It’s Time You Knew the Truth About Facebook

Steven Levy’s Facebook: The Inside Story brings Zuckerberg into focus

Mark Zuckerberg with the Facebook "f" logo superimposed on his face
 Lifewire / Nusha Ashjaee

Like many of you, I watched 2010’s The Social Network and ate up the creation tale of the world’s biggest social network and its megalomaniacal founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. It was a good movie and Jessie Eisenberg was, I thought, well-cast.

Now, though, after reading Steven Levy’s dense, enlightening, and often entertaining Facebook: The Inside Story, there is only sadness over the existence of that movie and the realization that it’s unlikely the true story of Facebook, as depicted in this book, will ever be told on film again.

With over 2 billion users—likely you are among them—Facebook dwarfs the population of even the largest country. It binds people together in ways that were unimaginable just 15 years ago and has caused problems that once seemed far beyond the scope of code.

Facebook has been credited with connecting us and, in recent years, tearing us apart. It’s been an unwilling pawn in Russia’s efforts to destabilize a nation. It’s given us new tools for quickly expressing likes, loves, and sharing good news (and bad) with friends, family, and, if we choose, the world. It has earned our trust and then casually abused it. Facebook amassed our data and then essentially left the vault unlocked or sometimes simply handed someone the keys.

Media and users readily express their hatred of the platform, its founder, or both. There are persistent calls for government to regulate it (it’s already fined Facebook billions) or break it into pieces (if Elizabeth Warren wins the Presidential Election, that’s a distinct possibility and one that Zuckerberg will fight vociferously). Yet millions of people check it at least daily. Facebook is baked into our collective consciousness. It’s as pervasive as gravity and just as poorly understood.

The Social Network
Not real life. Columbia Pictures

A Clear View

I’ve known Steven Levy for years. He’s a soft-spoken, brilliant, and highly regarded tech journalist who’s written multiple books and interviewed most of the biggest names in the tech industry, (yes, including Steve Jobs). He tends to take the long view when it comes to tech and its foibles and, when he told me last year he was working on a Facebook book, I was thrilled.

Most current reporting on Facebook treats it like the Eye of Sauron, all-seeing, all-powerful, all malevolence. I’m no cheerleader for Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg, but I also knew most of the reporting I read reacted to the current crisis du jour and offered little insight into how we really got here. Is Zuckerberg evil? Is Facebook destroying the world? Was that the goal?

It was high time for a clearheaded accounting of The Social Network and Levy seemed like the perfect guy to deliver it. More remarkably, Zuckerberg, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and many other key players sat for dozens of interviews.

I also know that, despite the majority of Americans using Facebook, most of you are unlikely to read this 583-page tome. That’s okay. I did it for you.

Here’s what I learned.

Facebook book
The true story of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg is in here.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

How Did We Get Here?

Mark Zuckerberg’s single-minded rise to the top of the social media heap is nothing short of remarkable. In the book, he comes across as ambitious, stoic (he's perfected the thousand-yard stare), insanely smart, and disturbingly unflappable. He’s callow and careless, often doing things because of some inner drive that could not be quelled until he fulfilled his destiny. Sometimes the destiny was small, like creating a college website called Facemash that literally let people compare other students based on looks, and sometimes it was large, like connecting the world with Facebook.

The teenager who scraped Harvard’s servers to collect photos for Facemash is not the same person who expanded Facebook internationally, but the thoughtlessness about the ramifications is virtually identical. Facemash was morally and ethically wrong, but Zuckerberg knew intuitively it would work and almost blindly pursued its creation.

The site, which never launched beyond the hallowed halls of Harvard, was shut down and Zuckerberg sanctioned, but the lesson he learned was not necessarily to treat other people’s data with respect or to not reduce people to a measure of their appearance, it was, “people are more voyeuristic than I thought.”

Many of Zuckerberg’s actions, like purposely delaying his work on the Winklevoss twins’ project while he built his own similar product or copying Twitter's status updates border on the unethical. Perhaps we give Zuckerberg wide berth because, sometimes, his ideas proved better.

Zuckerberg saw technology as a fundamental good and, to this day, seems somewhat stunned that people would use the platform he built for evil.

