The Facebook Effect: A Summary and Critique

The first pages of The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick begin with none other than Mark Zuckerberg, the mastermind behind the social network innovation that has most average college students compulsively in front of a computer screen several times a day. From page 1, Kirkpatrick depicts Mark with a Harry Potter-like appeal. He describes him as the highly deliberate rational thinker with a “true knack for making software that people couldn’t stop using.”

Kirkpatrick goes on to describe Mark’s less than tidy college dorm room at Harvard and the various empty pop cans and random belongings laying on the floor of his room. He also speaks of Facemash and Course Match, two of Mark’s quite popular but short-lived software creations that early on demonstrated his true passion and dexterity for these kinds of programs.  Like Harry Potter, Mark is depicted as an omniscient but ordinary young man with an innate power to do something that would soon change the world.

Kirkpatrick tells Facebook’s story in this manner through the entire book. It’s the kind of writing that keeps you from doing house chores, homework and other responsibilities because you feel like you HAVE to get to the end of the story. Even while knowing exactly how it’s going to end, Kirkpatrick achieves to keep you reading until your eyeballs feel like they’ll pop out of their sockets. It’s that good.

But it may also be that the can’t-put-it-down effect of this book is because of my familiarity with Facebook and the fact that I’ve been greatly affected by it. It’s like being close to your grandmother for life, and then suddenly being able to read a book about her that describes her story, with all of her ups and downs, so as to give you a better appreciation for this person about whom you thought you knew everything.

I know not everyone has the time to read these days, but I honestly say this is one book you have to make time to read, especially if you use Facebook on a somewhat regular basis. But whether or not you decide to dive into The Facebook Effect, I’d like to give a short summary/critique of the book and include some key points in the book that I think everyone should think about.

I promise I won’t give away the ending…

Kirkpatrick’s book depicts an interesting picture of the struggles Facebook had early on and the true uniqueness of the company and its founders. One of the most remarkable aspects of Facebook’s story is the fact that it was started by such a young group of ordinary, but very smart, group of kids. Few entrepreneurs can say they became self-made billionaires while in their late twenties.

Mark and his roommate Dustin Moskovitz are the co-founders of Facebook, but other roommates were involved in the maintenance of the website from the very beginning. Chris Hughes served as spokesman and Eduardo Saverin, an international student from South America, became the financial officer.  From the day the site first went live on Februray 4 of 2004, the guys were already thinking of how to keep the then called TheFacebook popular among Harvard students. It wasn’t simply a cool game they were playing. They were in it to make something big.

That first summer the guys and some interns moved to a rental house in Palo Alto to work full-time on the site. From the beginning, Mark had a clear vision of what he thought TheFacebook should be about, and he made his vision clear by reminding the group early on that they are here to “build something that has lasting cultural value and try to take over the world.” No pressure.

Mark also stressed that for him making TheFacebook fun was more important than making it a business. He wasn’t in it as a lets-get-rich-quick scheme. But even with his desire for a noncommercial approach, the constant pressure for new servers (to keep up with the high amount of traffic) forced them to include advertising on the site. And it was Kirkpatrick’s description of these kinds of events, ones relating to advertising and deals with lenders and investors, that help underscore the character of this unknown territory the young guys were getting into. But age and inexperience didn’t stop Mark and the team. While he may have lacked these two aspects, his clear vision of what TheFacebook could become is what directed his decisions along the way. It’s truly amazing how Mark’s innovation and passion overrode the fact that he had no experience in this arena.

Today Facebook has more than 500 million active users. This is a perfect illustration of an equation my elementary teacher used to repeat to us: determination + discipline + hard work = the way to success. Mark is a true example of this.

Facebook Features

Throughout the book, Kirkpatrick also focused on the various features of Facebook that have come to alter the site and transform the user experience. Three features definitely worth mentioning are the photo sharing, News Feed, and translation features.

