The Battle For Facebook

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From the start, Zuckerberg vehemently denied the charges. That February, in a letter to Harvard administrators, he portrayed himself as a victim of his own kindness. After listing the pleasure he gained from helping others, including a couple of girls from the Association of Black Harvard Women, he let loose on his former employers at Harvard Connection. "What I don't enjoy, however, is people like these three guys telling me I 'have' to do things for them and then threatening me when I don't do them," Zuckerberg wrote. "Frankly, I'm kind of appalled that they're threatening me after the work I've done for them free of charge." He presented himself as the aggrieved party: "I try to shrug it off as a minor annoyance that whenever I do something successful, every capitalist out there wants a piece of the action."

The idea of a social-networking site, he told the Crimson, was in the air at Harvard. "There aren't very many new ideas floating around," he said. "The facebook isn't even a very novel idea. It's taken from all these others. And ours was that we're going to do it on the level of schools."

The guys from Harvard Connection, it turns out, weren't the only ones who felt that Zuckerberg had stolen their idea. Back in September 2003 — a month before Zuckerberg had posted his Facemash site — a skinny and serious Harvard junior named Aaron Greenspan had launched a networking portal for Harvard students. The site was a new version of a project he had created as a member of the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center, a student organization with a $3 million endowment. That earlier effort — which allowed students to post addresses and other personal information — had been a disaster. The Crimson slammed it as a possible invasion of privacy, and Green- span received a warning from Harvard. After retooling the site, he relaunched it with a section called TheFacebook. Very few students signed up.

Then Greenspan heard that another student had hacked the university's data and used it to create a hot-or-not site. He e-mailed Zuckerberg at the end of October and invited him to join the Student Entrepreneurship Council. Zuckerberg responded warmly that he would check out the next meeting.

Deep in the night of January 6th, a week before he dumped his Harvard Connection overseers, Zuckerberg e-mailed Greenspan for advice on a "topsecret project" he was working on. "I was thinking of making a Web app that would use the Harvard course catalog, but I'm a little worried about the university getting upset after the whole Facemash episode," he wrote. "I know you used info from the catalog . . . (which is awesome, by the way), so I was wondering if you had to get permission to use that material and if so, whom you contacted."

Greenspan responded quickly. He asked if Zuckerberg would like to integrate Greenspan's earlier "Facebook" project into the new mystery program Zuckerberg was working on. No dice. "It's probably best to keep them separated at least for now," Zuckerberg replied. "That said, once it's off the ground, I think it could be mutually beneficial to integrate the two, but we can speak about that then."

Later in January, Zuckerberg sat down with Greenspan in the dining hall. They compared notes, and Zuckerberg asked Greenspan if he would help with his topsecret project. Greenspan declined.

"The way he talked, the way he dressed, everything about him screamed immature," Greenspan recalls. "He seemed unprofessional. I had run a company since I was 15. It just didn't seem like he got it. That whole persona just didn't impress me." Although he was congratulatory at the time, Greenspan now says he was put off by Zuckerberg's original venture, Facemash. "You can spend time writing software for good or evil, and that was pretty close to evil," Greenspan said. "It wasn't that he inflicted harm because he enjoyed it — it was because he didn't care. Which I thought was almost worse."

After Zuckerberg launched Facebook, he continued to seek Greenspan's advice. While most of their exchanges were about the nuts and bolts of the site operation, Zuckerberg occasionally revealed ambitions that were far beyond the scale of his classmates'. His new social network, he wrote, would do more than "get people signed up" and "get people psyched." His goal was to create something new, something that touched a deeper need. "I kind of want to be the new MTV," he declared. But Zuckerberg had no interest in giving Greenspan any credit for creating Facebook, let alone a piece of the action. In December of 2004, when Greenspan decided to "admit defeat" and ask Zuckerberg for a job at the rapidly expanding company, all those months of advice proved worthless. "We're looking for someone with more engineering experience — like, 10 to 15 years," Zuckerberg told him. The guy who first created an online facebook for Harvard couldn't even get a job at Facebook.

Wherever the idea for Facebook came from, it was Zuckerberg's version that went viral throughout college campuses that spring. By the time the term ended on May 28th, he had nearly 200,000 users at some 30 schools nationwide. College students, it seemed, were eager to use Zuckerberg's invention obsessively, to share their most personal details online and stalk each other virtually, diving into Facebook with unbridled enthusiasm. "Harvard was around for a few centuries before young Mark came along, with students doing what they did," says Jeff Jarvis, director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York. "He just helped them do it better: party, get laid, study, network."

Facebook immediately set itself apart from other social-networking sites by creating a high bar of entry — users had to have an e-mail address from its roster of elite schools. This ensured that users registered as themselves, instead of as the anonymous identities that proliferated on MySpace and Friendster. Its stripped-down design and user-friendly interface also added to its cachet. It is not superior programming that sets Facebook apart, but what Zuckerberg likes to call "elegant organization": the site's ability to organize social desires, to create a clean, virtual reflection of real-life relationships.

"It was better than its predecessors," says Jarvis. "Friendster was a game; MySpace was a tacky home page. Facebook was the best to come along."

But Zuckerberg's burgeoning success online did little to stop him from burning those closest to him in real life. After school ended, he packed a bag and took a plane to California. In his eyes, Silicon Valley was "sort of a mythical place for a startup." Taking a leave of absence from Harvard, like Bill Gates before him, Zuckerberg moved to Palo Alto in the summer of 2004. His goal was to take his extraordinarily popular Website to the next level. He and Saverin each agreed to invest another $20,000 in the operation. While Zuckerberg was in California, Saverin stayed behind in New York. That decision would prove ill-advised.

Zuckerberg, Moskovitz, two interns and a few other guys rented a house on La Jennifer Way, a quiet cul-de-sac a few miles from Palo Alto's main drag. It was a modest place in a quiet neighborhood of idyllic bungalows and dusty minivans. Not that Zuckerberg saw much of his surroundings. Asked later to describe that period, he summed up his days succinctly: "Woke up, walked from my bedroom to the living room and programmed."

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