A section from
‘A Jedi shall not know hatred, nor fear… nor love.’ from Star Wars Episode II
FACEBOOK IN POPULAR CULTURE
Facebook in business & popular culture
The Social Network story
Facebook makes us smile, shudder, squeeze into photographs so we can see ourselves online later, fret when no one responds to our witty remarks, snicker over who got fat after high school, pause during weddings to update our relationship status to Married or codify a break-up by setting our status back to Single.
- TIME, May ‘10
Facebook in business & popular culture.
A Bombay ad-man was tasked with creating some buzz around a Hollywood movie’s Indian premiere; The ad-man - Mr. Gin-Tonic - is 27 and the chief of a firm dedicated to social-network marketing. He reached out to his formidable list of FB friends and got his team to do the same. Without spending a dime of Facebook’s advertising service he got close to a hundred thousand ‘likes’ for the movie’s Indian premiere page. Comparing his numbers to the few thousand ‘likes’ other country launch pages got would be cruel. Impressed with this feat, the studio boss was given an audience and shown how a virtual campaign on Facebook lead to a real-world buzz. Mr. Gin-Tonic rattles of names of sites - Facebook, Orkut, MySpace and the like but states that after months of chasing fans on all sorts of sites, he is now focused on Facebook and Twitter exclusively (the 80/20 rule).
Larger ad-firms have published booklets and sometimes entire books on ‘social network marketing’. I’m certain there is a ‘Dummies Guide to Facebook’ somewhere out there. Facebook can claim responsibility for putting the topic on the map because it went viral for a genuine reason - users actually ’liked’ and used and spent time on it – the longevity of the site and regular growth in users is testament to the fact. It’s Open Graph program (that ‘like’ button you see on different websites) got over a hundred thousand sites to sign up within a month of the program’s launch.
Facebook.com was launched after MySpace.com and Friendster.com but swiftly surpassed them in membership – if Facebook were a country its population (membership) would rank at #3 right behind India.
This membership is the base of Facebook’s business model. Because its advertising programs click-ratios are way below the internet average, only the absolute number of clicks make business sense. Still, it has Google gunning for the same audience, but with little success – Google has twice failed to match FB - Orkut and Buzz were both disappointments.
Charlene Li of the Altimeter Group puts this into context - “Google’s culture is very much based on the power of the algorithm, and it’s very difficult to algorithm social interaction.”
And an anonymous Google employee said - “That part of social that’s about stalking people, sharing photos, looking cool - it’s mentally foreign to engineers. All those little details are subtle and sometimes missed, especially by technical people who are brought up in a very utilitarian company.”
Indeed, Microsoft and Google were fighting a bidding war over Facebook, and in October 2007 Microsoft invested 240 million dollars for a 1.6% stake in the company, valuing it at 15 billion dollars and making Mark Zuckerberg the youngest billionaire.
Facebook needs to keep our emotional involvement very high. They keep tweaking the formula to keep us going back for more. As a localization strategy Facebook rides national trends and idiosyncrasies – their mobile applications were first targeted towards the Japanese, in India Facebook developed the IPL cricket tournament page itself, and Facebook is being translated into 60+ languages including Zulu. China is a weak-spot for the site and getting the numbers there is on Mark Zuckerberg’s 2011 agenda.
Facebook very often gets into trouble by pushing the limits - mostly over privacy concerns. It had some explaining to do to the Federal Trade Commission about its frequent policy changes. The Facebook Beacon program that tracked member’s online purchases had to be cancelled because of an outcry over privacy.
Social scientists and anthropologists have a field day analyzing our reaction to the site. In 2010 The Daily Mail reported a study by York University, Canada that FB provides an ideal setting for narcissists to monitor their looks, permitting them to thrive on ‘shallow’ relationships while shunning genuine warmth and empathy. Sounds like most of us.
