People kept having the idea for Facebook long before Facebook ever came around. First there was sixdegrees; then there was Friendster; then there was MySpace. On college campuses like Stanford, people were digitizing their printed facebooks as early as 1999. When Mark Zuckerberg was in high school at Exeter, a classmate of his named Kris Tillery built a database of student headshots and put it online along with their phone numbers. The project, which the school eventually gave its blessing to, was called Facebook.
Of all those projects, though, only Mark Zuckerberg’s is still around. The reasons why are explored at length in Facebook: The Inside Story
, Steven Levy’s mammoth new account of the social network from its founding until the present day. Levy had access to Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and many of their top lieutenants and other employees over the past three and a half years, and the result it a revealing look at what the past 16 years have looked like from the offices in Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
The broad outlines of Facebook’s story are well known. But Levy adds a lot of color to subjects including Zuckerberg’s early life, his monomaniacal focus on growing the user base, and the gradual shrinking of his inner circle over time. Levy also has the best account yet of the Cambridge Analytica fiasco — he’s appropriately skeptical of the motives of everyone involved, and lays out in great detail how Facebook sowed the seeds for that particular comeuppance.
“We gave Mr. Levy wide access to our executives, who were forthcoming about the most painful moments in Facebook’s past,” the company told me over email today. “While we don’t agree with everything he said, we also don’t deny the challenges he describes and are actively working to solve them.”
As you might expect from the subhed, The Inside Story leaves out the voices of almost everyone who doesn’t work there. While it gestures broadly to all of the major criticisms Facebook has received over the years, the book is not a referendum on surveillance capitalism, antitrust, or hate speech. But if you want to know why Facebook is the way it is — how its leaders think, what their blind spots are, and why the company’s plans have so often gone awry — The Inside Story is an excellent starting place. I expect to be referring to it, here and elsewhere, for some time to come.
Tomorrow I’ll share some of my favorite moments from the book, which you can buy here
. But first, I wanted to ask Levy about the project and what he’s taking away from it. We spoke this week over email.
Casey Newton: Facebook has had no shortage of press coverage in its first decade and a half. And yet the first rough draft of history sometimes get things wrong. Was there a part of Facebook’s story that turned out to be different than you assumed once you dug into it?
Steven Levy: I wouldn’t say the early accounts were wrong, but telling the history with benefit of hindsight I was able to identify decisions—usually Mark’s decisions—that would wind up costing Facebook (and in some cases us users) dearly. We all know Mark wanted to connect the world. But by understanding his thought process and goals—and particularly his competitive instincts and his drive for growth—I felt I was able to freshly account for how Facebook as we know came about. I also found tons of wonderful, previously untold or under-covered stories, like the ill-fated Facebook phone, the Twitterization of the News Feed, and the Analog Research Lab, a silk-screen operation which churned out those propaganda posters you see all over Facebook HQ.
The book opens with Zuckerberg getting peeved in Nigeria when he discovers that the teens there don’t like Facebook as much as they like Instagram. Later, you recount how Mark came to starve Instagram of resources, eventually driving its founders out of the company.
This feels like an uncharacteristically emotional decision from Zuckerberg. Why did Instagram’s success bother him so much?
I think that the Instagram people are still baffled by that. (For the record, when I asked him directly, Mark would not concede he was ”jealous” of Instagram’s success, though people on the IG team thought otherwise.) Perhaps because in this timeframe Mark was conceiving his Private Messaging pivot—which would basically cut out the founders as the key decision-makers and make Instagram more integrated into Facebook—he felt that it was necessary to purge those founders. He told me he saw it as freeing them to do great things elsewhere. If you look at it that way, it’s not so much an emotional decision but a strategic one.
There’s a great moment in the book where, in 2019, you ask Sheryl Sandberg her own signature question: what would you do if you weren’t afraid? She gives you the absolute most sanitized non-answer imaginable. (“What I would do if I wasn’t afraid is try to be the Facebook CEO and grow this business and say I’m a feminist.”)
It’s consistent with almost all of her appearances in this book, where it seems like she is trying to avoid discussing whatever the topic at hand is in any real detail. What do you think Sandberg is actually afraid of?
As Sheryl herself writes in her own book, she likes to be in control of her environment, and believes that if she works hard enough and smart enough she can accomplish anything. I wasn’t surprised that she was cautious in answering that question. I felt I did see a very genuine Sheryl in hour two (!) of our final interview, when it was clear how much the fall in Facebook’s reputation pained her, even more so because she understands that her own shortcomings contributed to this. It got pretty raw.
Zuckerberg, on the other hand, strikes me as refreshingly straightforward in this book. Since childhood he has always wanted to grow and manage a giant civilization, and now he has! Everything else is just tactics, and the ends almost always justify the means.
At the same time, he’s slow to trust people, and over the past few years most of his top lieutenants have left him. How deep do you think Facebook’s bench is these days? When the current generation of deputies leaves, are there new stars waiting?
No question there’s still talent at Facebook. But, as I think you’re implying, Mark likes to give key jobs to people he’s known and trusted for a while, and that bench is getting thin. (Andrew “Boz” Bosworth for instance, has come off the bench a couple times to take on big important missions, most recently hardware, AR/VR.) I think the critical departure was Chris Cox, who in my view was the person who would have taken over if Mark suddenly decided he’d reached retirement age. Of those execs who joined relatively recently, I notice that David Marcus, who left PayPal in 2014 to head Messenger and now is leading Libra, seems to have earned a lot of trust from Mark.
You’ve previously done book-length dives into Apple and Google. How does Facebook’s internal culture compare to those giants? And could the company survive for very long if Zuckerberg ever left?
Facebook has always operated in Zuckerberg’s image. It matters that he dropped out of college and created a culture based on the speediness of web development and the brashness of the dorm. (Google, while no less ambitious, was more grad school and science; Apple revered design.) Sandberg professionalized Facebook’s culture to some degree, but “the engineering mindset” and the “move fast” ethic — both explicitly touted by Mark — are still in effect. The company would not disappear if Mark were to leave —the advertisers would keep buying — but it would be a different place under whoever his successor was. And maybe the political ads policy would change.
Finally, I have a lot of questions about Amazon. Could you write your next book about them?
Get your questions ready for Brad Stone
, he’s on this.