. Co-founder Chris Hughes is calling for the breakup of Facebook; WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton started the #DeleteFacebook movement on Twitter after the Cambridge Analytica debacle; former Facebook investor Roger McNamee wrote a book called Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook Catastrophe about Facebook not paying any heed to the misinformation that was rampant on its platform before 2016 US Presidential elections; Jared Morgenstern who co-created the Like button would express that his work led to degrading society and empowering Facebook to get richer by collecting user data.
Bottomline: A definitive guide on the most impactful startup of our generation
All said and done, Facebook: The Inside Story, completely delivers on the expectations I had from this book. Levy isn’t new to this territory (he has previously profiled Google in a similar manner, with complete inside access) and the deep reporting comes through. It certainly helps that Levy is a known name in the Valley as that would have opened many doors. He manages to tread the path of access journalism very well preventing it from becoming a PR manifesto for Facebook.
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