Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of the social media site Facebook, is 28 years old and a college dropout. But he is one of the richest people in the United States with a net worth of approximately $14.7 billion, down as a result of a bungled IPO effort in May 2012, but way ahead of Apple’s Steve Jobs ($8.3 billion) and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt ($5.45 billion). His Internet success has inspired hundreds of Silicon Valley wannabes to try to duplicate it and lured more than 900 million people worldwide to open a Facebook account and start “friending.” Mark Zuckerberg, a computer programmer with a dorm-room idea, has virtually changed the way the United States—and the rest of the world—communicates. Facebook is the most visited site on the Internet, piling up more than 1 trillion page views per month by mid-2011.
In 2003, when he was a sophomore at Harvard, Zuckerberg created a program that would let people vote on photos of the best-looking people on campus, something he called “Facemash.” In a bit of guerilla computing, he hacked the facebooks compiled by Harvard houses of new students and pulled the photos. Then he asked students to compare pictures and vote on which person looked hotter. Facemash was such a hit that it overwhelmed Harvard’s server. The university promptly shut it down, calling the site “inappropriate” and discriminatory. But Facemash morphed into thefacebook, then Facebook by 2004, a site that would let people connect, talk with friends, and post photos. It had 1 million users by the end of the year and more than 5 million by the next year. Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard to run it. MTV, Yahoo, and Microsoft offered big bucks to buy it and Zuckerberg turned them all down.
When Facebook went public on the Nasdaq in May, it was anticipated that Zuckerberg would not only be a young billionaire but one of the richest people in the world. But it does not seem to be money that motivates him, even as the money piles up and he makes headlines with donations like the $100 million he gave to the Newark, New Jersey, public schools in 2010 (announcing it himself on the Oprah Winfrey show). It does not seem to be power that motivates him either, though he is arguably one of the most powerful people on the planet. Time magazine thought so, putting him on the cover in 2010 as Person of the Year. Though he seems to have a healthy ego, Zuckerberg is, by his own admission, shy and socially awkward. He wears pretty much the same outfit day after day even in Facebook’s Palo Alto, California, headquarters: a hoodie, T-shirt, jeans, and Adidas sneakers (GQ magazine voted him “worst-dressed in technology,” beating out Steve Jobs (no. 2) and Bill Gates (no. 3). He does not own a television set and until recently lived in a rented house in Palo Alto. He did not bother going to see the movie made about him (The Social Network) until he heard people liked it. He has had the same girlfriend since 2003, Priscilla Chan, a Chinese-American med student at the University of California. They were married on May 19, 2012, the day after the Facebook IPO.
Author Zadie Smith, reviewing The Social Network film in the New York Review of Books, suggested that, like others branded as geeks and nerds, Zuckerberg just wants to be liked. On Facebook, he has millions of fans but, he told the New Yorker, he counts just 837 of them as friends (some of the Mark Zuckerbergs on Facebook are fakes posted by Zuckerberg imposters, as is often the case with celebrity accounts). In person, apparently, Zuckerberg can be charming, but he is remarkably affectless in speeches and interviews, a “social ‘autistic,’ ” as Smith says. His profile on Facebook says he is interested in “openness, making things that help people connect and share what’s important to them, revolutions, information flow, minimalism” (there used to be one more listing—“eliminating desire for all that doesn’t really matter”—but it seems to have been removed).
The digital revolution underway is changing American and world culture from the bottom up. Ordinary people are empowered by the Internet and social media to express themselves without interference from editors or gatekeepers, and for free. News moves faster on Twitter and Facebook than trained journalists can get to the scene and report the news. Protests materialize and flash mobs are summoned to city squares through online messaging. The Arab Spring of 2011 in which longtime rulers were toppled was partly fueled by the Internet, even as authoritarian regimes everywhere tried to shut it down. Facebook, with a population bigger than a small country, is blocked in China, where a government-approved copycat version is all that is available. Syria, Pakistan, Iran, and Egypt have all banned Facebook at times in attempt to control the populace, but so popular and so powerful are social media that users still find a way around these bans.
As the world moves into the 21st century, it seems clear that the digital revolution is as game changing as the printing press was 500 years ago. No one is quite sure what the move to digital will lead to or what changes it will bring. Right now, print journalism and the publishing industry are facing the most brutal and immediate changes as news goes online, books turn into e-books, and newspapers and bookstores go out of business. The post office is going broke as online communication makes it obsolete. Meanwhile, brick-and-mortar businesses compete with Internet merchants for customers.
Digital natives, those born into the world of the Internet, iPhone, and Facebook at the end of the 20th century in the 1980s and 1990s, will lead the way for all the digital immigrants, born to an analog world, who are still learning how to negotiate this new territory. The demographic of Facebook skews young, unsurprisingly. In 2010, 65 percent of Facebook users were of ages 13 to 34, with 35 percent of users 35 to 55 and older, according to Facebook figures. There are more women of any age on Facebook than there are men, but only about 50 percent of Facebook users actually log on every day to update their status, post photos, and chat with “friends,” whether long lost high school buddies, the newly “friended,” or as “fans” of brand or business.
That is, essentially, the whole point of Facebook, connectivity. It allows people to connect with friends and relatives from their past and, not incidentally, to present themselves as they would like to be seen and known. The opportunity to talk about oneself is irresistible, especially when there’s a captive audience like all those friends on Facebook. The Internet allows people to assume a more rehearsed public identity or an entirely new identity. This is apparently so tempting on Facebook that the site is continually trying to weed out the fake and the fraudulent. Opening a Facebook account is simple and free. People post a profile of themselves and can write a short message on their “Wall” or on that of another person, gradually building their status by requesting to “friend” others, searching for friends on social media, e-mail, and other contacts they already have. Or, they can “unfriend” some of them. Using Facebook privacy settings, they can block whomever they wish from seeing their Facebook page. This becomes crucial when college admissions officers and prospective employers, who frequently do screen candidates on Facebook, might see some compromising photos or messages. Something about Facebook invites people—U.S. congressmen as well as younger Facebook users—to reveal their most intimate secrets online.
