500 Million Members

Facebook: You can’t avoid it. Zuckerberg here, Zuckerberg there, the IPO (Will he or won’t he?), the movie, the profile in the New Yorker, the book (The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich) and no doubt another book or two in the works.

What is it all about? I am on Facebook. I don’t know why. No one ever seeks my friendship. I rarely seek the friendship of anyone or say very little about myself. Most of it is fabricated anyway. I even have my face there. That is a mistake. No wonder no one wants to be my friend

Once I tried to befriend a person, if that is what you call it I found on the site. I did so only because she had written to me about a book I wrote: “Your book was an inspiration.”

I never received a reply. That seemed odd. She is no longer a public presence there. Already we have had our first argument.

Why would anyone want to talk, if that is what you call it, on this site? How can you make these exchanges so public? The discourse is moronic anyway. Why not sent an e-mail, write a letter, or make a telephone call? If you’re not good for more than a word or two, text the person.

Zuckerberg is reported to be a strange one in the New Yorker (9/20/10) profile by Jose Vargas. “…a wary and private person…. mixture of shy and cocky… he can come off as flip and condescending … backstabbing, conniving, and insensitive.” Yes, perhaps a bit disdainful, autocratic, secretive, but extraordinarily successful. Is that what it takes?

Zuckerberg’s story is a familiar one, especially if you have read Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s account of the reasons some individuals become enormously successful in their field. According to Vargas, like so many digital wizards, Zuckerberg was a computer prodigy as a kid, played computer games, and early on began to tinker with coding. When he was about eleven, his parents hired a computer tutor and not long after Zuckerberg began taking evening computer courses at a nearby college.

Soon after he became a freshman at Harvard, he built a CourseMatch, a program that enabled students to decide which classes to take and another, Facemash, that Vargas characterizes as a kind of “sexual-playoff system” that was promptly shutdown by the administration.

And then as Vargas describes it, “Afterward , three upperclassmen …approached Zuckerberg for assistance with a site that they had been working on, called Harvard Connection.” Apparently Zuckerberg worked with them a while “but he soon abandoned their project in order to build his own site, which he eventually labeled Facebook.” The site, originally a social network for Harvard students, soon thereafter expanded to other colleges, became an instant hit, whereupon Zukerberg dropped out of Harvard (as Gates did and as Jobs did from Reed) to run it. The rest is well known.

I am less interested in Zuckerberg the person or the current controversies over Facebook’s privacy policies than I am in the conditions that led him to formulate the Facebook concept, create its software, and then apply it with such success to the Web. In Outliers Gladwell formulates a five-factor theory of success: talent, hard work, opportunity, timing and luck.

Obviously Zukerberg had a great deal of natural savvy about computers and knack for coding. Equally clear, he spent hours and hours, perhaps Gladwell’s magical 10,000 hours, developing his computer software skills. He parents gave him every opportunity, hired a tutor and provided a first-rate education.

As for timing, one really never can be sure when an idea will take hold but by the time Facebook was launched, the Web had become a very fertile ground for match making and, as a friend put it to me recently, "mischief-making." And then luck is such a vague term. Of course, Zuckerberg was lucky. No one becomes an extraordinarily successful person without a good deal of luck. So that factor, along with timing, is of little value in predicting success and even less useful in fostering it.

Still there is the lingering unknown of whether or not the idea and execution of Facebook was based (“stolen”) upon the work of the upperclassmen who had approached Zuckerberg for assistance with their own highly similar site. Two of the three are appealing for more than the previous sixty-five million dollar settlement with Facebook and the case is currently under review.

However, the settlement was a financial one that leaves unanswered the question of who was really responsible for the Facebook concept. I suppose one can never really know these things anyway and in the words of a young German writer I cited in an earlier post on where ideas come from, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,”