Yesterday I chatted here with author Steven Levy about his new book, Facebook: The Inside Story
. Today I wanted to share some of my favorite parts of the story, focusing on Levy’s considerable original reporting. While I’m sharing my favorite parts here, I’m still leaving a ton out. This book is 527 pages, and a memorable event takes place on more pages than not. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants a comprehensive, reality-based account of the company’s first 16 years.
The moments below span the company’s history, and so by necessity this account is going to feel a bit all over the place. I decided to structure this piece as an interview with myself, because no one else I know has actually finished this book yet.
What is an absolutely wild story from the early days of Facebook that was previously reported but you had never heard about?
Well, there was the time that Mark Zuckerberg hacked into reporters’ email to see what they were working on. In 2010 Business Insider reported
that while he was still at Harvard, the school paper was investigating the Winkelvoss brothers’ claim that the idea for Facebook had been “stolen.” Zuckerberg searched the Facebook logs for instances where Crimson reporters had entered the wrong password, then used those one of those wrong password attempts to successfully log in to two student reporters’ email accounts. When he did, he found that one of the reporters had called him “sleazy,” although the newspaper eventually concluded that Zuckerberg hadn’t stolen anything from the Winklevosses.
I cannot believe I had never heard this story before now.
What is the single most prescient thing Zuckerberg said about Facebook in his early years?
In an instant message while he was still at Harvard, after he had survived an encounter with a disciplinary body known as the administrative board, Zuckerberg instant messaged this to a friend:
there are no school newspapers and ad boards after you graduate. only the new york times and the federal courts haha
What is the single most consequential decision that Facebook ever made?
When Zuckerberg hired Sheryl Sandberg to be his chief operating officer, he delegated to her the subjects he was least interested in. That included policy, which he saw as distinct from the product organization. In fact, product and policy are two sides of the same coin — you can’t successfully manage one without paying close attention to the other. Much of the reckoning of the past three-plus years can be traced to delegating policy operations to Sandberg, while the company’s all-powerful growth team — which reported to Zuckerberg – ran roughshod over everything else. Policy has always lagged behind the messes created by the growth team, and this was by organizational design.
Did Zuckerberg immediately see the appeal of a like button when it was proposed to him?
He did not, because he suspected it would decrease the number of comments people left on Facebook. In fact, the like button increased the number. The team debated it for more than 18 months before finally implementing it.
Facebook has long denied the existence of “dark” or “shadow” profiles — essentially, landing pages for people who have yet to create accounts, but are pre-populated with information about their friends and other data. What did the former leader of the growth team, Chamath Palihapitiya, have to say about these profiles?
From page 222:
“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 to 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 … we would show you a bunch of your friends.”
What’s the first product idea that Facebook borrowed wholesale from another company?
According to Ezra Callahan, an early product manager and one of the company’s first 20 employees, it was allowing people to post text status messages — an idea cribbed from Twitter in 2006. “Status was a very late addition and just a straight rip-off of Twitter,” he says on page 259. “No way around it — Twitter got popular real fast, let’s do that here. That was the first time we just straight ripped off somebody.”
What can you tell us about the Facebook phone prototype that it produced?
Its codename was GFK, after the Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah. Facebook denied building a phone to its own workers. (“It was the first time I recall Facebook lying internally” — Callahan.) The phone was designed by Yves Behar and had “an unusual groove in the curved surface, where one could scroll using a thumb.” The processor was built by Intel, which also offered “an innovative touch sensor that would both unlock the phone and scroll in a single movement.” The touch sensor only worked for right-handed people, but Facebook proceeded with it anyway. (“We decided we didn’t care about left-handed people,” an anonymous worker tells Levy.)
What is the funniest email sent in the history of the company?
Of the ones presented here, I’d have to go with the note Zuckerberg sent Evan Spiegel after Spiegel spurned an acquisition offer and Facebook built its first app to compete directly with Snapchat. “I hope you enjoy Poke,” the email from Zuckerberg read in its entirety. (It’s funny because no one enjoyed using Poke.)
