The Battle For Facebook

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In moments of need, two things had always pulled Mark Zuckerberg through: an obsessive love of technology and an almost ruthless competitive streak. (Among his personal interests, he once listed "defeating nemeses.") 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. "They were the most advanced computer-science students at the school," recalls Kristopher Tillery, a classmate who set up a site with Zuckerberg that allowed Exeter students to order snacks online.

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 "proven to be the perfect medium" because "whether I am competing against a rival in a USFA tournament or just clashing foils, or sometimes sabers, with a friend, I rarely find myself doing anything more enjoyable than fencing a good bout." He graduated with academic honors from Exeter and entered Harvard in the fall of 2002, spilling over with ambition.

But at Harvard, Zuckerberg found himself surrounded by hundreds of other freshmen whose résumés were as burnished as his own. He was just another face in the crowd. By his sophomore year, he had retreated into the domain where he was most comfortable, building a Website called Coursematch.com that enabled students to register for courses online and see who else was signing up for the same classes. 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.

The courses didn't help him much with his personal life. Sitting alone in his dorm room that night in 2003, Zuckerberg had just been jilted by a girl. 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.

He began like any other hurt schoolboy. "Jessica A— is a bitch," he wrote. "I need to think of something to take my mind off her. I need to think of something to occupy my mind. Easy enough, now I just need an idea."

An hour later: "I'm a little intoxicated, not gonna lie. So what if it's not even 10 p.m. and it's a Tuesday night? What? The Kirkland [dorm] facebook is open on my 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."

At 11:09 p.m., invention was in full swing: "Yea, it's on. I'm not exactly sure how the farm animals are going to fit into this whole thing (you can't really ever be sure with farm animals . . .), but I like the idea of comparing two people together."

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.

The notoriety turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Zuckerberg. After he escaped with a warning, he went back to his dorm, opened some champagne and celebrated with his roommates. His reputation on campus as a renegade programmer was cemented. Amid all the high-performing Harvard students, Zuckerberg finally had an identity. And he had also learned an invaluable lesson. "People," he summarized later in a deposition, "are more voyeuristic than what I would have thought."

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. "Networking is a time-honored practice at Harvard, going back to FDR," says Lawrence Summers. "It was waiting to happen. It was a wave of the next Internet thing and a group of very talented, social people. All innovators are great adapters to social need."

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. "I — and my friends, who were in the same dorm — had the feeling that there were too many barriers and a lack of time for students at Harvard to do social networking," he would recall. It was nerdspeak for feeling left out.

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.

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