Other studies reported how many man-hours per year social networking sites wasted. Workplaces first banned it, then some allowed it as an incentive. In October 2010 The Economic Times ran an articles titled “Five Ways to Stay With The Boss on Facebook” which helped you navigate having your boss on your FB friends list. No one seems to be able to escape it.
Investigators, specially in divorce or insurance matters, have used evidence from photos put up on Facebook profiles to prove their case in court. Down Under, the police used the site to serve a court order on an alleged offender.
Facebook also created an industry of applications - Farmville, Mafia Wars and the like make money off gifts in their virtual world just like Lindenlabs’ SecondLife.
for those at the other end of the spectrum - the ones who are done with being addicted to Facebook, a counter movement called Virtual Suicide was launched i.e. seppukoo.com. This service will wipe out your profile and ‘before you ‘die’, the last comments from you will be sent to your friends, and a memorial page will be created to replace it’. In December 2009 Facebook.com banned this service, and as on September 2010 20,000 users has committed ‘suicide’.
The Social Network story
Another phenomenon that sets it apart from other social-networking sites is that no one has written a book about any other site, at least none that could be confused with fiction. Behind the making of Facebook is some bona fide business drama that began the week after the site was launched (since the time it was thefacebook.com) till today. Ben Mezrich – the author of Rigged, Ugly Americans and Bringing Down the House (filmed as 21) has captured some of this drama in his book – The Accidental Billionaires (filmed as The Social Network).
The founding of Facebook as described in the Wikipedia entry is sufficient - there is a controversy, but nothing too sinister. What Ben Mezrich does is put the events surrounding its founding in narrative. He puts his source material to the reader to establish the factual nature of his book. Interviews, documents, court records and a meeting with Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin. Ben Mezrich introduces the controversy in the last line of his preface where he says that Mark Zuckerberg declined to speak to him.
The book starts off like Erich Segal’s stories do – lots about Harvard – the fraternities, the social pecking order and social-climbing efforts, rowing and the ubiquitous Harvard Crimson.
The first Mark Zuckerberg controversy was facemash.com where girls were compared and ranked according to their looks. The establishment and the girls didn’t see the humour in it but Eduardo Saverin had a difference perspective;
‘He (Mark) hadn’t realised that girls were going to get mad because guys were voting on their appearance – hell, Mark and Eduardo and probably every other college guy in the world had been ranking female classmates in terms of hotness since the dawn of structured education. Eduardo was pretty sure that somday, some paleontologist would fine a cave drawing ranking Neanderthal girls – it was simply human nature to make that kind of list.’
What follows is the making of the second controversy – Mark was supposedly working with three popular and influential Harvard seniors on a dating site but that responsibility stalled when Mark got busy making thefacebook.com in secret. Eduardo and Mark’s roommates were also involved in the site. The Harvard seniors were furious that they’ve been deceived and their frustrations rise in direct proportion to thefacebook.com’s popularity (which is an instant hit and goes viral all over Harvard).
While Eduardo is the protagonist in the book, Mark is the alpha-male - unreadable face and recalcitrant, guerilla mindset. Mark is given little dialogue other than – ‘this should be interesting’; and Eduardo is always one step behind Mark’s chain of thought, which is constantly highlighted by Eduardo’s inability to tell what his friend is actually thinking. But Eduardo’s business acumen remains un-faulted - he knows Mark is onto something big with thefacebook.com and supports the site. Later on, despite their differences, he is determined to hold on to his investment, and it is Eduardo’s stake that becomes the centre of their future conflict.
Once the summer break begins their friendship begins to crack, and this coincides with the introduction of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sean Parker. Mark is focused on the site and getting members; he isn’t thinking about generating revenues. Eduardo is focusing on the business side of the things and getting ad-revenues to keep the site cash-flow positive. While Eduardo is concerned with his cash that the site is burning while rapidly expanding, Sean Parker seeing his concern, takes the role of mentor to Mark that Eduardo should have held on to.
