Facebook: The Inside Story (2020) by Steven Levy

I didn't know much about Facebook's story, so many things in the book was news to me. 

Here are my two main take-aways from the book. 

There are many inaccuracies in "The Social Network" movie. The founding story is quite different. There had been many challengers claiming they had the "facebook" idea. But social networking was not a new idea. There was even a digital facebook in Exeter at Zuckerberg's boarding high school. Of course there is a luck factor involved, but Zuckerberg should get credit (and blame) for successfully executing this vision at large scale. In this case, the quote is apt: Ideas are worthless, execution is everything.

"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity/incompetence." Facebook has been very reckless and greedy. They botched up things badly, many times, over and over. But they are not inherently evil. The greedy obsession with growth did Facebook in. Zuckerberg has to have everything like the emperors of Rome he so adored. 

Venture capitalists want the companies they bet on to overwhelmingly dominate its category (this is what they mean when they call it a unicorn). Any company that plays the venture capitalists unicorn game would make the same unethical and several times illegal decisions. The book gets across this message about Zuckerberg and Facebook: Don't hate the player, hate the game.

But did Mark's personality play into this "have it all" craze? In the book, Palihapitiya says absolutely: if Mark had gone to The Ohio State, he would likely not be this greedy and cocky. 

I think I buy Steven Levy's message. Mark Zuckerberg is incredibly ambitious and vicious. But he is not evil. Don't hate the player, hate the game.

Others are more skeptical: "In short, don't believe everything you read—especially when written by journalists who boast about years of access to billionaires and their accomplices. Access journalism isn't journalism, it's corporate propaganda, and this is sadly no different."

And this is from 2012, from Aaron Greenspan: "Mark is no genius. He's your common, everyday megalomaniac, incapable of empathizing with those he repeatedly draws in close and then hurts. He may, in fact, be the greatest con of all time, having effectively convinced an entire nation, including the President of the United States, to believe in his extremist philosophy of radical openness."

My highlights from the book

This  was a long book at 600 pages. I like reading Steven Levy so this did not bother me. I did enjoy getting an  in depth coverage of the history of Facebook, its acquisitions, and business decisions. I had to cut down most of my highlights, but they were still too long. So I stopped halfway through them. 

He’s the CEO of Facebook, the world’s largest social network—the world’s largest human network of any kind, ever—approaching 2 billion members, more than half of whom log in every day. It’s made him, in today’s reckoning, the sixth-richest person in the world.

The signature T-shirt that signifies geek proletariat but is actually a Brunello Cucinelli creation ($325 each—he’s got a closet full of them, liberating him from having to make daily decisions on couture). Blue jeans and Nikes.


Providing Internet access to “the next few billion”—that is, people in underserved regions or who can’t afford connections—has been Zuckerberg’s passion for the past few years. He has promoted a variety of means to spread the Internet, from exotic technologies like self-piloting drones to a controversial plan to give people free data plans that limit their access to a subset of popular applications, including Facebook. Express Wi-Fi is a small but promising aspect of this dream, called


 “I’m an engineer, like a lot of you guys,” he says. “And for me engineering comes down to two real principles: The first is that you think of every problem as a system. And every system can be better. No matter how good or bad it is, you can make anything better—and that goes for you whether you’re writing code or you’re building hardware, or your system is a company.” Facebook, he says, attacks problems of business and culture in the same way a coder solves problems. “Running [a company is] not so different from writing code where you’re writing different functions and in subroutines. . . . I do think there’s something really fundamental to this engineering mindset.”


“There’s this fundamental thing that at an early age you looked at something and felt like: This can be better. I can break down this system and make it better. I remember thinking about that when I was young; it didn’t dawn on me until I was older that this isn’t the way everyone thinks of things. I do think that’s the engineering mindset—it may even be more a value set than a mindset.”


(The young CEO has so frequently met with world leaders—as sort of a peer, as Facebook’s large global audience gives him a hefty constituency in many lands.


Facebook was credited as the driver of the liberating Arab Spring. Its privacy practices, despite steady criticism from activists and regulators, haven’t punctured the Facebook narrative. And despite the dark portrait depicted in The Social Network, Zuckerberg is generally viewed as the plucky, egalitarian founder who likes to take recreational runs on the streets, be it in Lagos or even a smog-shrouded Tiananmen Square in Beijing.


One might argue that Nigeria trip was peak Zuckerberg. How could life have been any better for him? He was well on his way to connecting the world as no other human being had ever done, not even the Roman emperors he admired. The company he had founded in his dorm room was minting money; he had never worked anywhere else but now had total voting control of one of the world’s most valuable corporations. His face was on countless magazine covers. He had been Time’s Person of the Year. A survey early in the year ranked him “Tech’s most popular CEO.” He was happily married, and after a series of disheartening miscarriages (news of which he would share on Facebook), his wife gave birth to their adorable daughter.

