The Harvard University dormitory where Facebook was born is a red brick and ivy-draped campus castle that, beyond just being a place to sleep and study, has long prided itself as a community of the best and the brightest.
But Kirkland House, where a curly haired 19-year-old prodigy named Mark Zuckerberg hid out in his room for a week writing the computer code that would eventually redefine the way people interact on the Internet, is wary of threats to its sanctuary. “Do not copy or lend your key to anyone,” it instructs residents. “Do not allow anyone access to the House unless you know him/her.”
Ever since Zuckerberg dropped out at the end of his sophomore year, he has worked to create an online world where such rules no longer apply.
Facebook, the world’s largest social networking site with 500 million users, began as a tool for communication between people who knew each other and were bound by shared and exclusive interests. Zuckerberg required those signing up to have a Harvard e-mail address, months after the university nearly expelled him for hacking its computers and jolting the campus with a site that encouraged students to rank their classmates’ looks.
That site, called Facemash, made fast enemies. But with its successor, Zuckerberg vastly expanded what it means to make friends.
Zuckerberg, now 26, has built Facebook into an international phenomenon by stretching the lines of social convention and embracing a new and far more permeable definition of community. In this new world, users are able, with a few keystrokes, to construct a social network well beyond what would ever be possible face-to-face. Users are encouraged to disclose personal information freely, offering up the stuff of everyday life as material worthy of the biggest stage. In Zuckerberg’s world, the greatest status is conferred on those who “friend” others fast and frequently, even those they have never met.
“I’m trying to make the world a more open place,” Zuckerberg says in the “bio” line of his own Facebook page.
Last week, ready or not, the publicity-shy wunderkind, whose own story has largely escaped the public’s attention despite widespread fascination with the network he created, is being forced into the open in a way far beyond his control.
Hollywood laid out its version of his story Friday in a movie called “The Social Network.” The script by Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”) depicts Zuckerberg as a socially inept and intellectually corrupt genius, fighting wars with both friends and rivals for the right to call Facebook his own.
The movie comes a week after Zuckerberg, in the last chance to shape his image independently, appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show to announce to Americans a $100 million donation to the long-troubled Newark, New Jersey, school system, casting himself as the nation’s brightest young face of philanthropy.
“When you look at the gift to Newark, what it demonstrates is his recognizing that he can’t leave it to the movie to define his image to the general public, because he has no image,” says David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, a book chronicling Zuckerberg’s story, which was written with the cooperation of the man and his company.
Central to this tale: the contradiction between the blank slate that is Zuckerberg, and his campaign to get people to bare their souls via Facebook.
A Facebook spokesman, Larry Yu, said Zuckerberg would not agree to an interview to talk about himself. That reluctance, he acknowledges, contributes to the vacuum that is the CEO’s public persona.
“He is a shy guy, no question about it,” Yu said. “He does not like doing press stuff. What excites him is building things.”
Yu said Zuckerberg was not trying to seize control of his image with the donation to Newark. Company public relations staff had warned him to delay the announcement because it would be seen as a ploy, he said. Zuckerberg decided to go ahead despite that possibility, because the timing suited city and state officials and the producers of “Oprah,” Yu said.
Zuckerberg, who grew up in the New York suburb of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., in a hilltop house where his father still runs a first-floor dental practice, was a programming prodigy. He began writing code at 10 on an Atari computer his dad bought, devising games and having friends do the graphics. As a senior at Phillips Exeter Academy, he and a friend created a Web tool called Synapse that built personalized music playlists by automatically determining listener’s preferences. Microsoft reportedly offered the pair nearly $1 million, but they turned it down.
Exactly what happened after he got to Harvard in 2003 depends on who is doing the recounting. Soon after he arrived, Zuckerberg created a site called Coursematch that allowed students to choose classes by showing what their classmates were doing. Then, in the fall of his sophomore year, he hacked into the online “facebooks” of Harvard’s residential halls to create Facemash.
“The Kirkland facebook is open on my computer desktop and some of these people have pretty horrendous facebook pics. I almost want to put some of these faces next to pictures of farm animals and have people vote on which is more attractive,” Zuckerberg wrote at the time, in his online journal.
The university’s Administrative Board called him in for a hearing but let him remain at the school. Zuckerberg told the Harvard Crimson student newspaper that criticism of the site had made him rethink its viability.
“Issues about violating people’s privacy don’t seem to be surmountable,” he said in an e-mail to the Crimson. “I’m not willing to risk insulting anyone.”
In early 2004, former classmates say, the normally sociable Zuckerberg all but vanished for a week, emerging from his room to urge his friends to join a new creation called The Facebook.
