by Claire Hoffman
Sep 15, 2010
from ReaderSupportedNews Website
Tomorrow night, there will be a party to celebrate Facebook's four-year anniversary. But in a nearby building - one of four sleek offices that the social-networking Website runs not far from the campus of Stanford University - the company's founder is oblivious to the preparations.
Mark Zuckerberg, the head of the Facebook empire, sits inside the safety of a small, glass-walled office, hunched over a Styrofoam box of takeout.
He looks more like a boy in a bubble than the CEO of a corporation that's worth as much as General Motors.
Only 24 years old, Zuckerberg has a baby face, a long, long neck and big ears. Since he took Facebook live from his Harvard dorm as a sophomore four years ago, Zuckerberg has been crowned by Forbes as the world's youngest billionaire - a dentist's son worth an estimated $1.5 billion.
Fall Movie Preview: Peter Travers ranks the Facebook-inspired The Social Network as one of the season's must-see flicks.
Zuckerberg made that fortune by creating Facebook - now the sixth-most-visited site in the world - as easy to use and as addictive as any drug. Every day, some 70 million users log on to gaze at their friends' profiles and post a wealth of information about themselves: phone numbers, personal preferences, romantic timetables. Zuckerberg and his staff work, often in all-night coding parties, to hock all that valuable consumer data to ravenous advertisers.
With the number of users growing by at least 150,000 daily, it's no surprise that Zuckerberg has been called his generation's Bill Gates, another technological wunderkind and Harvard dropout who changed the culture and went on to amass great wealth and power.
And like Gates early in his career, Zuckerberg
is facing serious allegations that his creation was based on ideas he stole
And in April, another classmate, Aaron Greenspan, filed a petition to cancel Facebook's patent, claiming he invented an online facebook months before Zuckerberg.
Greenspan, who has compiled reams of e-mails chronicling his months of communication with Zuckerberg, bristles at equating the Facebook prodigy with Microsoft's founder.
The legal challenges to Zuckerberg's empire paint a curious picture of the man who has put himself in charge of our social future.
One of the world's most popular networking tool was launched by a brilliant but ostracized nerd sitting alone in a dorm room. From his days at Phillips Exeter Academy, where he was known as the prep school's top programming impresario, Zuckerberg has drawn on a powerful combination of isolation and entitlement to surpass his peers.
He is a Nietzschean superdork for the digital age - a college student who gamed the system, propelled by a primal understanding of how to program computers to serve human needs.
Whatever the outcome of the legal wrangling, the battle over the origins of Facebook prompts a fundamental question:
Facebook may have been born under disputed circumstances, but there is one uncontested moment in its inception: a Tuesday night at Harvard, where a 19-year-old boy wonder from Dobbs Ferry, New York, sat in front of his computer, dejected, alone and on his way to being trashed.
It was the fall of 2003, and the World Wide Web was just beginning its love affair with social networking.
That month, Fortune wrote,
Friendster.com had launched at the beginning of the year and
would soon have millions of users and millions from investors.
His relationship with computers dates back to the sixth grade, when he got his first machine and promptly bought a copy of the programming guide C++ for Dummies. By ninth grade, throwing himself into his Latin class, Zuckerberg had created a computerized version of the board game Risk, set in the Roman Empire. Zuckerberg was always dreaming up little tools to get things done quicker, "dorky things," as he would call them.
In his senior year at Exeter, Zuckerberg and his roommate, Adam D'Angelo, wrote software for an MP3 player that was able to learn a user's listening habits and build a digital library based on previous selections. Several companies showed an interest in the application, including an AOL subsidiary, but D'Angelo and Zuckerberg had no intention of selling. They didn't care about money.
They cared about code.
When he wasn't programming computers, Zuckerberg was striving to be the best at everything: the math team, science Olympiad, band, Latin honors society, a summer course in Greek.
In 2000 he was voted MVP at the New York regional competition of the U.S. Fencing Association.