What could go wrong? BARELY TWO MONTHS after Mark Zuckerberg returned from Nigeria, Donald Trump was elected the president of the United States. It was a shock to many, many people who supported the other candidate, Hillary.

For Facebook, the shock was compounded by something else: a huge collective finger pointed toward Menlo Park, California, where the company had its sprawling headquarters. Almost from the minute that the New York Times needle indicating a victor crossed over from the Clinton side to the Trump side, political observers cited the “Facebook Effect” as one possible explanation for the seemingly impossible outcome. In the weeks leading up to the election, there had been reports of so-called fake news, or misinformation intentionally spread through Facebook’s algorithms, being circulated widely on Facebook’s News Feed, which had become the major source of news for millions of users. 


Still, almost no one at Facebook, including the surprising number of former Republican operatives whom the company had hired to work in communications and policy, had believed that Trump had a chance to win. Facebook’s rock-star chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, a true-blue Clinton supporter, sent her daughter to bed that evening, promising to wake her so she could witness history as the first woman president of the United States made her acceptance speech. The little girl slept through the night undisturbed. Sandberg still gets choked up when she talks about it.

At Facebook headquarters the next day, people were shaken. At an all-hands meeting people were in tears. Internal discussion groups popped up on the platform, wondering whether—or how much—Facebook


"I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, of which it’s a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way, I think is a pretty crazy idea."


But over the next two years, as people learned more about Facebook and the way it operated, dire concerns emerged about Facebook’s role, not just in the election but in the body politic at large, and the world at large. Time and again, they would point to the “crazy” statement as an indication that Zuckerberg was clueless—or lying—about the damage his company was doing. After months of criticism, Zuckerberg would finally apologize for the remark. 


The huge user base once seen as a world-changing kumbaya was now alarming evidence of excessive power. The ability to give voices to the unheard was identified as a means to bequeath an earsplitting sound system to hate groups. The ability to organize political movements of liberation was now a deadly tool of oppressors. The joyful metrics that spurred smile-inducing memes to entertain and uplift us now were fingered as an algorithmic boost to misinformation.


For the next year, Facebook’s reputation tumbled. Facebook is racist. . . . Facebook aids genocide. . . . Facebook is an outrage machine. . . . Facebook is destroying our attention span. . . . Facebook is killing the news business. . . . And the dam burst in 2018, when news came that Facebook had allowed personal information of up to 87 million users to end up in the hands of a company called Cambridge Analytica, which allegedly used the data to target vulnerable voters with misinformation. Facebook bit-flipped from Most Admired Company to Most Reviled.


And the dam burst in 2018, when news came that Facebook had allowed personal information of up to 87 million users to end up in the hands of a company called Cambridge Analytica, which allegedly used the data to target vulnerable voters with misinformation. Facebook bit-flipped from Most Admired Company to Most Reviled.


In the three years since the 2016 election, the Facebook reputational meltdown has been epic.


But what did shake me was his reaction when I asked him what seemed to me to be a few softball questions about what the company was up to. He just stared at me. And said nothing. Time seemed to freeze as the silence continued. I was flummoxed. This guy is the CEO, isn’t he? Is he having some sort of episode? On the spectrum, as some would later speculate? Was there something I’d written that somehow made him hate me? I didn’t know then that this was common behavior for Zuckerberg. Though I was unaware at the time, I had joined the fraternity of people who’d been stunned by Mark Zuckerberg’s trancelike silences. In subsequent years, Zuckerberg seems to have addressed this issue, and actually will conduct fairly personable interviews. (On occasion, though, the frigid stare still surfaces. One of his executives refers to it as “the eye of Sauron.” Others who know him well say that at those instances he’s just thinking, apparently at such a high level that the world stops for him.)

Virtually every problem that Facebook confronted during its post-election woes had been a consequence of two things: the unprecedented nature of the mission to connect the world, and the consequences of its reckless haste to do so. The troubles that plagued Facebook in the past three years were almost all rooted in decisions it had made in its earlier years, mostly between 2006 and 2012, when key choices were made that favored moving with lightning speed to connect the world, with implicit intent to repair any damage at a later time. Facebook now admits that the damage turned out far more extensive than expected, and is not easily repaired.


In December 1999—just in time to avoid the huge dot-com crash that would soon hit the industry—Weinreich sold sixdegrees to a company called YouthStream Media Networks for $125 million. Included in the purchase price was the pending patent, “Method and apparatus for constructing a networking database and system,” which became known as the “social networking


What Weinreich did not know was the person who would build—and surpass—his vision was only twenty-five miles from the Puck Building. And he was twelve years old.


MARK ELLIOT ZUCKERBERG was born to Karen and Ed Zuckerberg in 1984. The day was May 14, almost four months after the launch of the Apple Macintosh.

Ed Zuckerberg had both a computer and a modem. He had a lifelong affinity for technology in general and gadgetry in particular.


