In late July, Facebook reached another milestone, surpassing 500 million users. In reporting his recent book, The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World, David Kirkpatrick received unprecedented access to the company and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg. He says that, in addition to other factors, Facebook’s founders succeeded largely because of their unique vision.
BOB GARFIELD: Fall movie season begins just after Labor Day, and one much anticipated release set for October 1st is the first cinematic treatment of the story of Facebook, David Fincher’s The Social Network.
RASHIDA JONES AS MARYLIN DELPY: The site got 2200 hits within two hours?
JESSE EISENBERG AS MARK ZUCKERBERG: Thousand, 22,000.
BOB GARFIELD: Late last month, Facebook surpassed 500 million users worldwide. Much has been written about the origins of the company founded by Mark Zuckerberg. Still, Facebook’s meteoric rise was not inevitable, as the lesser fortunes of MySpace and the demise of Friendster surely prove. David Kirkpatrick is the author of the recently released The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World. He joins me now. David, welcome to On the Media.
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Thanks, Bob, good to be with you.
BOB GARFIELD: So let's start with Facebook’s special sauce. It wasn't the first social network. Why is it the globally dominant one?
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: I think the single biggest reason is that it’s based on genuine identity. In other words, you use your real name on Facebook. And though that seems so kind of familiar now, after Facebook’s dominance has lasted now for several years, it was really quite revolutionary when Facebook launched. There’s another significant difference that I think really plays a big role in why Facebook trumped MySpace and Friendster, in particular. And that is that Mark Zuckerberg is really – you know, young as he was, he was a real computer scientist. And being a computer scientist, he had that sort of iterative desire to continually improve his service from a technology point of view, but he also had that Andy Grove point of view, “Only the paranoid survive,” so he never rested-
BOB GARFIELD: Andy Grove, one of the founders of uh –
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: - of Intel and, you know, one of the great leaders of the technology industry, who famously said, “Only the paranoid survive,” and wrote a book about that. But Friendster and MySpace were both led by literally party guys, people who felt that, you know, it was great to have a site where, you know, guys could meet gals and vice versa, etc. And MySpace was initially promoted in nightclubs. Friendster was explicitly, by its founder, said to be trying to copy Match.com or BestMatch.com, in certain ways. Facebook was always intended to be a service to communicate with people you already knew in the real world, and that has been its sort of DNA from the beginning.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so in 217 words or less, take us through the evolution of Facebook.
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Well, the real roots go back to the summer of 2003, when Zuckerberg, who was between his freshman and sophomore year at Harvard, spent the summer jawboning with his computer science friends. And they all came to the conclusion that the world was becoming more transparent, that the Internet was becoming more social and that information being shared by people more freely was going to become one of the most important things the Internet was going to facilitate. So Zuckerberg built this thing called Course Match [the] first week of school, which was an attempt to help Harvard students find who was gonna be in their classes, so they could pick their courses accordingly. Then a few weeks later he very famously created this thing called Facemash, which was uh, notorious and almost got him seriously disciplined, and maybe even expelled, it was a hot or not kind of site that allowed you to look at two photos and vote on which was the hotter of the two. And he took those photos from the Harvard house databases and got in trouble for that. Zuckerberg, in early February, 2004, launched Facebook at Harvard. It was called TheFacebook at the time. And really all it was from the beginning and, interestingly, all it really still is to this day was a platform, a piece of software where all the content was created by the members. It was a huge hit. Within about a month I think it had maybe 2500, 4,000 Harvard community students and faculty and alumni in it. It began to expand right around that time, about a month old, to uh, Yale, Columbia and Stanford. But when Mark’s sophomore year ended in May of 2004, Facebook was at 30 universities, had about 100,000 members.
BOB GARFIELD: And by its very nature just grew exponentially, like the world’s greatest chain letter.
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: But even though they grew exponentially, another key to their success, interestingly, was that they were able to gait their growth. In other words, most Internet companies have this problem that if they're too successful, too fast, they find themselves overwhelmed with usage and they sometimes get a really bad reputation.
BOB GARFIELD: They don't have the server capacity, like Friendster - that happened.
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Twitter, recently.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah.
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Twitter was down for like four hours just last week. So Facebook had this weird ability to gait its own growth by not opening at new universities until it was ready. And that gave them this ability never to really have a reputation of being unreliable. And even to this day, Facebook is astonishingly reliable.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, The Facebook Effect, the book you've written, is not the untold story, you know, filled with all sort of delicious, salacious [LAUGHS] gossip. You turn out to be rather admiring of the company, and of Zuckerberg. You think he’s well intended and has been true to his vision.
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: I would say, number one, I admire him simply because of the scale of his achievement, at age 26 to have created a service that this year will have 1.5 billion, thereabouts, in revenue, 500 million active users already in literally every country in the planet. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find another 26-year-old who’s had that kind of impact. But I think also it’s true, I’d consider his motives to be quite impressive, that his goal is to really change the world. And, in fact, he’s one of a small group of people who really think the way to create social revolution is through software.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I saw a review of your book in The Washington Post, which kind of praised you with faint damn. The damn was that you didn't dig up enough dirt, that you didn't find enough fault, that you didn't locate enough conflict. How say you to that charge?
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Well, I'd say let somebody else write that book. I mean, I am absolutely convinced of the importance of Facebook, so I wasn't going to like devote tons of pages to people who said Facebook doesn't matter, because to me that’s meaningless gibberish. I'm not a Mark Zuckerberg groupie here. Just think about the fact that probably 80 percent of your listeners to this program are gonna be members of Facebook. That’s an impressive thing [LAUGHS], let's face it.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I, I may have buried the lede here, because your book is called The Facebook Effect. We know about how Facebookers helped to lobby to get Betty White [LAUGHS] to host Saturday Night Live, and we know there was a worldwide march against the uh, FARC in Colombia, the rallying place for which was Facebook. Have I just described the Facebook effect?
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Yes, I believe the Colombian anti-FARC demonstration was probably the single most dramatic example of what I call the Facebook effect. But what I mean is that there is a set of things that are happening in the world because of the existence of this viral distribution channel which makes each member a broadcaster. And those impacts are being felt in politics, in government, in media, in marketing, in business, in our personal relations, in our sense of privacy. Some of those things actually were starting to happen because of the Internet itself, but Facebook, because it effectively gives everyone their own Web page with their own name attached, and this incredible broadcasting capability to their friends, does have unique capabilities that have dramatic effects. And that’s what I call the Facebook effect.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, David. Well, thank you so much.
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Well, thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: David Kirkpatrick is the author of The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World.