In 2010, Facebook added “Places,” a location-based option people could use to share where they were. But hardly anyone actually used it, perhaps for fear they were tipping off robbers that they were not home or because they were not where they said they would be. Facebook dropped “Places” in 2011. The biggest issue for Facebook has been privacy. Anything people post on the Internet is there, accessible virtually forever and archived in the Library of Congress and on Google. Nonetheless, Facebook has encouraged users to post as much personal information and photos as they can, the more the better, perhaps to lure advertisers with more customer information. These posts were accessible to anyone on the site unless the user opted out by navigating a complex series of moves on Facebook settings. In 2011, finally, Facebook moved to add better privacy controls.
A competitor to Facebook is Twitter, the social network (or online watercooler as some call it) that works on texts of 140 characters—“tweets”—to communicate anything the user wants, from what she had for breakfast to the latest news, contributing to an age of oversharing. It was instantly and enormously popular right from the beginning in 2006 when Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams came up with the idea, based on the short messaging system used by messengers and taxi drivers. Five years into its existence, Twitter has more than 200 million users and is the virtual first responder for breaking news around the world, from terrorist attacks to earthquakes to the latest overthrown dictator in the Middle East. As mobile devices like smartphones and iPads increasingly take over from the personal computer, the ease and brevity of communicating on Twitter have helped keep it going. Twitter is used more as a supplement to Facebook activity and as a way for users to keep track of their “followers,” competing to build up their numbers. Businesses and entrepreneurs have found Twitter invaluable as a quick way to promote their wares.
Zuckerberg was still in middle school when Google got started in 1996. Now, Facebook is the second most visited site on the Internet after Google, its biggest competitor. Google, the online search engine with its own e-mail and location services, has just started Google+ in an attempt to appropriate some of Facebook’s success as a social network. Launching Google+ in the summer of 2011, an invitation-only social media site, Google offered the same photo and sharing opportunities that Facebook does, with some improved features that allow for group discussions (“Hangout”) and another (“Huddle”) that allows chat among several people on their cell phones. Google+ has a long way to go as a social network to catch up with 900 million Facebook accounts, however. Its earlier attempt, Google Buzz, has never caught fire and lurks on the sidelines.
Mark Zuckerberg, for all his success, also has his detractors and his enemies. The Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler, his classmates at Harvard, sued Zuckerberg early on, claiming he stole their idea (called the “Harvard Connection”) for a social network that he had worked on with them. Though Zuckerberg claimed that his network was totally different from theirs, which emphasized dating, he still paid up and settled, to the tune of $65 million (“a parking ticket,” he said). Eduardo Saverin, a Harvard classmate of Zuckerberg, who had helped him start Facebook, successfully sued him to be recognized as a cofounder.
The Social Network movie about Facebook, made in 2010 and based on the book, The Accidental Millionaires, by Ben Mezrich, depicts Zuckerberg as oblivious and hard-hearted with his friends, like Saverin and the Winklevoss twins. Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay, defends it, saying some of the film is “storytelling.” Mark Zuckerberg’s reaction to the film? “It was interesting,” he allowed. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, said she thought it was very Hollywood and “mainly fiction”: “In real life, he [Zuckerberg] was just sitting around with his friends in front of his computer, ordering pizza,” she said. “Who wants to go see that for two hours?” Directed by David Fincher, the film won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three, for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score.
Mark Elliot Zuckerberg was born on May 14, 1984, in White Plains, New York, to Edward Zuckerberg, a dentist, and his wife Karen, a psychiatrist. Their second child, he grew up in Dobbs Ferry, New York, along with his three sisters, Randi, Donna, and Arielle, and was educated at Philips Exeter Academy where he won prizes in classical studies and science. On his college applications, he listed his languages as Latin, ancient Greek, French, and Hebrew (he claimed that his accent was so bad that he chose ancient languages he did not have to speak). Zuckerberg started writing software in middle school, and his father taught him BASIC programming and hired a tutor to help him. In high school, he built something called the Synapse Media Player that used artificial intelligence to discern the user’s listening habits and post them to the Web site Slashdot. Microsoft and AOL tried to buy it and hire him, but Zuckerberg turned them down.
His creativity exploded at Harvard. In his sophomore year, he came up with another software program, CourseMatch, which would let students pick courses according to who else—especially girls—was taking them. Zuckerberg, along with his roommate, Dustin Moskovitz, and a friend, Chris Hughes, introduced Facebook from a dorm room on February 4, 2004, expanding it that year beyond Harvard to Ivy League schools and others. When school let out, he and his roommate and some friends decided to go out to California for the summer. They established an office for Facebook in Palo Alto, and by the end of the summer, they had decided not to return to Harvard. Venture capitalists took notice and started to invest in the small company.
Today, Mark Zuckerberg is CEO of Facebook, a Palo Alto corporation with some 1,400 employees and revenues of more than $1 billion from advertising.
Cross, Mary. Bloggerati, Twitterati: How Blogs and Twitter Are Transforming Popular Culture. Westport: Praeger, 2011.
Kirkpatrick, David. The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.
Mezrich, Ben. Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal. New York: Doubleday, 2009.
The Social Network. Dir. David Fincher. Screenplay, Aaron Sorkin. Columbia Pictures, October 2010.