“We have opened up Thefacebook for popular consumption at Harvard University.”
Sophomore Mark Zuckerberg arrived at his dorm room in Harvard’s Kirkland House in September 2003 dragging an eight-foot-long whiteboard, the geek’s consummate brainstorming tool. It was big and unwieldy, like some of the ideas he would diagram there. There was only one wall of the four-person suite long enough to hold it—the one in the hallway on the way to the bedrooms. Zuckerberg, a computer science major, began scribbling away.
The wall became a tangle of formulas and symbols sprouting multicolored lines that wove this way and that. Zuckerberg would stand in the hall staring at it all, marker in hand, squeezing against the wall if someone needed to get by. Sometimes he would back into a bedroom doorway to get a better look. “He really loved that whiteboard,” recalls Dustin Moskovitz, one of Zuckerberg’s three suite-mates. “He always wanted to draw out his ideas, even when that didn’t necessarily make them clearer.” Lots of his ideas were for new services on the Internet. He spent endless hours writing software code, regardless of how much noncomputing classwork he might have. Sleep was never a priority. If he wasn’t at the whiteboard he was hunched over the PC at his desk in the common room, hypnotized by the screen. Beside it was a jumble of bottles and wadded-up food wrappers he hadn’t bothered to toss.
Right away that first week, Zuckerberg cobbled together Internet software he called Course Match, an innocent enough project. He did it just for fun. The idea was to help students pick classes based on who else was taking them. You could click on a course to see who was signed up, or click on a person to see the courses he or she was taking. If a cute girl sat next to you in Topology, you could look up next semester’s Differential Geometry course to see if she had enrolled in that as well, or you could just look under her name for the courses she had enrolled in. As Zuckerberg said later, with a bit of pride at his own prescience, “you could link to people through things.” Hundreds of students immediately began using Course Match. The status-conscious students of Harvard felt very differently about a class depending on who was in it. Zuckerberg had written a program they wanted to use.
Mark Zuckerberg was a short, slender, intense introvert with curly brown hair whose fresh freckled face made him look closer to fifteen than the nineteen he was. His uniform was baggy jeans, rubber sandals—even in winter—and a T-shirt that usually had some sort of clever picture or phrase. One he was partial to during this period portrayed a little monkey and read “Code Monkey.” He could be quiet around strangers, but that was deceiving. When he did speak, he was wry. His tendency was to say nothing until others fully had their say. He stared. He would stare at you while you were talking, and stay absolutely silent. If you said something stimulating, he’d finally fire up his own ideas and the words would come cascading out. But if you went on too long or said something obvious, he would start looking through you. When you finished, he’d quietly mutter “yeah,” then change the subject or turn away. Zuckerberg is a highly deliberate thinker and rational to the extreme. His handwriting is well ordered, meticulous, and tiny, and he sometimes uses it to fill notebooks with lengthy deliberations.
Girls were drawn to his mischievous smile. He was seldom without a girlfriend. They liked his confidence, his humor, and his irreverence. He typically wore a contented expression on his face that seemed to say “I know what I’m doing.” Zuck, as he was known, had an air about him that everything would turn out fine, no matter what he did. It certainly had so far.
On his application for admission to Harvard two years earlier, he could barely fit all the honors and awards he’d won in high school—prizes in math, astronomy, physics, and classical languages. It also noted he was captain and most valuable player on the fencing team and could read and write French, Hebrew, Latin, and ancient Greek. (His accent was awful, so he preferred ancient languages he didn’t have to speak, he told people with typical dry humor.) Harvard’s rarefied social status was neither intimidating nor unfamiliar. He’d attended the elite Phillips Exeter Academy, where you are expected to proceed to the Ivy League. He’d transferred there as a kind of lark. He’d gotten bored after two years at a public high school in Dobbs Ferry, New York, north of New York City.
Zuckerberg is the second-oldest of four children of a dentist father and a psychologist mother, and the only boy. The family home, though the largest in the neighborhood, remains modest. Its dental office in the basement is dominated by a giant aquarium. The elder Zuckerberg, something of a ham, is known as “painless Dr Z.” His website announces “We cater to cowards,” and a sign outside the home office shows a satirical scene of a wary dental patient. Mark’s sisters, like him, are academic stars. (His older sister Randi is now a senior marketer at Facebook.) From his early years Zuckerberg had a technical bent: the theme of his bar mitzvah was “Star Wars.”
The suite was one of the smallest in Kirkland House. Each of the two bedrooms came with bunk beds and a small desk. Zuckerberg’s roommate was Chris Hughes, a handsome, tow-headed, openly gay literature and history major with an interest in public policy. They dismantled the bunks—it was fairer, they decided, if nobody had to sleep on top. But now the two single beds took up almost all the space. There was hardly room to move. The desk was useless anyway—it was piled high with junk. In the other bedroom was Moskovitz, a hardworking, Brillo-haired economics major who was himself no intellectual slouch, and his roommate, Billy Olson, an amateur thespian with an impish streak.