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While I’ve become so used to it that I’ve taken it for granted, the photo sharing feature changed how users viewed online photos. What made Facebook’s photo sharing so unique was that you tagged using only the names of the people in the photos. In this way, people would be informed any time a photo of them was uploaded and friends could view lists of photos in which any specific person was tagged.

Photo sharing became the most popular photo site on the Internet and the most popular thing on Facebook. Who wouldn’t want to know and see every time someone posted a photo of him or her? Kirkpatrick says that after its launch, 85% of users had been tagged in at least one photo, and 70% of users came back every day. That’s amazing customer loyalty. At the time the guys were developing this feature, they agreed it couldn’t just be a photo sharing application like any other. It had to be interactive, and it had to keep people engaged with one another. It had to further Facebook’s original goal to connect people in a fun and unique way. The unique tagging element definitely did the trick.

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A second feature that Kirkpatrick spends a considerable amount of time discussing is the News Feed. Again, it’s hard to value something and see it objectively when it’s right in front of you. When I first started to interact with the News Feed, I found that I liked it and quickly adapted to it without thinking much beyond that. Here Kirkpatrick creates an appreciation for this unique but often overlooked feature of Facebook. The News Feed feature basically lets users see what their friends are up to. It shows the top news and activity within your list of friends. It’s almost like a personalized newspaper that’s updated every minute.

Kirkpatrick describes in detail the hard work and anticipation that went into the creation and launching of the News Feed. The team prepared a huge party for the launch, expecting it to be the greatest new addition to Facebook. Much to their dismay, users HATED the newsfeed. Immediately after going live, the team started receiving complaints about this new feature and thus began one of the biggest crises Facebook had ever faced.

Kirkpatrick explains that the News Feed received much criticism from its users because 1) it created an awareness of the importance of keeping a consistent image on Facebook. People couldn’t say one thing here and another there because now Facebook would catch that.  And 2), it turned ‘normal’ ways of communicating totally upside down. Whereas before if you wanted to send information about yourself you would have to initiate the process, now Facebook pushed that information out for you.

The most amazing aspect of the News Feed fiasco is Mark’s reaction to it all. Kirkpatrick explains to readers that while Mark did announce privacy controls to ease people’s worries, he was flabbergasted by the negative reactions and disagreed with the users’ feedback. Within News Feed’s first week, many users had started joining anti-News Feed groups on Facebook, and very quickly. From one of the many interviews with Mark, Kirkpatrick explains how Mark found it ironic that even though users hated the News Feed, the anti-groups grew so fast because of it, serving as testimony to its effectiveness. Mark said he never considered turning the feature off because he knew people liked it, no matter what they said. He was confident. He had the numbers to prove it.

In this particular part of the book, Kirkpatrick masterfully portrays Marks honest, wry and confident character. The use of quotes from Mark paired with Kirkpatrick’s descriptive vocabulary create a more-than-frank depiction of Faceook’s attitude during this set of events. The News Feed challenged users’ notion of privacy. It asked them questions no one had asked before, and told them things about themselves they didn’t want to be told. As Mark says, users liked the News Feed no matter what they said. As in many other instances throughout the book, here Kirkpatrick shows Mark’s relentless way of approaching situations. When he forms a new idea for Facebook that he believes will truly succeed, no one can convince him that it won’t work. Kirkpatrick makes sure this becomes clear to the reader.

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Unlike the News Feed, the translation feature on Facebook was immediately popular. By the end of 2007, half of the users of the web site were outside of the U.S. so early the next year the team starts on a project to translate the entire site into other languages. This move increased the number of users at an extremely high rate because users could then log on to Facebook and use whatever language they spoke at home. The feature localized Facebook for huge populations internationally.