Like many Jewish parents who had gratefully moved up a rung on the ladder to the good life, the Zuckerbergs aspired to an even higher rung for their kids, and fiercely emphasized education. (Zuckerberg once joked about it: “Good Jewish mother . . . You know, go home; get 99 percent on the test, Why didn’t you get 100?

“I was the first dentist in Westchester County who had digital X-rays, intra-oral cameras . . . all that tech stuff really got me going,” he says. He billed himself as “painless Dr. Z,” and his website (of course he had an early website) boasted that he “caters to


From an early age, Mark had a mind attuned to logic, especially when the answer to one of his requests was no. “If you were going to say no to him, you had better be prepared with a strong argument backed by facts, experiences, logic, reasons,” Ed Zuckerberg once told a reporter. Mark, he said, was “strong-willed and relentless,”

In sixth grade, he got his own computer.


So when Zuckerberg played games on computers, they indulged his world-building imagination. One of his favorites was called Civilization, a popular series in the genre of “turn-based strategy games.” The idea was to build a society. He kept playing it even into adulthood.


One night he demanded that his parents take him to Barnes & Noble to purchase a guide to writing C++, a key computer language for creating web applications. “He’s ten!” recalls Ed Zuckerberg. When the acolyte coder discovered that a book explicitly targeted to “dummies” lacked key information, Dr. Z hired a tutor. For two years the tutor would visit once a week. “It was his favorite hour of the week,” says his mother. The Zuckerbergs explored enrolling him in an AP computer class at the high school, but the teacher told them Mark already knew everything he’d learn in the class.

As Mark later told an interviewer, “I’d go to school and I’d go to class and come home. The way I’d think about it was, ‘I have five whole hours to just sit and play on my computer and write software.’ And then Friday afternoon would come along and it would be like, okay, now I have two whole days to sit and write software.


Zuckerberg didn’t spend all his time in a bedroom lit only by a computer monitor. Teachers would later describe him as well-adjusted; though not much of a talker, when he did speak he expressed his firm opinions articulately. He was strong in math and science. He was smaller than the other kids.


Zuckerberg was much more simpatico with fencing—an individual sport that all the Zuckerberg kids would practice. The Zuckerberg family were also Stars Wars obsessives, and swords had the appeal of being like lightsabers.

A more practical technology was an Internet-based intercom system that ran through the Dobbs Ferry house and allowed the dental staff to communicate with one another and the family from the downstairs office. This was dubbed “ZuckNet.” Ed Zuckerberg had already hired a professional to wire the house for the T1 line

In 1997, a networking product did for the young people worldwide what ZuckNet had done in the Zuckerberg house a year earlier. AOL’s Instant Messenger product, or AIM.


When Ed and Karen asked about it, the teacher told them that Mark was so focused on the topic, and he’d gotten the other kids so involved, that they decided to extend the space unit to a month. After the month, Mark’s space obsession continued, and the giant cardboard rocket ship the class painted wound up on his bedroom ceiling. His parents refused numerous offers to have him skip a grade or two.

In middle school, he had an arrangement with his teachers that after he learned the week’s lessons—usually on Mondays when they were presented, he could do the work from other classes while the teachers drilled the other students. “I never saw him doing homework,” 

She asked him to interview at another private school. Mark said, “I’ll do it but I’m going to Phillips Exeter.” As often happened, the strong-willed teenager got his way. Phillips Exeter Academy, in Exeter, New Hampshire, was one of a cohort of haughty prep schools known as the Ten Schools Admission Organization. Modeled on their big brothers in the Ivy League, they were, as the organizational name implies, reliable feeder schools to elite colleges. Zuckerberg enrolled as an “upper” (the Exonian vernacular for juniors) in the class of 2002.

Zuckerberg was thrilled—none of his public high school friends shared his passion for building things on the computer and now the first person he met at Exeter was a lot like him. “By induction [I figured] there were going to be a lot of other people here who were interested in the stuff,” Zuckerberg says. “It turned out that we were actually the only two.”

If Zuckerberg was intimidated by attending a private school whose students included the very wealthy—it wasn’t unusual to be in a class with a Rockefeller, a Forbes, and a Firestone—he didn’t show it. He seemed to flower at Exeter. He joined the fencing team and proved an energetic competitor, captaining the squad and winning the MVP award. He joined the team that was sent to the Math Olympiad, and though he couldn’t compete at the top level, he won a secondary medal.

Classes were conducted in a seminar-style participatory fashion known as the Harkness method. The school describes the method as “. . . a way of life . . . It’s about collaboration and respect, where every voice carries equal weight, even if you don’t agree.” Classmates recall that Zuckerberg seldom contributed to the discussions. “He was quite shy and kept to himself, usually doing work and writing code in his room,” a classmate named Alex Demas later told an American Greek news website. His reputation, says Demas, was as a computer nerd. (Zuckerberg would nonetheless later comment that he admired the Harkness method: “It probably shaped my philosophy that people should be participants and not consumers.”)