Each boy had a desk in the common room. In between were a couple of easy chairs. It was, like the entire suite, a mess. Zuckerberg had a habit of accumulating detritus on his desk and nearby tables. He’d finish a beer or a Red Bull, put it down, and there it would stay for weeks. Occasionally Moskovitz’s girlfriend would get fed up and throw out some garbage. Once, when Zuckerberg’s mother visited, she looked around the room embarrassedly and apologized to Moskovitz for her son’s untidiness. “When he was growing up he had a nanny,” she explained.
This warren of tiny rooms on the third floor pushed the boys toward greater intimacy than they might have shared under less constrained conditions. Zuckerberg was by nature blunt, even sometimes brutally honest—a trait he may have acquired from his mother. Though he could be taciturn he was also the leader, simply because he so often started things. A habit of straight talk became the norm in this suite. There weren’t a lot of secrets here. The four got along in part because they knew where each stood. Rather than getting on one another’s nerves, they got into one another’s projects.
The Internet was a perennial theme. Moskovitz, who had little training in computing but a natural penchant for it, kept up a constant repartee with Zuckerberg about what did and did not make sense online, what would or would not make a good website, and what might or might not happen as the Internet continued its inroads into every sphere of modern life. At the beginning of the semester, Hughes had zero interest in computing. But by midyear he too had become fascinated by the constant discussion of programming and the Internet, and started chiming in with his own ideas, as did Moskovitz’s roommate, Olson. As Zuckerberg came up with each new programming project, the other three boys had plenty of opinions on how he should build it.
In the common room of Suite H33 in Kirkland House, Ivy League privilege and high geekdom converged. What happened there turns out not to have been common, but at the time it seemed pretty routine. Zuckerberg was hardly the only entrepreneur beavering away on a business in his dorm room. That wasn’t too noteworthy at Harvard. Down every hall were gifted and privileged children of the powerful.
It’s presumed at Harvard that these kids are the ones who will go on to rule the world. Zuckerberg, Moskovitz, and Hughes were just three eggheads who loved to talk about ideas. They didn’t think much about ruling the world. But from their funky, crowded dorm room would emerge an idea with the power to change it.
Emboldened by the unexpected success of Course Match, Zuckerberg decided to try out some other ideas. His next project, in October, he called Facemash. It gave the Harvard community its first look at his rebellious irreverent side. Its purpose: figure out who was the hottest person on campus. Using the kind of computer code otherwise used to rank chess players (perhaps it could also have been used for fencers), he invited users to compare two different faces of the same sex and say which one was hotter. As your rating got hotter, your picture would be compared to hotter and hotter people.
A journal he kept at the time, which for some reason he posted along with the software, suggests Zuckerberg got onto this jag while upset about a girl. “——— is a bitch. I need to think of something to make to take my mind off her,” he wrote, adding “I’m a little intoxicated, not gonna lie.” Perhaps that pique is what led him to the idea, mused about in the journal, of comparing students to farm animals. Instead, according to the journal, Billy Olson came up with the idea of comparing people to other people and only occasionally putting in a farm animal. By the time the program launched, the animals were gone completely. “Another Beck’s is in order,” Zuckerberg wrote as he continued his Facemash chronicles. The entire project was completed in an eight-hour stretch that ended at 4 A.M., said the journal.
The photos for the Facemash website came from the so-called “facebooks” maintained by each of the Harvard houses where undergraduates live. They were the pictures taken the day students arrived for orientation—the kind of clumsy, awkwardly posed shots almost everyone would prefer to disavow. Zuckerberg cleverly found ways to obtain digital versions from nine of Harvard’s twelve houses. Student newspaper the Harvard Crimson later called it “guerrilla computing.” In most cases he was able to simply hack in over the Web. At Lowell House a friend gave Zuckerberg temporary use of his log-in. (The friend later regretted it.) At another house, Zuckerberg snuck in, plugged an Ethernet cable into the wall, and downloaded names and photos from the house computer network.
The fact that he was doing something slightly illicit gave Zuckerberg little pause. He could be a touch headstrong and liked to stir things up. He didn’t ask permission before proceeding. It’s not that he sets out to break the rules; he just doesn’t pay much attention to them.
He started running the Facemash website on his Internet-connected laptop in mid-afternoon of Sunday, November 2. “Were we let in [to Harvard] for our looks?” the site asked on its home page. “No. Will we be judged by them? Yes.” Zuckerberg emailed links to a few friends, later claiming he had only intended them to test it out and make suggestions. But once people started using it, they apparently couldn’t stop. His “testers” alerted their own friends and Facemash became an instant underground hit.
The Crimsonsomewhat eloquently opined on the appeal of the software afterward, even as its editorial scolded Zuckerberg for “catering to the worst side of Harvard students”: “A peculiarly-squinting senior and that hottie from your Medieval manuscripts section—click! Your blockmate and the kid who always glared at you in Annenberg—click! Your two best friends’ respective significant others—pause…click, click, click!…We Harvard students could indulge our fondness for judging those around us on superficial criteria without ever having to face any of the judged in person.” Yes, it was fun.