What makes the translation feature so interesting is not what it did for its users, but the process the team used to create it in the first place. Rather than spend the time translating it in-house or sending it elsewhere for completion, the team decides to do it themselves, but with special help from users. They created software that showed users a list of words to be translated. Anyone on Facebook could translate as many words as they wished. Facebook then took the popular answers and asked users to vote on the best translation for a specific word or phrase, and that’s the version they used on the site.

In essence, they allowed the users to build the site. This technique benefited both ends. It gave users a fun activity while making them feel a part of the project and it gave the Facebook team a free translation service. This decision also reflected the creative character of the young thinkers behind Facebook. Their take on this underscored once again Facebook’s focus of making the worked a more open and engaging place for people.

Facebook Privacy

Kirkpatrick’s discussion of the News Feed touches on the larger issue of Facebook and privacy. Deservingly, Kirkpatrick devotes an entire chapter to this topic. While the News Feed case by far received severe criticism, Mark and the team received similar reactions from plenty of other small changes to the web site. Many of these negative reactions concerned user privacy.

Kirkpatrick’s decision to devote an entire chapter to user privacy reflects how important of an issue it has always been for Mark and also shows how severely Facebook users have misunderstood him. Mark has always had the goal of making Facebook have “radical transparency,” as he calls it. He wants people to in general be more open and keep a more consistent image. In this way, Mark believes, it’s more likely to have a healthier society.

Many users argue against this point, saying that Facebook is not transparent about what it does with users’ information. But the reality is that nothing on Facebook is really confidential. This is no secret. They don’t try to make it so. They bluntly say so on the site that any user information “may become publicly available.” So if you have complaints about confidentiality, read the manual before operating dangerous machinery. If you do your reading beforehand, the machinery will appear anything but dangerous.

Facebook doesn’t violate privacy. Kirkpatrick does an honest job of demonstrating this point through various chapters. What starts happening on Facebook is what Kirkpatrick calls “peer-to-peer privacy violations.” Embarrassing photos tagged of you are uploaded by someone who says is your “friend” in the first place. This issue has become such a concern for many young adults that some students have gone to extreme measures to protect their image on Facebook. Some college students hold parties with a “no camera” rule so that no one takes unapproved photos to post and tag of people on Facebook. Other parties are said to have dark rooms where people can go if they want to do drugs or sexual activities without anyone taking pictures.

For all of its privacy challenges, most people seem comfortable with how Facebook works. Even Ben Parr, the creator of the group “Students Against Facebook News Feed” agrees. He says, “The News Feed launched a revolution that requires us to stand back and appreciate. Privacy has not disappeared, but become even easier to control- what I want to share, I can share with everyone. What I want to keep private stays in my head.”

Kirkpatrick uses the final chapters in his book to provide a more international and institution-oriented approach to Facebook, By doing this he effectively gives the viewer a look at Facebook’s global and permanent impact. For me, these chapters provided a door outside my own bubble. I had come to reflect on Facebook according to how I used it and how my direct circle made use of it. It was eye opening to see Facebook’s bigger and more global impact, along with the opportunities it’s provided for so many people.

Kirkpatrick gives an example of young adults in the Middle East using Facebook. With few outlets for self-expression, Facebook allowed them to feel more real online than they do in real life. Facebook has provided a way for them to be themselves.

Another example of Facebook’s versatility is seen in Colombia. Kirkpatrick begins the book with a narrative of a young Columbian who starts a Facebook group called One Million Voices Against FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia). This group allowed hundreds of people to voice their anger and emotions against the group that has been destroying Columbian families. Facebook once again provided an outlet for people to stand together and be heard.

All in all, Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect is an outstanding read. It’s a book that tells and humanizes the behind-the-scenes story that many don’t know about or have come to know recently only from the skewed representation in the movie The Social Network. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are two names we’ll be hearing over and over again, probably for the rest of our lives. It only seems right to know who Mark is and the legacy that he’s created. Kirkpatrick does a simple and amazing job of showing how these guys built “something that has lasting cultural value” and have indeed “taken over the world.”

 

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