Thanks to a charismatic teacher at Ardsley, he had already developed a passion for the classics, and ate up Exeter’s Latin program. In particular, he had a fanboy affinity with the emperor Caesar Augustus, whose legacy is a mixed one: a brilliant conqueror and empathetic ruler who also had an unseemly lust for power.


Somewhere in that kid’s head it all seemed to be simmering into a stew: Conquerors. Swashbuckling. Civilization. Risk. Coding. Empire-building. The recipe for Mark Zuckerberg.

There’s really no reason why my computer shouldn’t just know what I want to hear next, he told himself. He recruited D’Angelo to partner with him in creating what would be their senior project, a personalized virtual DJ they called Synapse.

D’Angelo, the more accomplished programmer, focused on building the brain, while Zuckerberg created the front end. “It would play songs for you based on what it knew you liked in a sequence that made sense, then we could compare different users’ logs and cross-recommend stuff,” Zuckerberg says. “It was cool.” The pair presented Synapse as their senior project, to kudos from their instructors, who were especially impressed with D’Angelo’s AI component.

Tillery’s real legacy as an Exonian came from exporting a binder of student headshots and captions known as the Photo Address Book to the malleable and infinitely accessible digital realm.

Thus was the Exeter Facebook sanctioned, and Tillery released it to the school’s entire population, which included Mark Zuckerberg. It was devilishly useful: you could look up someone by name, of course, but users also had the ability to search other things. Phone numbers were included—every student had a landline in the dorm—and Exonians devised a game where the facebook would choose a random person, whom they would prank-call.

Tillery stopped his involvement with the facebook program after graduating from Exeter. His next stop was Harvard University. So he was present at the school in February 2004, when an online facebook suddenly appeared and swept through the school like a tornado. He wasn’t surprised to see that it was created by Mark Zuckerberg. Even in his limited contact with Zuckerberg at Exeter, Tillery noticed that the intense young man had “big, big ambition.” Nor was he bothered by what was arguably an appropriation of his idea. In his view, the online facebook was something he’d worked on in prep school, and he was done with it. 

Consensus holds that the best schools for people like Zuckerberg are Stanford or MIT, maybe Carnegie Mellon. But Zuckerberg had his sights set on Harvard for years. In his Exeter dorm room the only adornment on his walls was a giant banner with the school’s name. And he wasn’t planning to major in computer science. He was thinking a nontechnical subject like psychology or classics. Or perhaps a science like physics. Also, Randi was already an undergraduate there. In what his parents describe as typical behavior, he didn’t bother to consider an array of possible options, just an early admissions application to Harvard. If he’d been turned down, it would have been a mad scramble to apply to other schools.


Harvard days

ZUCKERBERG ARRIVED AT Harvard with no intention to curb his passion for pursuing computer projects. During his very first month there, September 2002, he did a soft launch of the DJ program he and D’Angelo had created. The website was called Synapse-ai, the lowercase “ai” emphasizing the rudimentary artificial intelligence that chose the next song in the user’s playlist. Zuckerberg would spend a lot of time refining Synapse in his freshman year.

He made pocket money from taking contract jobs for computer work. He also took on some freelance programming jobs, like the $1,000 gig he found on Craigslist, coding a website for a Buffalo businessman named Paul Ceglia. Ceglia would later claim he owned half of Facebook, with documents that supposedly proved that Zuckerberg had agreed to this before starting the site. The courts threw out the case and Ceglia was prosecuted for forgery.

D’Angelo would have been fine leaving it as a class project, preferring to concentrate on his studies at the college he had chosen, the California Institute of Technology. “Caltech is, like, hard—you have to do work,” says D’Angelo. “Harvard, honest, it’s not that much work. So I think he had a lot more time.”

On April, 21, 2003, Slashdot, the premier source of news for the geek world, ran an item about an “interesting approach to digital music by students at Caltech and Harvard.” It invited the millions of people in the Slashdot community to try it out.

Overall, though, the Slashdot attention was a boon. Zuckerberg heard from multiple companies interested in the student project, including Microsoft and AOL. Zuckerberg and D’Angelo got an offer approaching a million dollars from one of those suitors. But the payout would be contingent on Zuckerberg and D’Angelo committing to work for that company for three years. They turned it down.

IN THE SUMMER of 2003, after completing his freshman year, Zuckerberg remained in Cambridge, interning at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies as a program analyst. He lived among a group of friends, including D’Angelo, housed in a dorm-like situation in town. D’Angelo was interning at the MIT Media Lab, working under Professor Judith Donath, who studied social networks. It was a timely subject, because that summer the darling of the Internet was a service called Friendster, the flagship of a phenomenon dubbed social media. “Mark thought it was interesting that I was so excited about Friendster,” says D’Angelo. “He wasn’t into it as a user, but it was clear to him that there was something there.”