On his application to Harvard, he wrote that fencing had,
He graduated with academic honors from Exeter
and entered Harvard in the fall of 2002, spilling over with ambition.
An early concession to voyeurism, the project
came to an abrupt end: Zuckerberg was running it from his laptop, which soon
crashed from the demand. But the experience taught him an important lesson:
What happened online wasn't just about programming. It was about what made
people tick. Despite his virtuoso ability at coding, Zuckerberg didn't
choose to study computer science. Instead, he majored in psychology.
He started drinking and once again sought solace
in the realm that never let him down. Logging on to his blog, he created an
entry titled "Harvard Face Mash: The Process." His plan was as simple as it
was vindictive: create a site called
Facemash.com, hack into Harvard's directory, download photographs
of his classmates and post them online next to photos of farm animals to
rate who was more desirable.
An hour later:
At 11:09 p.m., invention was in full swing:
Zuckerberg hacked into the night, breaking into the private user data of each of Harvard's residences and blogging proudly about his exploits every step of the way. The site was an instant hit.
That first night, students across campus were
e‑mailing one another about Facemash. More than 450 signed up, logging
22,000 page views. Within hours, school officials tracked down Zuckerberg
and shut off his Web access. Later, in a hearing before Harvard's
administrators, he was accused of violating student privacy and downloading
school property without permission.
And he had also learned an invaluable lesson.
Zuckerberg wasn't the only student at Harvard exploring the Web's potential for bringing people together.
All over campus, students were thinking up ways to use this new tool to make online the personal connections that seemed to elude them in real life.
Ten months before Zuckerberg launched Facemash, a Harvard junior named Divya Narendra had come up with the idea of creating a social network aimed at college students.
The son of a doctor, Narendra grew up in Bayside, New York. He had the face of a Bollywood matinee idol and a mind for mathematics: He got a near-perfect score on the SAT.
Narendra was as ambitious as any Harvard kid but felt like he wasn't part of the social stream.
Narendra went to two of his dormmates, identical twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, and told them he had an idea for an online community for Harvard students, with access granted only to those with a college e-mail address.
The twins instantly recognized the idea's
potential. Unlike Narendra and Zuckerberg, they were popular jocks: tall,
brawny, blond and chiseled, they rowed on Harvard's crew team and competed
internationally. Their father, Howard Winklevoss, was a wealthy
financial consultant who had nurtured their athletic abilities. After the
twins had shown promise with a coach at the Saugatuck Rowing Club in
Connecticut, Dad paid for a 15,000-square-foot nautical-themed boathouse and
founded a company, Row‑ America, to support his sons.
But by that fall, the site still wasn't
finished. Then, in November, the entrepreneurs, who'd heard about the rise
and fall of Zuckerberg's Facemash, decided to contact the programming
prodigy and catch some of his computing heat.
Students could post photos of themselves, enter
personal information and search for links. Narendra and the twins wanted
Zuckerberg to do about 10 hours of programming; in re‑ turn, they claim they
offered him a piece of the company. That month, Zuckerberg met with the
partners, and he agreed to work on the site.
But in his e-mails at the time, Zuckerberg was conciliatory to the partners.
Over the next two months, he kept making lame
excuses for putting them off - "I forgot to bring my charger home with me
for Thanksgiving" - but his tone was cheery, and he promised them that
things shouldn't take much longer. Zuckerberg later admitted that he did
only a little work on the site in December and none in January.
Cameron Winklevoss pressured him to finish the job:
Finally, on January 14th, Zuckerberg met with the twins and Narendra. Despite his previous assurances that all the code for the site was nearly ready, he informed them that they should get another programmer. The Harvard Connection guys were stunned.
What happened to all the work they'd been
He was inspired, he said, by an editorial in The Harvard Crimson about his Facemash debacle.
No matter the timeline, Zuckerberg ultimately dumped his jock overseers and went into business for himself.
But Zuckerberg's memory of the subject is hazy at best.