Stephanie Camaglia Reznick, then a freshman at Harvard who was the 92nd to sign up, says Zuckerberg fast gained notoriety. When she arrived for the first day of a discussion group for an introductory psychology class, eyebrows went up when Zuckerberg’s turn came to introduce himself.
“Someone said, ‘Great, you’re the Facebook guy!’ And he was so embarrassed,” says Reznick, now a medical student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. “He really played it down.”
Classmate James Oliver recalls a conversation in the dorm soon after, when Zuckerberg – Oliver and others still refer to him as “Zuck” — explained that he had worked to launch Facebook quickly to show up a Harvard administrator who had said a universitywide online directory would take two years to create. By the end of the semester, Facebook had nearly 160,000 users.
Oliver, who now lives in Los Angeles, calls Zuckerberg the smartest person he met at Harvard.
“People were making jokes in freshman and sophomore years that all the humanities majors were going to ask to be Zuck’s gardeners when he became rich and famous,” he said.
But three fellow Harvard students quickly took issue with Zuckerberg’s creation. Identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and friend Divya Narendra said they had hired Zuckerberg to write computer code for their own social networking site in November 2003, and that he had stolen their idea.
“I worked with the expectation that I would be included in the overall development of the project but found that I was being subjected to demands on my time without truly being made a part of the development team,” Zuckerberg wrote Cameron Winklevoss in a February 2004 e-mail, later quoted in a lawsuit filed by the trio.
The dispute over Facebook’s beginnings, which the company settled by paying the trio $65 million, is far from unique. Inventors have been fighting to take credit for technology’s biggest ideas since at least the telephone, says Paul Saffo, a longtime Silicon Valley forecaster.
“Being first is heavily overrated in the technology space because all really good ideas end up being collaborative,” says Saffo, of the San Francisco analysis firm Discern. “Ideas are cheap. It’s the execution that matters. And if you look at where Facebook is now compared to where it started, it’s a very difficult comparison. … I wouldn’t give a whole lot of credence to people who are showing up and claiming credit.”
In the summer after his sophomore year, Zuckerberg left Harvard for a rented house in Silicon Valley to build Facebook, expanding it to other campuses and then across the globe with venture funding from Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal. Each time it seemed to plateau, Zuckerberg revamped it to create new utility and sources of entertainment. He turned down an offer from Yahoo! to buy the company for $1 billion.
As it has grown into a phenomenon, Facebook has repeatedly sparked privacy concerns from critics concerned about its push to get users to reveal more personal information. But Zuckerberg, the face of Facebook, has offered up relatively little about himself.
The bubble was breached in 2007 when a now defunct magazine for Harvard alumni called 02138 published a lengthy story about the dispute over Facebook’s beginnings. The magazine obtained court files that were supposed to have been sealed and posted documents on its website, including Zuckerberg’s application to Harvard and long-ago postings from his online journal. Facebook sued, seeking a court order to have the documents removed.
“They shed some insight into Zuckerberg which he clearly did not want people to see,” said Richard Bradley, who was the executive editor of the magazine. “Our lawyer conveyed to us the strong sense from his communication with Facebook’s law firm that Facebook’s lawyers were not entirely enthusiastic about pursuing this litigation, but that Zuckerberg himself was livid.”
Facebook’s request was denied and the documents circulated freely on the Web, with little other information available to counter the portrait of Zuckerberg they offered. Some of those who know him say the perceptions are misguided. He had plenty of friends at Harvard and was a regular at parties, former classmates said. Rather than being some kind of evil genius, his success was based on the fact that he liked people and was liked in return, which helped him understand what online tools would appeal to fellow students.
Kirkpatrick, who wrote the book on Facebook, said first impressions of Zuckerberg can be misleading. He recalled the first time they met in the fall of 2006 at midtown Manhattan restaurant Il Gatorade, where the menu includes a $44 entree of grilled Piedmonts strip loin with Italian arugula. Zuckerberg walked in wearing sandals and a T-shirt. He offered little in the way of small talk.
When Zuckerberg started laying out his ideas about Facebook and his determination to keep reinventing it, however, Kirkpatrick said his brilliance was undeniable.
“His motivation is to change the world,” Kirkpatrick says.
Still, it is not clear that describes the entirety of the man. The movie presents Zuckerberg not just as ultra-intelligent, but as motivated largely by personal insecurities. For two hours in a dark theater, it offers an adrenaline-charged journey with a warped computer-age Aladdin driven to keep unleashing new genies from a bottle.
“Well, you can’t deny it’s a good movie,” Kirkpatrick said, as the lights came up in a screening room last week and the final credits rolled. Maybe. But is the character on the screen the real Zuckerberg?
“It wasn’t even close,” he said.