One gay resident of a suite near Zuckerberg’s was elated when, in the first hour, his photo was rated most attractive among men. He of course alerted all his own friends, who then started using the site. When Zuckerberg returned to his room at 10 P.M. from a meeting, his laptop was so bogged down with Facemash users that it was freezing up. But neighbors were not the only ones suddenly paying attention to Facemash. Complaints of sexism and racism quickly started circulating among members of two women’s groups—Fuerza Latina and the Association of Harvard Black Women. Quickly the computer services department got involved and turned off Zuckerberg’s Web access. By the time that happened, around 10:30P.M., the site had been visited by 450 students, who had voted on 22,000 pairs of photos.
Zuckerberg was later called before Harvard’s disciplinary Administrative Board, along with the student who’d given him the password at Lowell House, his suite-mate Billy Olson (who, as the online journal noted, had contributed ideas), and Joe Green, a junior who lived in the next suite through the fire door, who had helped out as well. Zuckerberg was accused of violations of the college’s code of conduct in the way the site handled security, copyright, and privacy. The board put him on probation and required him to see a counselor, but decided not to punish the others. If Zuckerberg hadn’t omitted the farm animal photos, he probably wouldn’t have gotten off so lightly. He apologized to the women’s groups, claiming he had mainly thought of the project as a computer science experiment and had no idea it might spread so quickly.
Green’s father, a college professor, happened to be visiting his son the night Zuckerberg was celebrating his comparatively light sentence for Facemash. The sophomore had gone out and bought a bottle of Dom Perignon, which he was exultantly sharing with his Kirkland neighbors. Says Green: “My dad was trying to drill it into Mark’s head that this was a really big deal, that he’d almost gotten suspended. But Mark didn’t want to hear it. My dad came away with the notion that I shouldn’t do any more Zuckerberg projects.” It would later prove to be a very expensive prohibition.
But to everyone else, the episode was a clear sign: Zuckerberg had a knack for making software people couldn’t stop using. That came as little surprise to his roommates. They knew he had even been talking to Microsoft and other companies about selling a program he’d written with a friend as his senior project at Exeter, called Synapse. The software watched what kind of music someone liked so it could suggest other songs. His friends called the program “The Brain” and were especially excited when they heard Zuckerberg might get as much as a million dollars for it. If that happened, they pleaded, could he please buy a large flat-screen TV for the common room?
Zuckerberg kept making little Web programs, like one he created quickly to help himself cram for his Art in the Time of Augustus course. He had barely attended the class all first semester. As the final loomed, he cobbled together a set of screens with art images from the class. He emailed the other class members an invitation to log in and use this study aid and add comments alongside each image. His classmates took his cue. After they all used it, he spent an evening scrutinizing what they’d said about the images. He passed the final. He also wrote a program he called “Six Degrees of Harry Lewis,” an homage to a favorite computer science professor. He used articles in the Harvard Crimson to try to identify relationships between people, and created a whimsical network of connections to Lewis based on these links. You could type in any Harvard student’s name and the software would tell you how they were connected to Professor Lewis.
He also worked on other people’s projects. After the Facemash episode he mended fences with the Association of Harvard Black Women by helping them set up their own website. And he worked for a while with three seniors who aimed to build a dating and socializing site they called Harvard Connection. They had an idea for a service that would tell you about parties and provide discounted admission to nightclubs, among other intended features. But they weren’t programmers. The three, athletic six-foot-five-inch identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winkelvoss, both champion rowers on the crew team, and their friend Divya Narendra sought out Zuckerberg in November after reading about Facemash in the Crimson. They offered to pay him to do the programming for their service.
“I had this hobby of just building these little projects,” says Zuckerberg now. “I had like twelve projects that year. Of course I wasn’t fully committed to any one of them.” Most of them, he says, were about “seeing how people were connected through mutual references.”
Zuckerberg’s interest in building websites with social components had arisen the previous summer. He was living in a dormitory at the Harvard Business School with two Exeter friends, including Adam D’Angelo, with whom he’d developed Synapse, the music suggestion software, and who was now studying computer science at the California Institute of Technology. Another close friend and Harvard computer science major named Kang-Xing Jin lived there, too. All three had lucrative programming jobs they found undemanding, and Zuckerberg had broken up with his girlfriend. There was a lot of time for bull sessions, which tended to center on what kind of software should happen next on the Internet.
D’Angelo had launched a provocative project of his own the previous year from his dorm room at Caltech. Called Buddy Zoo, it invited users to upload their AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) buddy lists to a server and compare them to the lists belonging to people who had also uploaded theirs. You could see who shared which friends, thus illustrating your network of social connections. At the time AIM was the de facto communications tool of American youth (and many adults). Hundreds of thousands of AIM users tried out Buddy Zoo, and it had a brief online celebrity. D’Angelo made no effort to commercialize it, and eventually let it die. But it pointed in a promising direction.
During the winter break, Zuckerberg got deep into coding yet another project. He was particularly eager to get this one done. His bemused friends didn’t pay much more attention to this new project than to all the other sites he had launched that year.