And what Zuckerberg didn't tell the Harvard
Connection guys is that he officially registered the original Facebook site
with his Web provider on January 11th - three days before he gave them the
brushoff. His lawyers have told the court that it was "on or about" then
that he started coding Facebook.
They each agreed to invest $1,000 in the site,
with Zuckerberg owning two-thirds of the company.
Within a half-hour, classmates had assembled the perfect study guide. Zuckerberg passed the course. Unencumbered by class work, Zuckerberg plowed ahead with his new project, isolating and exhausting himself.
Facebook launched on February 4th, 2004.
The site immediately took off. After 4,000 people signed up in the first two weeks, Zuckerberg and Saverin realized they needed help, fast.
They asked Zuckerberg's roommate Dustin Moskovitz to help, and he began to work with them, trying to launch the site at a few more colleges deemed worthy: Stanford, Columbia and Yale.
Adam D'Angelo, Zuckerberg's high school inventing partner, also chipped in to help set up databases for the new schools. Around this time, the ownership percentages were renegotiated: 65 percent for Zuckerberg, 30 percent for Saverin and five percent for Moskovitz. Zuckerberg also pulled in Chris Hughes, another roommate, to act as their spokesman.
On April 13th, the team filed letters
of incorporation. Zuckerberg posted his job description on Facebook as
"Founder, Master and Commander [and] Enemy of the State." The empire of the
nerds had begun.
They fired off a letter to Zuckerberg, threatening to bring him before the school's board on ethical grounds.
They appealed directly to President Summers,
saying Zuckerberg had violated the school's honor code. In May, they
launched their own site, with the new name ConnectU, but it went
nowhere fast: Four years later, it boasts only 15,000 members at 200
His brother Tyler, speaking to The Boston Globe after the partners filed a lawsuit against Zuckerberg, was even more direct.
From the start, Zuckerberg vehemently denied the charges.
That February, in a letter to Harvard administrators, he portrayed himself as a victim of his own kindness.
After listing the pleasure he gained from helping others, including a couple of girls from the Association of Black Harvard Women, he let loose on his former employers at Harvard Connection.
He presented himself as the aggrieved party:
The idea of a social-networking site, he told the Crimson, was in the air at Harvard.
The guys from Harvard Connection, it turns out, weren't the only ones who felt that Zuckerberg had stolen their idea.
Back in September 2003 - a month before Zuckerberg had posted his Facemash site - a skinny and serious Harvard junior named Aaron Greenspan had launched a networking portal for Harvard students. The site was a new version of a project he had created as a member of the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center, a student organization with a $3 million endowment.
That earlier effort - which allowed students to
post addresses and other personal information - had been a disaster. The
Crimson slammed it as a possible invasion of privacy, and Green- span
received a warning from Harvard. After retooling the site, he relaunched it
with a section called TheFacebook. Very few students signed up.
Greenspan responded quickly.
He asked if Zuckerberg would like to integrate Greenspan's earlier "Facebook" project into the new mystery program Zuckerberg was working on.
Later in January, Zuckerberg sat down with Greenspan in the dining hall. They compared notes, and Zuckerberg asked Greenspan if he would help with his topsecret project.
Although he was congratulatory at the time, Greenspan now says he was put off by Zuckerberg's original venture, Facemash.
After Zuckerberg launched Facebook, he continued to seek Greenspan's advice.
While most of their exchanges were about the nuts and bolts of the site operation, Zuckerberg occasionally revealed ambitions that were far beyond the scale of his classmates'. His new social network, he wrote, would do more than "get people signed up" and "get people psyched."
His goal was to create something new, something that touched a deeper need.
But Zuckerberg had no interest in giving Greenspan any credit for creating Facebook, let alone a piece of the action.
In December of 2004, when Greenspan decided to "admit defeat" and ask Zuckerberg for a job at the rapidly expanding company, all those months of advice proved worthless.