Abrams got a $30 million buyout offer from Google—and turned it down. (A stake in 2003 Google at that size would eventually be worth more than a billion dollars.) By Mark Zuckerberg’s sophomore year of Harvard, Friendster had more than 3 million people registered, including D’Angelo and Zuckerberg.

D’Angelo spent the summer adding new features to Buddy Zoo and generally trying to keep up with demand. The database of names in the giant graph he was building was well on its way to more than 10 million, and he was using it to do research in his Media Lab internship.

The combination of doing fascinating work with the instant feedback of a huge base of users transformed the way D’Angelo thought about his programming projects. After this, he told himself he would only work on projects that could have an impact on the world. “I think it had a similar effect on Mark,”

At the end of freshman year, everyone gets a chance to join a group of eight students who form a “block” that will be assigned to one of the houses. And for the rest of their lives, Harvard graduates will mention that so-and-so had been in their block when that so-and-so’s name is well-known.

Their block was assigned to Kirkland House, and Zuckerberg and Hughes wound up in one of the bedrooms of Suite H33, designed for four students. The other room went to two people Zuckerberg hadn’t met, Dustin Moskovitz and Billy Olson. They put all their desks in a rather cramped common room with a fireplace they never used. Zuckerberg had come with a giant whiteboard to sketch out his projects; it would sit in a narrow hallway that connected the common room to the bedrooms.

Zuckerberg took a laissez-faire attitude toward classes. What seemed most important to him was working on projects. He loved building things, and the fact that he was attending one of the world’s premier universities didn’t distract him from spending hours and hours at his cheap wooden desk in the common room of Suite H33.

Origins of Facebook

His first project that year was a program he called Course Match.

But his journal of making “Harvard Face Mash” provides a rare and disturbing picture of his creative process. Peeved at an apparent romantic setback, Zuckerberg was admittedly a bit intoxicated when he sat down at his warren in the common room of the Kirkland suite a little after 8 p.m. on a Tuesday evening. A Beck’s beer was at his side. After announcing that the lady in question was “a bitch,” he wrote of a need for distraction. “I need to think of something to take my mind off her.” For Zuckerberg, the safe space in such times was his computer.

It took him three days of intense coding in the common room to finish the site. In the process he expanded his programming repertoire, since this project required him to deal with components of open source software like Linux and Apache and SQL that he had not previously mastered. Creating these projects was a form of training, like up-leveling an avatar in a role-playing game to take on the boss monster in some future epic clash.

Between the complaints and the traffic overload, Zuckerberg concluded that Facemash wasn’t worth the trouble and he began to shut it down. Soon after, the Harvard IT Department, which had been trying to deal with the unusual traffic demands, cut

MIT was also much more tolerant of high-tech pranks. It loved its hackers. Not so much Harvard, which was regarding Zuckerberg’s trick as a high offense. There was a real chance he might be sent packing.

The woman’s name was Priscilla Chan, and the pair made their connection while in the beer line. Chan took it in stride when Zuckerberg casually mentioned that he might be kicked out of school soon. This was remarkable because her own attendance at Harvard had been an inspiring immigration story. Her determined rise to become a pediatrician could never have withstood a dismissal from college. They agreed to go on a date.                 

Green’s father, a UCLA math professor who was visiting Cambridge to give a talk at MIT, remarked that Zuckerberg was rather cocky for a kid who almost got booted out of Harvard. “No more Zuckerberg projects for you,” he told his son, an admonition that probably cost Joe Green hundreds of millions of dollars.


The idea of putting a student facebook on the Internet was anything but novel. It was obvious and inevitable. After all, Zuckerberg had seen one at his prep school just a couple of years earlier. Students at various universities had already put directories online, some with many social features. A full four years earlier, for instance, some Stanford undergrads running a self-styled underground website called Steamtunnels had implemented an online facebook for the school.

Facebook, taking off 

In 2009, iLike, which had once gathered tens of millions of Facebook users, sold itself to MySpace for the fire-sale price of $20 million. “Facebook is a rocket ship,” says Nat Brown. “It turns out iLike was not strapped to the rocket ship. We were the fuel.”

We’re trying to enable people to share everything they want and to do it on Facebook. Sometimes the best way to enable people to share something is to have a developer build a special purpose app or network for that type of content and make that app social by having Facebook plug into it. However, that may be good for the world but it’s not good for us unless people share back to Facebook and that content increases the value of our network. So ultimately, I think the purpose of the platform . . . is to increase sharing back into Facebook.

And in 2013, Facebook began to consider a more sweeping adjustment that would more generally curtail the widespread giveaway of friend information, smashing the business plans of many companies that had built social apps.