On January 11, Zuckerberg went online and paid Register.com thirty-five dollars to register the web address Thefacebook.com for one year. This site borrowed ideas from Course Match and Facemash as well as from a service called Friendster that Zuckerberg belonged to. Friendster was a social network, a service that invited individuals to create a “profile” of themselves, complete with data about hobbies, tastes in music, and other personal information. On such services people linked their own profiles to those of their friends, thereby identifying their own “social network.”
Friendster, like most social networks up to that time, was primarily intended to help you connect with people for dating. The idea was that you might find romantic material by scrutinizing the friends of your friends. Friendster had taken Harvard by storm the previous year but had fallen from favor after its almost overnight nationwide success led to millions of users. That created technical strains that made it slow and difficult to use. Another, more flashy social network called MySpace had launched the previous August in Los Angeles. It was growing quickly and already had about a million members, though it hadn’t made much of an impression at Harvard.
Harvard had been claiming for many months that it was going to take all the “facebooks” maintained by each House—the ones Zuckerberg had cannibalized for Facemash—and unify them online in searchable form. Studying these photos was a common recreational activity. There was a college-wide printed facebook called the Freshman Register, issued each year, but it only included entering students. Copies were extensively annotated—boys, for instance, would circle photos of the best-looking girls.
Now that students had seen what was possible with Friendster, they wanted an online facebook. It was obvious that it wasn’t that hard to create online directories. If an entrepreneur in San Francisco could do it, why couldn’t Harvard’s administration? This impulse was surprisingly widespread. At many colleges that year, students were pushing administrations to put student photo directories online. The Crimson included extensive references to the need to create an online facebook. The editors took the view that if a student could build Facemash, there was no reason a programmer couldn’t build a facebook. In a December 11 editorial titled “Put Online a Happy Face: Electronic facebook for the entire College should be both helpful and entertaining for all,” its editors practically described how to build one. The essay strongly emphasized the need for students to control their own information in such a system. That fall Zuckerberg took a math class on graph theory. At semester’s end everyone in the class went out to dinner and ended up talking about the need for a “universal facebook.” So Zuckerberg went home and built one.
“There was definitely a little bit of a ‘fuck you’ to Harvard,” says one classmate and friend of Zuckerberg’s. “They always said they were going to do a centralized facebook, but they had all these worries about how it’s their information. They thought they had legal issues. Mark just figured you could get people to upload the information themselves.” In fact, Zuckerberg later said that it was the Crimson’s editorials about Facemash that gave him the initial idea for how to build Thefacebook. “Much of the trouble surrounding the facemash could have been eliminated,” wrote the Crimson, “if only the site had limited itself to students who voluntarily uploaded their own photos.”
That simple insight, combined with Zuckerberg’s desire to create a reliable directory based on real information about students, became the core concept of Thefacebook. “Our project just started off as a way to help people share more at Harvard,” says Zuckerberg, “so people could see more of what’s going on at school. I wanted to make it so I could get access to information about anyone, and anyone could share anything that they wanted to.”
His new service for Harvard students was not a dating site like Friendster. It was a very basic communications tool, aimed at solving the simple problem of keeping track of your schoolmates and what was going on with them. Some of Zuckerberg’s friends later speculated that it was also intended to help him deal with his own introverted personality. If you’re a geek who is a little uncomfortable relating to other people, why not create a website that makes it easier?
Thefacebook also drew inspiration from another important source—the so-called away messages that users of AIM posted when they weren’t at their computers. These short, pithy phrases were often used by AIM users to show off their creativity. Though there was room for only a few words, users included political statements and humor as well as practical information about the account holder’s whereabouts. AIM away messages were so important to Zuckerberg that another one of his earlier software projects was a tool that alerted him when friends’ messages changed. Thefacebook was going to be a robust combination of the AIM away message and that alert tool—a place where you could host more information about yourself so friends could keep track of you. (Today’s Facebook status update traces its heritage directly back to those AIM away messages.)
Both Course Match and Facemash had operated over Zuckerberg’s dorm-room Net connection from his laptop, but Course Match’s success had taken its toll on the hard drive. Zuckerberg lost quite a lot of data. And part of what got him in trouble with the administrative board over Facemash was that he used Harvard’s network to host it. So this time he took a more serious approach. He searched around online and found a hosting company called Manage.com, where he entered his credit card number and started paying eighty-five dollars a month for space on a computer server. That’s where Thefacebook’s software and data would reside. This would be Thefacebook.com, not part of the www.harvard.edu network. He wasn’t sure, but in the back of his mind, Zuckerberg had a notion that this could end up as more than just a brief entertainment.
Here’s another sign he thought something unusual might happen: he made a deal with a business-savvy classmate, Eduardo Saverin, to give him one-third of Thefacebook in exchange for Saverin making a small investment and helping out with business matters. Zuckerberg knew Saverin from Alpha Epsilon Pi, a selective fraternity for Jewish students to which both had recently pledged. Saverin was supposed to figure out how Thefacebook, if it took off, could make some money. The polished and well-liked son of a wealthy Brazilian business magnate, Saverin was an officer in the college Investment Club and a superb chess player who was known by his friends as a math genius. The two nineteen-year-olds agreed to invest $1,000 each. (Joe Green says Zuckerberg also approached him to be a business partner, but when Professor Green heard about it, he got “kind of pissed,” so Joe declined. Later he took to calling it, always with a pained laugh, his “billion-dollar mistake.”)