The guy who first created an online facebook for
Harvard couldn't even get a job at Facebook.
College students, it seemed, were eager to use Zuckerberg's invention obsessively, to share their most personal details online and stalk each other virtually, diving into Facebook with unbridled enthusiasm.
Facebook immediately set itself apart from other social-networking sites by creating a high bar of entry - users had to have an e-mail address from its roster of elite schools.
This ensured that users registered as themselves, instead of as the anonymous identities that proliferated on MySpace and Friendster. Its stripped-down design and user-friendly interface also added to its cachet.
It is not superior programming that sets Facebook apart, but what Zuckerberg likes to call "elegant organization": the site's ability to organize social desires, to create a clean, virtual reflection of real-life relationships.
But Zuckerberg's burgeoning success online did little to stop him from burning those closest to him in real life.
After school ended, he packed a bag and took a plane to California. In his eyes, Silicon Valley was "sort of a mythical place for a startup." Taking a leave of absence from Harvard, like Bill Gates before him, Zuckerberg moved to Palo Alto in the summer of 2004. His goal was to take his extraordinarily popular Website to the next level. He and Saverin each agreed to invest another $20,000 in the operation. While Zuckerberg was in California, Saverin stayed behind in New York.
That decision would prove ill-advised.
Asked later to describe that period, he summed up his days succinctly:
Stephen Haggerty, who had just finished his freshman year at Harvard, applied for an internship with Facebook that summer.
Most of the time, he recalls, everyone in the house would wake up late and stay up late, programming from noon until 5 a.m.
The roommates shopped at Costco and went to Home Depot, where they bought whiteboards to map code.
One day, on a spontaneous urge, they spent $100 on a zip line, which they strung from the chimney of their house to a telephone pole, allowing them to plunge into the swimming pool below. They drank beer and listened to bands like Green Day and Infected Mushroom on the computer speakers.
But things never got out of hand - mainly because Zuckerberg was more intent on fostering other people's social lives than developing his own.
When he wasn't programming, Zuckerberg watched epics like Gladiator and quoted frequently from one of his favorite movies, The Wedding Crashers.
His parents sent him his fencing foils, and he
spent a day happily thrusting them at his friends, like some crazed Jedi
knight, until they banned swordplay in the house.
A few months earlier, Parker had been visiting his girlfriend at Stanford when he noticed that she and all her friends were using a new site called Facebook. Parker says that he sensed the potential and arranged to meet Zuckerberg and Saverin in New York at a stylish Chinese restaurant.
Saverin brought his girlfriend, and the four sat
for a few hours while Parker regaled them with stories of raising big money
Part of that statement was that Zuckerberg didn't plan on surrendering his identity. He wore his signature Adidas shower shoes and T‑shirts everywhere.
Parker was proud of him for turning down offers to sell Facebook:
Parker didn't need to worry - Zuckerberg wasn't going to let that happen.
In July, Zuckerberg and Saverin had a mysterious falling out. Zuckerberg has filed a lawsuit, claiming Saverin jeopardized the company by freezing Facebook's bank accounts. Saverin countersued, claiming that Zuckerberg never matched his $20,000 in seed money and, further, used that money for personal expenses.
That summer, Zuckerberg transferred all
intellectual-property rights and membership interests to a new version of
the company in Delaware. The value of Saverin's stock was unhinged from any
further growth of Facebook, and Saverin was expunged as an employee.
Saverin, Winklevoss said in a deposition, apologized to him.
The lesson to those around Zuckerberg was clear: Nobody, not even the college roommate who had once been his closest confidant, was going to stand in his way.
By December 2004, Facebook was well on its way to everywhere. Only 10 months after its launch, the site had 1 million users.
Back at Harvard, Lawrence Summers told entering
freshmen that he had gotten to know them through their profiles on Facebook.