How did Google screw up its attempt to buy WhatsApp?
Page 322: “In 2012, the executive making the pitch was Marissa Mayer. But [WhatsApp co-founders] [Jan] Koum and [Brian] Acton didn’t find it encouraging that when they came to Google’s Mountain View offices for the meeting, Mayer’s participation was video-conferenced, even though she was somewhere else on the actual campus.”
How seriously did WhatsApp’s founders take the finding that their product is being used to promote hate speech, lynch mobs, and other societal harms?
Apparently not at all. “There is no morality attached to technology, it’s people that attach morality to technology,” Brian Acton tells Levy. “It’s not up to technologists to be the ones to render judgment. I don’t like being a nanny company. Insofar as people use a product in India or Myanmar or anywhere for hate crimes or terrorism or anything else, let’s stop looking at the technology and start asking questions about the people.”
What’s one of Sandberg’s go-to techniques when being interviewed by a reporter?
Telling the reporter that she is nervous, “in hopes of an easier interrogation,” a colleague tells Levy.
How directly did Zuckerberg and Sandberg interact with their chief security officer, Alex Stamos, before and during the investigation into Russian election interference on the platform?
Shockingly little. Sandberg says she rarely interacted with Stamos, and Zuckerberg never had a one-on-one meeting with him.
What is a representative quote from Sandberg about this episode?
(“They” in this instance refers to the Facebook board.)
“People were pretty upset; this was a big deal. And I think we thought it was a big deal too. I think we were upset and they were upset. We were all upset together. I mean, you’re really upset to find out that foreign powers or anyone would have tried to interfere in the election, like, really upset.”
Having now read this book, when do you think Sandberg will quit Facebook?
As soon as she can find a relatively graceful way to do so.
Does Zuckerberg go out of his way to appease conservatives who are critical of Facebook?
Here’s what he says about this on page 459: “If you have a company which is 90 percent liberal — that’s probably the makeup of the Bay Area — I think you have some responsibility to make sure that you go out of your way and build systems to make sure that you’re not unintentionally building bias in.”
Is Zuckerberg having any fun?
“I don’t optimize for fun,” he says on page 463.
How did Zuckerberg work to limit Instagram’s growth before its co-founders quit the company?
First, by stripping links to the app from photos posted by Instagram to the News Feed, as has been previously reported. But he went a step further by denying the cofounders the ability to hire nearly as many people as they wanted. This included a request to build out Instagram’s standalone messaging product, Direct, which was eventually shelved. (A different Instagram messaging product, Threads
, emerged last year.)
How does this change the prevailing narrative around Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram?
I used to think the question was, why did the cofounders quit Facebook? It’s clear that the real question is now, why did Zuckerberg manage them out of the organization? Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger had made a bet that they could grow faster by taking a different (though obviously related) approach than their parent company — and it was working.
But beginning around 2017, Zuckerberg began gradually made their lives more difficult until they quit. Why? I wonder if it might have been related to an internal speech Zuckerberg gave after the election debacle about becoming, in the venture capitalist Ben Horowitz’s phrase, a “wartime CEO
” — the feeling that he could no longer indulge a group of acquired founders in their pet pursuits and needed to centralize control over every aspect of the operation. Time will tell whether this was the right decision. But at least in the case of Instagram, it strikes me as a tactical error.
What is the irreducible core of Facebook? What is the idea that powers the whole thing?
Total faith that “connecting the world” — in the form of ensuring that every living being is a daily active user of a Facebook product — will have a net positive effect on the world, eventually. Zuckerberg sums up this attitude in the book’s closing pages:
“I think a lot of people would be more conservative and say, Okay, this is what I believe should happen but I’m not going to mess with it because I’m too afraid of breaking something. I am more afraid of not doing the best thing we can than I am of breaking the thing that we currently have. I just think I take more chances and that means I get more things wrong.”
Facebook’s comment on The Inside Story is this:
“We gave Mr. Levy wide access to our executives, who were forthcoming about the most painful moments in Facebook’s past. 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.”