On the afternoon of Wednesday, February 4, 2004, Zuckerberg clicked a link on his account with Manage.com. Thefacebook.com went live. Its home screen read: “Thefacebook is an online directory that connects people through social networks at colleges. We have opened up Thefacebook for popular consumption at Harvard University. You can use Thefacebook to: Search for people at your school; Find out who are in your classes; Look up your friends’ friends; See a visualization of your social network.” Zuckerberg labeled himself user number four. (The first three accounts were for testing.) User number five was roommate Hughes; number six was Moskovitz; and number seven was Saverin. Zuckerberg’s friend and classmate Andrew McCollum designed a logo using an image of Al Pacino he’d found online that he covered with a fog of ones and zeroes—the elementary components of digital media.
The software spread quickly from the very beginning. The first users—Zuckerberg’s Kirkland House neighbors—sent emails to other students asking them to join and become their friends. That begat other emails from those students inviting their own friends to join. Someone suggested sending an email to everyone on the Kirkland House mailing list—about three hundred people. Several dozen signed up almost immediately.
Thus began a viral explosion. By Sunday—four days after launch—more than 650 students had registered. Three hundred more joined on Monday. Thefacebook almost instantly became a main topic of conversation in Harvard dining halls and between classes. People couldn’t stop using it.
To sign up, you created a profile with a single picture of yourself, along with a bit of personal information. You could indicate your relationship status. Pick one from the drop-down menu: single, in a relationship, or in an open relationship. You could include your phone number, AIM username, and email address; indicate which courses you were taking (a feature inspired by Course Match); favorite books, movies, and music; clubs you belonged to; political affiliation: very liberal/liberal/moderate/conservative/very conservative/apathetic; and a favorite quote. Thefacebook had no content of its own. It was merely a piece of software—a platform for content created by its users.
Privacy controls were part of the original design. And there were some big restrictions: you couldn’t join unless you had a Harvard.edu email address, and you had to use your real name. That made Thefacebook exclusive, but it also ensured that users were who they said they were. Zuckerberg later told theCrimson that he “hoped the privacy options would help to restore his reputation following student outrage over facemash.com.” Validating people’s identity in this way made Thefacebook fundamentally different from just about everything else that had come before on the Internet, including Friendster and MySpace. On Thefacebook you could set your privacy options to determine exactly who could see your information. You could limit it to current students, just people in your class, or only those in your residential house.
Once you set up your own profile, the interaction began. It was pretty limited. After you invited others to be your friend, you could see a diagram of your social network, which showed all the people you were connected to. You could also direct something called a “poke” at other users by simply clicking on a link on their page. When you did, an indication would show up on their home page. What did that mean? Here’s the insouciant answer Zuckerberg posted on the site: “We thought it would be fun to make a feature that has no specific purpose.…So mess around with it, because you’re not getting an explanation from us.”
Much activity on Thefacebook from the beginning was driven by the hormones of young adults. It asked you whether you were “interested in” men or women. In addition to giving you the option to list whether you were in a relationship, you were asked to fill in a section labeled “Looking for.” One frequently chosen option was “Random play.” When you poked someone, an indication of that simply showed up on their profile. That person could poke you back. For at least some, the interaction had a distinctly sexual meaning. This was college, after all.
Many people, on the other hand, found practical and wholesome uses for Thefacebook—creating study groups for classes, arranging meetings for clubs, and posting notices about parties. Thefacebook was a tool for self-expression, and even at this primordial stage of its development people were starting to recognize that there were many facets of the self that could be projected on its screen.
Another feature was timely for many students. You could click on a course and see who was taking it, just as in Course Match. At Thefacebook’s launch, students were in the middle of choosing courses for the following semester. It was what’s called “shopping week” at Harvard, when classes have begun but students can add or drop them at will. For any Harvard student who picked his or her courses partly based on who else was in class, this feature of Thefacebook was immediately useful. It helps explain the rapid spread of Thefacebook in its early days, and also why Zuckerberg launched it that week.
The whiteboard by the bedrooms in Kirkland Suite H33 now took on a different, less abstract character. Zuckerberg began filling it with charts and graphs indicating Thefacebook’s growth—how many people were joining each day and what features they used. It also tracked which users had the most friends.
On Monday the 9th the Crimson interviewed Zuckerberg, something its staff was becoming accustomed to. “The nature of the site,” he told the paper, “is that each user’s experience improves if they can get their friends to join it.” Still smarting from the rebuke he received for Facemash, he emphasized to the Crimson that he was “careful…to make sure that people don’t upload copyrighted material.” The Crimson did a little probing about his motives: “Zuckerberg…said he did not create the Website with the intention of generating revenue.…‘I’m not going to sell anybody’s e-mail address,’ he said. ‘At one point I thought about making the Website so that you could upload a resume too, and for a fee companies could search for Harvard job applicants. But I don’t want to touch that. It would make everything more serious and less fun.’”
