The Facebook Effect

June, 2010. Washington Post

“If we give people control over what they share, they will want to share more,” wrote Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, spiritual guru and CEO, in a recent op-ed for this paper. “If people share more, the world will become more open and connected.” (And for those of you exasperated with Facebook’s controversial privacy policies, perhaps a bit too “open and connected.”)

Billionaires tend to engage in quixotic legacy-building, and if we buy the thrust of David Kirkpatrick’s crisply written “The Facebook Effect,” Facebook was imbued with a certain purity from the beginning. From a mere concept in a Harvard dorm room to an online platform used by an estimated half-a-billion people worldwide, Facebook’s mission has always been to be useful to the masses. Certainly, as Fitzpatrick rightly points out, Facebook has become “embedded in the fabric of modern life and culture.” It is indeed a transformational social media tool that has allowed us to communicate in new ways and helped me exponentially increase my circle of “friends” — real and/or imagined.

So then why is “The Facebook Effect” so frustrating to read?

For one thing, even a business book should strive to explain what motivates its hero. Certainly, we can forgive Kirkpatrick, a longtime Fortune magazine reporter, for not boring too deeply into the soul of a 20-year-old, but I wish there were more clues to the working of Zuckerberg’s mind.

What we do know is that Zuckerberg, now 26 and walking around with a neat $5-billion stake in Facebook, is both the insecure kid who breaks down into tears in a restaurant bathroom over a moral dilemma and the steely entrepreneur who, without thinking twice, turns down $10 million for the site when it is just a four-months-old project. Perhaps it’s because Facebook’s founders come from prosperous families (though we learn little about their backgrounds) that they could dig in their heels. Good thing, because by the end of the story nearly every major media company had some level of interest in buying Facebook. After his initial resistance, Zuckerberg engages in assorted dalliances with distinguished and accomplished suitors. But don’t worry. In the end, he stands firm to save the sanctity of his company.

The story of Facebook’s birth and growth, as told here, has little conflict, few antagonists and nary an obstacle for the young entrepreneurs to overcome. Everything, it seems, came easily, quickly and cleanly. Four days after its launch, the site had 650 registered users at Harvard alone. By the next week, another 300 had joined. And this pace accelerated every day afterward. Most of the efforts by the ever-growing staff were concentrated on keeping up with this expansion, and rarely do we hear much about any push for innovation. It all worked. But it hardly makes for a riveting story.

Unlike in other tomes about the Facebook phenomena — most notably Ben Mezrich’s unauthorized “Accidental Billionaires ” — there is no debauchery (unless a messy dorm room counts), not much infighting, and none of the cutthroat capitalism that seems to invade narratives of corporate gigantism. Kirkpatrick gives only fleeting mention to the accusations against Facebook’s founders and the legal challenges they have faced.

But we do get plenty of serendipity — the right kids starting the right kind of company at the right time. We hear a lot about the boundless growth potential of the project. (Even today, Facebook, as Kirkpatrick points out, “could have more data about citizens than governments do.”) And we are always aware of the good intentions of its creators.)

“The Facebook Effect” is a meticulously sourced book that too often succumbs to the author’s esteem for his subject matter. Perhaps Facebook’s story deserves such treatment. But then “the inside story” may just be less exhilarating than one might imagine.