Now Facebook would stop the practice, not to serve users but because it did not want to give away data to developers for nothing in return. This was not a friendly message to share at a developers conference. So Facebook came up with the idea to announce the change as if it were motivated by concern for user privacy. The move would fit in with a set of privacy features already planned for release.

There was yet another part of Pandemic that Facebook would announce in the package. It made use of non-celebrity endorsement, but in this case one not so directly tied to ad placement. Instead, it was a means of spreading the Facebook sharing ethic to the web in general, and tying commercial clients to Facebook. It was called Beacon. It worked this way: Facebook struck deals with forty-four partners to put invisible monitors on their web pages, called beacons. The pitch: Add three lines of code and reach millions of users. The beacons flagged activity to Facebook.

The deal gave both parties what they wanted. Microsoft had snagged a partner that Google coveted, and Facebook got a grab bag of goodies—an inventory for its international ads, clarity to sell its new social ads, and, in a twist that rocked the tech world, \$240 million in funding, in exchange for 1.6 percent of the company. That meant Microsoft was investing in Facebook as if it were worth $15 billion, barely a year after people thought Zuckerberg was nuts for spurning Yahoo!’s billion-dollar

Facebook at that point had called in a crisis PR team. “They were pretty clear,” says Tim Kendall. “Look, this is a trust issue. You’re going to burn through brand equity.”


Facebook finally decided to change the settings to opt-in. The company promised that users had to proactively consent before a story was published on the News Feed, finally restoring the default status to what Facebook execs had begged Zuckerberg to do in the first place. But that failed to quell the objections, especially as experts discovered disturbing aspects of Beacon’s operation. Researcher Stefan Berteau of CA Threat Research documented that Beacon was transmitting data even when the user opted out, as well as giving Facebook a lot of other information about what its users did on those outside websites. Beacon even gave Facebook information about people who weren’t signed up for Facebook.

Zuckerberg began to listen seriously to what was becoming a blaring chorus of voices telling him he needed an experienced leader alongside him at Facebook. This was the familiar call for “adult supervision” that investors often insist should accompany tech-oriented young founders on their corporate journey. So the search began in earnest for a second-in-command, ideally one with the gravitas of a CEO in his own right. Or


That’s the essence of Sheryl. She draws you in, helps you find the formula to solve your problem, and sends you off in time for her next meeting.

In Sandberg’s books she describes herself as the type of girl who obsessively organized things, and quotes her sister’s wedding toast: “Some of you think we are Sheryl’s younger siblings, but really we were Sheryl’s first employees,” said Michelle Sandberg. “To the best of our knowledge, Sheryl never actually played as a child but really just organized other children’s play.”

In one political-science class she was assigned a five-page paper, longer than the ones she had written in high school. She labored for days at it and was crushed when the instructor gave her a C, which at grade-inflated Harvard is virtually equivalent to an F. “I buckled down, worked harder and by the end of the semester, I learned how to write five-page papers,” she later told her readers. It was a strategy that characterized Sandberg’s later approach to the workplace: with sufficient preparation and diligence, one could always bag the A+. 

She eventually wound up in the sales organization at Google, which struck some people as odd. “This is a job for a tractor,” said her boss Omid Kordestani. “You’re a Porsche.” But Sandberg understood that Google was pioneering digital advertising at scale. It was just about to launch its AdWords search advertising product, which would become one of the most successful products in history. “I really believed that was the future of the business,” she says. She was fine

Sandberg was never one of the people you would hear talking about “Don’t Be Evil” or any of that stuff. She once remarked that, in her observation, a company’s beliefs were the opposite of its mantras. “My attitude has always been that you’d better keep your head down and do your work

Zuckerberg felt that Sandberg should basically take on the things that he wasn’t so interested in—sales, policy, communications, lobbying, legal, and anything else with a low geek quotient. His own time would be best spent on product—the stuff that engineers build. That’s what defined Facebook.


Facebook essentially had two organizations: Zuckerberg’s domain and Sheryl World. And in no way were those equal. Zuckerberg headed engineering, the product side, not only because he was better at it but because he felt it was the heart of the company. Still, it seemed like a no-brainer at the time. It would take him more than a decade to understand what a mistake it was.

She explained to the astonished newbies that there was an inverted pyramid of advertising, and to date her former employer, Google, had dominated the bottom by monetizing intent (as people did searches). But Facebook, she said, would have an even bigger business, because it had the potential to create and monetize demand. That was the much wider top of the inverted pyramid. People come every day to Facebook to learn what’s new and share their interests. So advertisers would be able to sell to Facebook users things that they wanted even before they thought to ask for them.


“I gave her a copy of Ender’s Game, and said, Read to this to understand Mark,” says Joe Green.


By and large people saw her as the perfect complement to Zuckerberg. “She was everything Mark wasn’t,” says Ezra Callahan. “She was diplomatic, she was eloquent, she was relatable. She could make all parts of the company feel like they mattered, whereas Mark increasingly was making clear that product engineering runs the show, and the rest of you should shut up and do your jobs. It took us from feeling like this is a billion-dollar company that’s going to shoot itself in the foot one too many times to, Okay this is going to happen now.