Making Thefacebook fun was more important than making it a business. It was a statement that would reverberate down through the short history of Facebook.
Thefacebook may have been meant to replace the Harvard house facebooks, but from the beginning there was one obvious difference. Whereas photos taken by college photographers the first week of school were often awkwardly posed, poorly lit, and unflattering, the ones people posted of themselves on Thefacebook tended to cast them in a very positive light. These were the young superstars of tomorrow, as envisioned by themselves. In only the second article ever written about Thefacebook, on February 17 a prescient columnist for the Crimson pinpointed several characteristics that would forever after form a central part of Facebook’s appeal. Wrote junior Amelia Lester (who five years later would be named managing editor of the New Yorker): “While Thefacebook.com isn’t explicitly about bringing people together in romantic unions, there are plenty of other primal instincts evident at work here: an element of wanting to belong, a dash of vanity and more than a little voyeurism.”
And competitiveness was immediately in evidence. From Thefacebook’s first day, some users thought of it more as a way to accumulate the largest possible number of friends than to communicate and gather useful information. Many users of Facebook still do.
By the end of the first week, about half of all Harvard undergraduates had signed up, and by the end of February approximately three-fourths. But students were not the only ones showing their faces online. The only requirement for membership was that you have a Harvard email address, which meant Thefacebook was available not only to students—graduate as well as undergrad—but also to Harvard alumni and staff. Some students griped that the staff didn’t belong there. While only a few had joined so far, about a thousand alumni had, mostly recent ones. After three weeks Thefacebook had more than 6,000 users.
Within days, Zuckerberg realized that he was going to need help to operate and maintain Thefacebook. So he turned to those closest at hand—his roommates. About a week after Thefacebook launched, Zuckerberg signed an employment contract with Dustin Moskovitz. A year later, in a talk, he told the story of Moskovitz joining this way: “One of my roommates was ‘Hey, I’ll help you!’ I said ‘Dude! You can’t program!’ So he went home for the weekend and bought the book PERL for Dummies and said ‘Now I’m ready.’ I said ‘Dude, the site’s not written in PERL.’” Regardless, Zuckerberg adjusted the ownership of Thefacebook to give the eager Moskovitz 5 percent. He reduced his own stake slightly to 65 percent and Saverin’s to 30 percent. Moskovitz’s main job was to spearhead expansion to other campuses.
From even the second week, students at schools other than Harvard were emailing Zuckerberg asking when they could have it, too. Moving beyond Harvard had been in Zuckerberg’s mind from the beginning. Even the home page implied it—“an online directory that connects people through social networks at colleges”—not “Harvard,” but “colleges.” And his ambition did not stop there. Moskovitz says that while he was hired to help add new schools, “in that same conversation it was like—‘Yeah, and then we’ll go beyond that.’”
Moskovitz mimicked Zuckerberg’s code wherever he could, and set out to learn. He wasn’t always fast, but he immediately became known for his amazing capacity for hard work. “Mark would get kind of impatient,” says one friend. “But Dustin just trudged through and through and through.” Some in Kirkland House started calling the sophomore from Florida “the ox.”
Zuckerberg now says Moskovitz’s role during this period was “critical” to Thefacebook’s success. To add a school, Moskovitz had to figure out how email was addressed for students, staff, and alumni so he could set up the registration procedure. Then he would obtain a list of courses and residential dorms. He also had to set up a link to the college newspaper, because Thefacebook then had a feature, later discontinued, that linked your profile to any article in the campus paper that mentioned you. It took about half a day to do all the legwork and coding to add each school, but Zuckerberg and Moskovitz started expanding to new ones quickly even though both were still taking a full course load. They opened to students at Columbia on February 25, to Stanford the next day, and to Yale on the 29th. Columbia started slowly, but Stanford is where the broad appeal of Thefacebook was first proven. After just a week, the Stanford Daily was writing that “Thefacebook.com craze has swept through campus.” It reported 2,981 Stanford students had already registered.
Zuckerberg hated doing interviews and talking in public, but he gave the Stanford Daily a lot of time. “I know it sounds corny, but I’d love to improve people’s lives, especially socially,” he told the paper. He also said that since the site was still only costing him eighty-five dollars per month, he didn’t feel any business imperative: “In the future we may sell ads to get the money back, but since providing the service is so cheap, we may choose to not do that for a while.”
He didn’t want to do many interviews like that in the future. The newspaper at every new school seemed to want to talk to him, and the guys were planning to add a lot of colleges. So shortly thereafter, Zuckerberg recruited yet another likely prospect, his own roommate, Chris Hughes. Hughes became Thefacebook’s official spokesman. The company’s founding quartet was complete. Thefacebook had 10,000 active users. It had been operational for one month.