Zuckerberg is the bridge between technology from the early days of desktop computing (he used to work on an old 486 DX computer) and the earliest days of social and mobile technology. I often forget that Facebook predates the iPhone and the platform was built with desktops at the center. Eventually Zuckerberg would adjust (probably because to not do so would interfere with the Prime Directive: Growth) throwing anyone out of his office who did not arrive with a mobile design.

As a child of the optimistic 90s, Zuckerberg saw technology as a fundamental good and, to this day, seems somewhat stunned that people would use the platform he built for evil.

As an adult, Zuckerberg prized growth over all else, because it would further his goal of connecting the world, which perhaps blinded him to all the attendant risks.

Much is made in the book about Facebook not bothering to learn the languages or use local speakers when expanding into new countries. This black box approach meant Facebook couldn’t, at least in some countries, even properly police its own network, which led to disastrous results (see Myanmar).

It could be said, though, that Zuckerberg and Facebook didn’t even speak the human language.

Zuckerberg’s inability to understand human nature bled from him right out into virtually every part of Facebook’s business. They were always erring on the side of believing people would do the right thing.

What we learned, though, is that not all human nature is good and if you provide a high-powered vehicle, people will drive it to whatever destination they want. The bad actors who infiltrated Facebook to effect public sentiment used the tools Facebook built and provided. Some might say they excelled in their use.

Zuckerberg’s belief in the immutable power of free speech inadvertently turned all of Facebook into an agnostic overseer, letting users fight it out among themselves and assuming good or right would win.

The cavalier attitude Zuckerberg took toward personal data in his Harvard escapades is ironically repeated many times over as people within and outside his company find useful tools and loopholes that let them use and abuse the data of millions of Facebook users.

All His Fault

Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's relentless pursuit of growth had unintended consequences. Getty Images

Levy’s book doesn’t paint Zuckerberg as an uncaring monster. He’s not that. He’s the ambitious entrepreneur who ends up riding herd over a social media empire.

As the book progresses and, to a certain extent just as I thought I was starting to understand Mark Zuckerberg, he fades into the background and the company he built, and all its machinery shifts forward. The choices Facebook’s various groups and characters make and the decisions they chose to act on or ignore is all a product of Zuckerberg’s “move fast and break things” ethos, but also a product of the overriding Facebook goal for much of its 15-year-plus history: Growth.

COO Sheryl Sandberg is painted as someone far more emotionally engaged than Zuckerberg, but not at all in control of the larger Facebook narrative. Bad things happen and she’s often explaining or mopping up but almost never seems to be able to avert disaster.

Throughout the book a pattern of development and even crisis management emerges: 

  • Identify an opportunity
  • Launch fast
  • Enjoy almost instant adoption
  • Suffer brutalizing feedback
  • Still enjoy success
  • Ignore or apologize
  • Adjust or leave as it
  • Move on
  • Win

Make no mistake, Facebook is an American success story of gargantuan proportions. It connected more people than anyone thought possible. It monetized a vast and, in some ways, still growing audience on, after a sluggish start, mobile.

Because of Zuckerberg’s uncanny ability to identify and essentially catch and kill a threat, it gobbled up Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus. Because Zuckerberg does not know how to lose, where he couldn’t buy, he built, making Snapchat pay for its rebuff by building the wildly popular Instagram Stories.

So What

Trust me, if you do read Levy’s book, you will not come away shaking your head over what a sweet guy Zuckerberg turns out to be. He remains as inscrutable as a sphinx, but you may better understand how we, as a world, got here. That it wasn’t one major choice that built Facebook into a social media giant and the thing that both binds and vexes us. It was: 

  • The Wall
  • Pokes
  • Photo sharing
  • The Newsfeed
  • Likes
  • EdgeRank
  • The Social Graph
  • Trending Topics
  • Messenger
  • Facebook Live
  • Live streaming mass murder
  • Fake News
  • Cambridge Analytica
  • Russia

It was the incremental creep of all these innovations and calamities that make Facebook what it is today and will help define it for the future.

Facebook: The Inside Story is, by my estimation, the definitive accounting of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. It’s a tale of genius, disregard, innovation, and stunning success and betrayal. It may also help you realize that Facebook isn’t evil, it was just built that way.

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