The student who had once been threatened with expulsion for posting pirated
photos of fellow students had succeeded in altering Harvard's entire
Although Parker was never charged and denies possessing any narcotics, Zuckerberg told a courtroom Parker was busted for cocaine possession and was lousy at running a business.
Even the cofounder of Napster wasn't good enough
for the upstart kid from Harvard.
He carried two business cards: a plain one with just his name and another that read "I'm CEO... Bitch."
He insisted to anyone who would listen that he wasn't in it for the money.
But that didn't stop Zuckerberg from pursuing his vision of Facebook as a onestop social utility with global domination of the marketplace.
Last November, he presented advertisers with a new program called Beacon that would enable large retailers to access a shopper's Facebook page. Suddenly, a purchase of budget furniture on Overstock.com would show up as part of a user's Facebook identity. For the first time, Zuckerberg told those assembled, advertising would become an integral part of social interaction online.
His goal, he told them, was simple: to start a revolution.
Tapping those connections, he added, was the key to advertising's future.
Beacon's glory was fleeting, however.
Users revolted, protesting the invasion of privacy, and Zuckerberg apologized. Still, his bold plans persuaded Microsoft to invest $240 million in Facebook, valuing the company at $15 billion - a staggering figure, considering that the site's total revenues last year were only $150 million.
But as more and more money has poured into Facebook, more and more of Zuckerberg's inner circle have left.
His Harvard roommate Chris Hughes went to
work for Barack Obama. His roommate from Exeter, Adam D'Angelo, left in May.
Rumors swirl that Dustin Moskovitz is fed up. Eduardo Saverin has sued the
company for forcing him out.
Facebook has countersued, accusing Harvard Connection of unfair business practices.
But the fight has grown increasingly ugly. Harvard Connection's lawyers accuse Facebook of playing a "shell game" with the hard drives, of hiding the code used to create Facebook.
When the drives finally resurfaced, key data from Zuckerberg's Harvard days had mysteriously gone missing.
While Facebook has morphed into the world's sixth-most-visited site, ConnectU ranks 377,920th.
Divya Narendra works for an investment firm in New York. The Winklevoss twins continue to row, training for the Olympics. On his Facebook page, Tyler Winklevoss has written that he is about to settle the lawsuit against Zuckerberg, but he has yet to do so. The epic and never-ending nature of all the legal wrangling seems to suggest that, at least for those who feel screwed over by Zuckerberg, the battle over Facebook is ultimately about more than money.
On the site, Winklevoss describes himself with a quote from Shakespeare's Richard II.
In the end, it's difficult to assess whether Zuckerberg's creation of Facebook constitutes a crime.
Sometimes, great ideas seem to be everywhere at once. Newton and Leibniz independently developed the fundamentals of calculus, creating controversy at the turn of the 18th century; Darwin and Wallace rolled out the theory of evolution in separate papers in 1858.
In October 2003, when Mark Zuckerberg sat down in his dorm at Harvard, drunk and alone, the idea of using the Web to connect people seemed as pervasive as iPods on the campus quad. The school already had an online database known as the facebook. All Zuckerberg did was make it interactive. The fact that a couple of other students had the same idea at the same moment doesn't mean he is a thief.
And the fact that many consider Zuckerberg a grade-A asshole doesn't mean he did anything illegal.
Zuckerberg likes to present himself as an altruistic, harmless computer geek who invented a widget that will make the world a better place.
But unlike most nerds, Zuckerberg possesses gifts beyond the narrow realm of programming, the monomaniacal processing of ones and zeroes.
Even his fiercest critics concede that he is more Donald Trump than slacker dork, someone with an almost ruthless taste for battle - and a sharklike ability to keep moving forward, whatever the obstacles.
Like Trump, Zuckerberg has left a string of broken relationships in his wake - a track record that raises questions about his ability to manage the company he founded. It's one thing to stumble across the Next Big Thing one night in your dorm room.
It's another thing to build it into a new kind of empire, one with the potential to dwarf even the Wal-Marts of the world: an online monopoly of virtual communities.