It was obvious to Sandberg that Facebook’s business would be advertising and everything else a rounding error.

Obsessive growth

And so Facebook finally had its business model. It would require further tweaking, and a deeper dive into personal data, especially as people abandoned desktops and moved their online world to handheld devices. But as the dollars poured in, billions and billions of dollars, now drained from traditional advertising venues and into Facebook’s coffers, Mark Zuckerberg’s over-the-top introduction to Pandemic seemed less and less hyperbolic. 


Not that Palihapitiya necessarily agreed with the lionization treatment that the young CEO was enjoying in the press and in Silicon Valley’s inner circles—he never subscribed to the pervasive meme in the tech world and the business magazines that successful founders were like gods in the Pantheon. To him, they were more like opportunistic beneficiaries of favorable economic and social conditions. Maybe if Zuckerberg had gone to Ohio State instead of Harvard, he thought, none of this would have happened.


And Palihapitiya could be a bully. He would humiliate people at meetings, criticizing their appearance. He mocked one barely middle-aged executive for his receding hairline. Another former executive, who would only talk about Palihapitiya if I turned off my tape recorder, was almost in tears as he recounted the verbal abuse he took from Palihapitiya. It was as if he was still afraid that Palihapitiya might emerge from behind the bushes and resume his battering. When I asked Palihapitiya about this, his reaction was unapologetic. “Get. Out. Of. My. Way,” he says. “They must feel really bad as they lounge around in their chinchilla blankets and their multimillion-dollar mansions right now.” He explains that the workplace is not a family, and if people were looking for touchy-feely responses from him, “that was not going to be a good meeting, those people probably felt intellectually bullied.”


NOW, IN SANDBERG’S office, Palihapitiya was about to throw a Hail Mary: he had something in mind that he felt would be instrumental in Facebook’s future success. He didn’t anticipate that the same effort would cause its failures as well. At that moment—early 2008—Facebook’s growth had slowed. A similar trough had hit Facebook more than a year earlier, before Open Reg and the News Feed kicked in, but in a way, this was more alarming, because there were no similar groundbreaking products on the horizon. And no one had any idea about the cause. “Everything stopped,” says one executive. “And to this day we don’t know why.”

Indeed, even in 2005, the company decided to hire specialists who would dive into the information Facebook gathered to draw more users. That was to be the main role filled by Dan Plummer, the scientist who died in a bicycle accident in January 2006. His replacement came to Facebook by a chance encounter involving Zuckerberg’s sister Randi, whom he’d asked to come work for the company. At her going-away party in New York, Zuckerberg recognized an engineer named Jeff Hammerbacher as someone he’d been in a seminar with at Harvard. (Hammerbacher’s girlfriend had been pals with Randi and had dragged him along.) On Zuckerberg’s suggestion, he applied for work at Facebook. His plan was to establish California residency for a year and go to grad school there paying in-state tuition. But he was impressed with the Facebook engineers who interviewed him. And he was intrigued when he saw that Adam D’Angelo’s business card read “data mining.” Hammerbacher was all about that. And so was this little Palo Alto start-up, even


Microsoft had objected to this. “They were blatantly stealing, trying to build their social network on the backs of others,” says a Microsoft executive involved in the discussions. Zuckerberg shrugged it off when confronted with the charge. “He was like, Yeah, I know it’s kind of annoying, if it bothers you we’ll stop,” says the executive. “But he didn’t stop.” In Microsoft’s view, it not only violated their terms of service but was arguably an unethical data grab. Just because you were someone’s contact on Hotmail, that didn’t mean that you would be okay with winding up in a Facebook database. Find Friends created a tension with Microsoft that was resolved only on the eve of the larger company’s investment in Facebook in 2007.


To keep that growth going, Facebook needed to scrape not only Hotmail but numerous other services. The process had to be done separately for each email provider, a time-consuming project that could not possibly be executed by the single engineer Facebook had assigned to the task. An early Facebooker named Jed Stremel, who had been an ace dealmaker at Yahoo!, took care of the problem. He discovered that the global wizards of contact scraping were found in a two-person company in Malaysia called Octazen. Stremel quickly made a deal for them to write their little data gobblers for Facebook. He recalls that he paid about $400 for the deal. “It was in keeping with the spirit of ‘Move Fast and Break Things’—just getting something done quickly is what mattered,” he recalls. (Facebook would buy Octazen in 2010.)

By the time that Palihapitiya moved to Growth, Hammerbacher had grown doubtful about the mission he was fulfilling at Facebook. He left the company in September 2008. “It was turning from a place to explore to a place to exploit,” he once told an interviewer. 

