Review: The good, the bad, the ugly of Zuckerberg

An insider's look at the early days of Facebook is rich in detail, but disappointingly fails to get the views of the company's harshest critics.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
6 min read

Let it be known that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wanted a book to be written about the company he founded. At the top of the acknowledgments for journalist David Kirkpatrick's new book about Facebook, "The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World," Kirkpatrick makes it clear. "Had (Zuckerberg) not encouraged me to write this book and cooperated as I did so, it would likely not have happened."

"The Facebook Effect," which will be available for purchase Tuesday, is the most extensive work written about the ubiquitous social-networking site and the people who lifted it from late-night college project to Silicon Valley powerhouse. It commences with a single story of Facebook's sheer brawn: the Facebook-based organization of Colombian activists against paramilitary guerillas that culminated in protests attended by hundreds of thousands. Then the book plunges into Facebook's flip-flops-and-Red-Bull days as a start-up headquartered out of a Harvard University dorm. By the end, it's setting up Facebook as, rightfully so, the most formidable rival to Web giant Google.

The cover of the 300-plus-page hardcover tome is the silhouette of a face made of mirror-like, reflective paper. Pick the book up, and you'll see your own face, set against a background of the same soft blue color that Facebook uses on its own site. You can, already, judge a bit from the cover of this book: This is the Facebook that Facebook wants you to see--both the glamorous and the ugly sides of one of the most successful, fastest-growing companies in recent memory.

The reporting by Kirkpatrick, a longtime Fortune magazine technology editor, is meticulous and exhaustive. The reader learns precisely what percentage of equity Facebook's biggest shareholders have, exactly which major technology and media companies have courted Facebook over the years for both investment deals and potential acquisitions, and the story behind Facebook's random inclusion of the "Wedding Crashers" quotation "I don't even know what a quail looks like" below its search box in the social network's early days.

In the process, Kirkpatrick interviewed a first-rate who's who of Facebook insiders, from Mark Zuckerberg himself to executives like Sheryl Sandberg and Chris Kelly, co-founders Dustin Moskowitz and Chris Hughes, and investors Peter Thiel and Jim Breyer. It's an unprecedented level of depth and perspective into the company. And it has Facebook's seal of approval.

"The Facebook Effect" can be considered, then, the counterpoint to last year's "The Accidental Billionaires," author Ben Mezrich's unauthorized, hormone-fueled panty-raid of a Facebook creation tale. With no cooperation from Facebook (in fact, outright antagonism), Mezrich penned "Billionaires" largely from the perspective of spurned co-founder Eduardo Saverin; the founders of would-be rival site ConnectU, who had a longstanding lawsuit against Zuckerberg and Facebook; and former Facebook executive Sean Parker, who resigned in the wake of boardroom friction and a drug-related arrest. (Saverin is the only one whom Mezrich has explicitly confirmed that he worked with as a source.) In "Billionaires," Zuckerberg is painted as calculating and ethically challenged, ruthlessly severing ties to people who threaten his authority. And it's Mezrich's, not Kirkpatrick's take on Facebook that forms the basis for "The Social Network," the David Fincher-helmed film starring Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake as Zuckerberg and Parker, scheduled for a release in October.

A number of Facebook's critics and rivals, each with their own agenda, indeed appear to have been cut out entirely from the development of "The Facebook Effect." Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, two of the three co-founders of ConnectU, say that they were never contacted for comment or an interview. Neither was Aaron Greenspan, a Harvard computer science student who built a social-networking project around the same time that Zuckerberg did and who later claimed ownership of the concept behind Facebook.

The differences between the treatment of Facebook's early scandals in Mezrich's book--which Facebook has openly discredited--and Kirkpatrick's are stark. In "The Facebook Effect," co-founder Saverin was "in effect, demanding to be CEO of Thefacebook without even making a full-time commitment" and that his "business skills didn't impress his colleagues." While Kirkpatrick characterizes Zuckerberg's treatment of the ConnectU situation as "rude" and that "he certainly should have alerted (the ConnectU founders)...earlier about what to expect," he implies that ConnectU was significantly different from Zuckerberg's initial conception of Facebook. And Sean Parker, whom Mezrich implies in "The Accidental Billionaires" may have been surreptitiously forced out of the company, is acknowledged in "The Facebook Effect" to have been a lightning rod and a liability, but also a crucial early player in the company's success whom Zuckerberg "continues to this day periodically to consult" on business matters.

There's also no comment in "The Facebook Effect" from the founders of Twitter, which Facebook attempted to acquire in a $500 million stock deal that Twitter subsequently turned down and which certainly influenced a handful of Facebook product development decisions in late 2008 and early 2009 (both of which Kirkpatrick details in the book). "I'm not sure if David had any questions for us regarding this project or if he was interested in talking to anyone here at Twitter," co-founder Biz Stone told CNET in an e-mail. "I've not personally spoken with him."

To an extent this is commentary on Kirkpatrick's part on what really matters to Facebook's history: Interpret it as his way of saying that Twitter's alleged rivalry to Facebook, as well as the ConnectU kerfuffle, were drops in the bucket compared to the ways in which the company is affecting international affairs, global communications, and the public's interaction with the digital world. But it would have been useful and added a bit of color to hear from Facebook's critics and rivals, particularly if the intent of this book is to be a complete account of the company's early days. Representatives of Facebook were available for comment.

"The book was authorized but not approved," Kirkpatrick told CNET in an e-mail on Thursday, assuring that there was no pressure on him to suppress anything that spoke nastily of Facebook. "Facebook did not see my drafts nor did I request their permission for anything." Kirkpatrick said that he had a brief voice-mail exchange with Divya Narendra, who co-founded ConnectU with the Winklevoss brothers, and that he tried extensively to get in touch with Eduardo Saverin but that Saverin's lawsuit settlement conditions forbade him from speaking to the author.

That's not to say that "The Facebook Effect" whitewashes Zuckerberg's rebellious streak. He's still, proudly, the captain of a pirate ship (a phrase that Kirkpatrick uses). He still hacked into Harvard servers to launch his controversial "Facemash" project in college, carried business cards that read "I'm CEO...bitch," oversaw the company's operations out of a Palo Alto, Calif., "frat house" that his employees subsequently trashed over the course of a summer, and gave the middle finger to investment firm Sequoia Capital by showing up for a meeting in pajamas and giving a mock presentation. ("It's not a story I'm very proud of," Zuckerberg told Kirkpatrick regarding the Sequoia incident.)

This is Zuckerberg the adventitiously crowned boy-king of the social Web, both cocky and naive, prone to pensive episodes of teeming thought as well as verbal matches armed with a fencing foil. This is the Digital Age's version of a globe-conquering young renegade, an Alexander the Great in Adidas sandals--but still an ultimately benevolent visionary, Kirkpatrick asserts, writing about Facebook's disastrous handling of its Beacon advertising program in 2007 and saying that it's a "fundamental misreading" of Zuckerberg to attribute the "poorly designed alert service" to insidious intentions on Facebook's part.

But whatever side Kirkpatrick takes, at its core "The Facebook Effect" is an insight not only into Facebook itself but into the complicated process behind the growing pains of a company whose roots were as amateurish as they get. This is a story about how deals were made, how executives were hired, how internal disputes ebb and flow. It's fascinating. It's well-written and masterfully reported.

Still, one is left wondering if anything more sordid was missed.

Disclosure: Simon & Schuster, publisher of "The Facebook Effect," is a division of CBS Corp., which also publishes CNET.

This post was updated at 12:32 p.m. PT on Thursday with comment from David Kirkpatrick.