As Thefacebook grew at Harvard, Zuckerberg continued to disavow any serious business motivation. But once he began extending it to other schools, he started showing strategic instincts that would befit a CEO, as well as a steely willingness to confront competition. The reason he decided to expand first to Columbia, Stanford, and Yale, he says now, is that those three schools each already had its own homegrown social networks. It was a sort of market test—putting his product up against the best competition that was out there. “If TheFacebook still took off at those schools and displaced those [other networks] then I would know it would go really well at all the other ones,” he explains.
At Stanford, Thefacebook took off like a rocket. A school-specific social network there called Club Nexus had already mostly flamed out. When students saw Thefacebook, it felt to many like exactly what they’d been waiting for. “It wasn’t something that had to be explained,” says a 2005 graduate.
But at Columbia, a student named Adam Goldberg had launched a commercial site called CUCommunity a month before Zuckerberg created Thefacebook. By the time Thefacebook came to Columbia four weeks later, 1,900 of the school’s 6,700 undergraduates were active on CUCommunity. It would be several months before Thefacebook overtook it. CUCommunity also soon started expanding to other schools. At Yale, the student-run College Council had launched a dating website and online facebook called YaleStation on February 12. Though it had fewer features than Thefacebook, it was experiencing a similar stratospheric uptake—by the end of the month about two-thirds of undergraduates had registered.
But Zuckerberg was convinced that his service had legs, so he decided to extend it further into the Ivy League—launching at both Dartmouth and Cornell on Sunday, March 7. At Dartmouth, a friend of Zuckerberg’s from Exeter was chair of the Student Assembly’s Student Services Committee. Like student governments at Harvard, Penn, Yale, and other schools, it had been lobbying to put the campus facebook online. The friend agreed to promote Thefacebook using the assembly’s email system to all students. That message went out at 10 P.M. By the following evening, 1,700 of Dartmouth’s 4,000 undergraduates were users. The speed of adoption got Zuckerberg so excited he agreed again to talk to the college newspaper, the Dartmouth. “It blows my mind that people have actually used the site,” he told the paper. “I’m all about people expressing, and however people see fit to use the site, that’s cool.” Zuckerberg had also gotten help at Stanford, where a childhood friend from Dobbs Ferry provided him with a password to get into the Stanford network as well as a list of student email addresses and dormitories.
Pretty quickly, though, it was more about fending off interest than stimulating it. Emails started to arrive from around the country, begging Zuckerberg and crew to bring Thefacebook to other schools. Within weeks the four Harvard sophomores—all still carrying a full course load—had launched their service at MIT, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Brown, and Boston University. By mid-March the total user number hit 20,000. Yet another high school classmate of Zuckerberg’s at Exeter entered the picture. This time it was Adam D’Angelo, Exeter’s other programming whiz, Zuckerberg’s summer roommate, and co-author of music recommendation program Synapse. From his dorm at Caltech, D’Angelo helped Moskovitz do programming to add new schools. The Ivy League and similar schools were the first to launch largely because that’s where the real-world social networks of users at Harvard could be found—mostly friends from high school. Thefacebook had an elite edge.
Up until now, it had been designed so that within each school, users could see one another’s profiles unless they chose not to. You could deliberately ratchet up your privacy settings, but most students didn’t. Any user from Harvard, for example, could see most Harvard students’ profiles. That was the default. Harvard students could not, however, see profiles of students at Stanford. But for Thefacebook to continue to grow, it would need cross-campus linking, and there was a growing chorus of complaints that it wasn’t possible. So Zuckerberg and Moskovitz decided that such links could be created by the mutual agreement of both people. This became the template for how Facebook connections are established to this day.
As costs mounted, Zuckerberg mused to the Crimson, which had taken to idolizing him, that “it might be nice in the future to get some ads going.” By the end of March, with the active-user number surpassing 30,000, Thefacebook was paying $450 per month for five servers from Manage.com. Zuckerberg and Saverin each agreed to invest another $10,000 into the company. Meanwhile, Saverin had begun selling a little advertising and had secured a few small contracts with companies that sold moving services, T-shirts, and other products to college students. These ads began to appear in April.
It was harder and harder simply to keep Thefacebook operating smoothly. Thousands of users could be online at once, straining the servers. Zuckerberg and Moskovitz tried to delay adding new schools until they had worked out kinks for the users they already had. “Our growth to other colleges was always constrained by our server capacity,” recalls Moskovitz. “We simply could not scale the architecture fast enough.” Luckily they could hold off on new schools until they resolved the kinks. The two programmers were continually re-architecting how the site operated and working to make it more efficient. Moskovitz was trying to pick up as much as he could from the more experienced Zuckerberg, and from D’Angelo, twenty-five hundred miles away at Caltech.
Zuckerberg now marvels with gratitude when he recalls Moskovitz’s dedication in those days. “Dustin took the competition so seriously,” he says. “I’d be like ‘Hey, I heard through the grapevine that this other service is thinking of launching at this college.’ He’d be ‘Really? No way!’ And that paper he was supposed to be doing he’d just like scrap it and go and launch at that school. He was just a workaholic and a machine. Early on I viewed it as a project. I wasn’t super-invested in it because it wasn’t clear to me it was going to be this huge thing. I was like ‘Yeah, this is pretty neat. It’s not the end-all be-all, but it’s cool. And I have these other classes.’ But Dustin joined and really helped scale it.”