But the masterpiece of Growth—its Mona Lisa, its “Like a Rolling Stone,” its Godfather 1 and 2—is a feature that became almost as much a part of News Feed as weddings, vacations, and political outrage. It’s called People You May Know, referred to internally by the acronym PYMK. Officially launched in August 2008, People You May Know is a feature that identifies personally selected prospects for one’s friend list. PYMK proved to be one of Growth Circle’s most effective tools, and also one of its most controversial ones, a symbol of how the dark art of growth hacking can lead to unexpected consequences.

But Palihapitiya now indicates that dark profiles did exist, and the Growth team took advantage of them. He says that Facebook would take out search ads on Google using the names of Facebook holdouts as keywords. The ads would link, he says, to those dark profiles of nonusers that supposedly do not exist. “You would search for your own name on the Internet and you’d land on a dark profile on Facebook,” he says. “And then you’d be like well, fuck it, you’d fill it in and then PYMK would kick in and we would show you a bunch of your friends.”

As Morin puts it, “When Facebook shows you people you should connect to, it can make a choice as to how that algorithm works. It can either show you people you’ll become closer to and who will make you happier if you add them to your world. Or it can show you people that are advantageous for Facebook, the system, to show you, because it increases Facebook’s value and wealth and it makes my system better.” He says that Facebook takes the latter course, benefiting itself at the expense of its users. This might give the experienced user a worse experience. The News Feed is zero-sum—people view only a limited number of stories. Facebook would prioritize stories from your newer, weaker ties that it wanted to keep on the service. And you would see fewer things from people you did care about. “The system knew that if I said yes to you, you would become more engaged,” says Morin. “You’d be effectively stalking me because I’m like a person distant in your social graph who you want to know. It’s almost like watching a tabloid.” Morin says this semi-stalking factor “became the primary variable in PYMK.” Some people pushed back on Palihapitiya on this issue, arguing that such behavior was not Facebook-ish. Palihapitiya said since the ultimate goal is getting everyone on Facebook, it doesn’t matter in the long run. Though he said it more colorfully than that. “He was basically like, Go fuck yourself, and he’d walk out of the meeting.” says Morin. Eventually Morin would quit Facebook and start his own social network, called Path. The idea behind it was that it would limit one’s social network to only meaningful connections; following the dictates of Dunbar, one could have 150 friends and no more. (He later increased the number.) 


In 2013, Zuckerberg would write a ten-page white paper laying out the vision, entitled, “Is Connectivity a Human Right?” The answer was a resounding yes. “Everyone will benefit from the increased knowledge, experience, and progress we make from having everyone connected to the Internet,” he wrote. “Connecting the world will be one of the most important things we all do in our lifetimes.”


In 2007, on a walk with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Zuckerberg had asked how his company communicated the qualities its employees should exemplify. Ballmer told him that Microsoft had lists of self-defining qualities. Zuckerberg had gone home and written a bunch of those out and pinned it to the office refrigerator. The list wasn’t all that popular—someone took offense to the specification of “high IQ” and

Focus on Impact. Be Bold. Move Fast and Break Things. Be Open. Zuckerberg liked those but insisted on a fifth: Build Social Value. While the first four were internal guidelines, this fifth value emphasized Facebook’s impact on the outside world, which Zuckerberg believed was overwhelmingly positive.


Google’s elders were professors who wrote the textbooks that its leaders learned from; Facebook hired Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard TA. True, even in 2005 there was a smattering of thirtysomethings on staff—a few of them married, with kids. But while Zuckerberg understood the value of veterans like Jeff Rothschild, at his core he believed that younger people were . . . smarter. He said exactly that in a Y Combinator start-up school in 2007, telling 650 would-be founders to hire people who were young and technical. “Why are most chess masters under thirty?” he asked. His later apology for that remark (which, if it truly reflected Facebook’s hiring policy, would put the company in violation of federal labor laws) didn’t

As later recounted by The Wall Street Journal, Zuckerberg, inspiring recruiters in the ongoing talent war with Google, reverted to his favorite trope, invoking the ancients. This time he didn’t cite his hero, Homer, but a recent movie, Troy, where a messenger confessed to Achilles that he feared taking on the Thessalonians. “That’s why no one will remember your name!” said Achilles. Likewise, he said, recruiters should use this compelling comeback when potential hires asked why they should take a job with Facebook: “Tell them: because people will remember your name!”

On the surface, these partings were amiable, with the exiles remarking on the cool adventure ahead rather than attributing the departure to something, or someone, they’d tired of. A former top Facebooker explains, “The thing employees at Facebook value most amongst every value in the world is freedom—because they don’t get any of it when they work there. They make money and they get none of the freedom. A lot of these people just want freedom.” The understood implication was freedom from Zuckerberg. “Working with Mark is very challenging,” Hughes told author David Kirkpatrick after his departure. “It’s much better to be friends with Mark than to work with him.”


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