The boys were using free open-source software like the MySQL database and Apache Web server tools, which made the entire undertaking affordable. But while the software might have been free, it was not simple to operate. Zuckerberg was a more practiced programmer than Moskovitz, but he had never operated these kinds of programs before. He was learning by the day, even as he studied for four courses, including a demanding one in computer science. But so popular was Thefacebook that by the end of the semester, each time they added a new school its students signed up almost en masse.
Zuckerberg had a burning desire to try new things, but his ability to create a fast-growing website in his spare time had a lot to do with where he was situated. “Having genius and ambition alone isn’t going to get you there. It’s really important to be lucky,” says Moskovitz. “But Mark had all three in spades, including luck. He just fell into the right situations a lot, and had extremely good timing. And when he saw a good idea he wanted to pursue it, whereas another person might have felt he needed to finish school first.”
Facebook’s ultimate success owes a lot to the fact that it began at college. That’s where people’s social networks are densest and where they generally socialize more vigorously than at any other time in their lives. Moskovitz actually studied this question during that fateful spring semester. He wrote a paper for a statistics class using data from Thefacebook. It demonstrated that, as he describes it, “any individual student is within two degrees of everybody else on a given campus.” On average, students are separated from each other by no more than one intermediary relationship. “That’s why Thefacebook grew so well in college,” explains Moskovitz. He got an A in the statistics class, which wasn’t bad considering that the majority of his time that semester was spent working on the site. “And I got a bunch of sweet-ass bonus points for the data set,” Moskovitz remembers with relish.
Harvard offered Zuckerberg unique resources for developing his business. “At Harvard people were starting up websites pretty frequently,” says Moskovitz. “Even an impressive hedge fund—people were doing that as undergrads. So it wasn’t that crazy to say ‘my roommate happens to like to do these big consumer websites.’” Several others, like the Winkelvoss/Narendra team, were even working on social networks.
And the sheer talent that existed among Zuckerberg’s roommates was extraordinary. There aren’t many schools where he could find someone as talented as Moskovitz in the bedroom on the other side of the wall. The two hadn’t met until move-in day at the beginning of the year, but Zuckerberg found in his suite-mate not only a hardworking programmer but an intellectual and leader who would effectively serve as Facebook’s chief technology officer for years. Likewise, Chris Hughes, his own roommate, was so articulate and polished that he served as Facebook’s spokesman. Later Hughes played an important role in the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama.
Then of course there’s the allure of something that began in the most exclusive halls of all academia. Harvard confers an imprimatur that carries unique weight in any field. A Harvard connection makes a product less suspect. To join a social network that began at Harvard might seem perfectly natural to anyone with a high opinion of himself. That was an important early dynamic.
It also didn’t hurt that Harvard students are preternaturally status-conscious. The service served as a validation of the scale of your social ambitions even as it measured your success. Sam Lessin, a Zuckerberg friend and classmate who was an early user, says, “There is incredible latent social competition at Harvard which I think really helped Facebook in the early days.” If people were going to maintain their profile and social networks online, then the kind of natural elitists who attend Harvard had no compunction attempting to construct the best and largest of them. Back in that Crimsonopinion piece written when Thefacebook was less than two weeks old, Amelia Lester nailed it: “There’s little wonder why Harvard students, in particular, find the opportunity to fashion an online persona such a tantalizing prospect. Most of us spent our high school careers building resumes so padded they’d hold their own in a sumo match, an experience which culminated in the college application.…Most of all [Thefacebook] is about performing…and letting the world know why we’re important individuals. In short, it’s what Harvard students do best.”
But some proffer a darker narrative for how and why Zuckerberg got Thefacebook started at Harvard. By these accounts, Zuckerberg is a thief, and Thefacebook was the idea of other Harvard students. The most serious accusation is one made by Cameron and Tyler Winkelvoss and Divya Narendra. The trio say Zuckerberg stole numerous ideas from their plan for Harvard Connection after they hired him to program it. After a month or two of work, Zuckerberg concluded that their plan was unlikely to succeed. Shortly thereafter he began work on Thefacebook. This disagreement would become an expensive problem for Zuckerberg’s nascent company.
In mid-April 2004, over two months after the site had gone live, business manager Saverin, now calling himself the company’s chief financial officer, took steps to formalize Thefacebook as a business. He set up a limited-liability company in Florida, where he had attended high school. The partners listed were Zuckerberg, Moskovitz, and Saverin.
Though revenues for Thefacebook were nonexistent in its first weeks, by mid-February Zuckerberg had already begun fielding calls from people interested in investing. They’d heard about the extraordinary growth of this new site and wanted to get a piece. At the end of the semester, classmate Lessin, whose father was a well-known investor, took Zuckerberg around New York to meet with venture capitalists and executives in the finance and media industries.
At one of those meetings in June, a financier offered Zuckerberg $10 million for the company. Mark had just turned twenty. Thefacebook was four months old. He didn’t for a minute think seriously about accepting.
© 2010 David Kirkpatrick