Of course, the devil is in the details, but Ben Mezrich remains neutral in his portrayal of Mark and Eduardo by subtly portraying them in positive and negative lights in different sections. It is interesting how Eduardo’s and Mark’s mindset differed; and how Silicon Valley and the industry works. An example of interactions between hacker-geniuses and investors is put forward in Sean Parker’s story of Napster and Plaxo.
The first half of the book was not impressive; Mark and Eduardo’s introductions are essential to setting up the story but not much else. From the time Mark moves to Silicon Valley things start to get interesting, and I was reminded why I was reading the book – because Ben Mezrich writes excellent business fiction; And there was something very similar to James Clavell’s works. Like Clavell’s heroes, Mezrich’s protagonists in Rigged and Ugly Americans deal with alien cultures and develop respect for and bond with these cultures, their people and women.
Mark’s role could be compared with Tess Straun’s in Gai-Jin, where she is never present in person but through her letters and sheer force of personality influences the events and outcome of the novel. Mark’s almost complete absence of dialogue is made up with actions which are implied and often which the reader will realize after many pages are turned. Despite being a master at hacking he is a novice in the business world, but his stubborn, almost snobbish arrogance coupled with Sean Parker’s efforts and belief navigate him through the players in Silicon Valley.
By the end, Mark has outsmarted his enemies, ousted threats to the company from within and outplayed the competition. Yet, he is fighting many lawsuits against those who he was associated with before Facebook was barely a blip on the radar. Somehow, since the book is narrating an on-going matter, it seems incomplete. The afterward gives a little more information - this is good because the end leaves the reader with a lot of questions.
In business there are no permanent friends, and therefore no permanent enemies, and after some research beyond the book Eduardo comes across as someone who was outplayed but fought back, and though the fight is probably not over he has turned the tide of events and gained momentum.
The afterward of The Accidental Billionaires begins to put things into perspective and details some of the events that followed. But to get a clear and recent picture you will have to look at the news - Eduardo’s fight back seems to be paying off, and his status as co-founder is restored. His Facebook profile is a reflection of his business-mind - if he actually couldn't read his friend’s face, then his profile does a pretty good job of keeping a poker face himself. As if to say to visitors looking to get a glimpse of his struggle, he is saying ‘go home, there’s nothing to see here’. The legal matter is a tightly held proceeding, and Eduardo seems to want to keep it that way.
There is a photo on Eduardo’s Wall. The accompanying post reads - Here is a funny photo I found of the Harvard AEPI fraternity back in the day - can you spot where Mark and I are in the photo?
Mark’s Facebook profile has no ‘add as friend’ button just like TIME Magazine said; but before you reach his facebook profile you’ll see a whole lot of Mark Zuckerberg Pages in the search results, one with a million+ people ‘like this’ right beside; in fact Mark himself ‘likes’ one of these. His bland bio reads - I’m trying to make the world a more open place, and the rest of his profile is pretty normal with movies that most guys would enjoy watching. Is it a PR move? I don’t think so - if it was I’m sure there would be more than just one book on his list.
The 26 year is distinguished visually by the sports sweater and flip-flops he always wears, and it could almost fool you into believing that Facebook is still a dorm-room project; but the image works, even if he wears it with some of the disdain that Ben Mezrich says he has for the establishment. Visually, then, a man of the people?
To sum up, the tag-line of The Social Network - “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies” - reminds me of a quote from Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight. The anti-hero Constantin Demeris - a Greek shipping magnate says - To be successful you need friends, to be very successful you need enemies.
Sources and Further Reading
The Accidental Billionaires - Ben Mezrich
Facebook - Friends Without Borders, Time Magazine, May 31 2010
Mirror, mirros on the web: Facebook users are narcissists - The Times of India Sep 10 2010
Those who help you die online - Sunday Midday Sep 26 2010
Google’s determined to crack the social code - The Economic Times, Oct 19 2010
Facebook founder eyes China, faces death threat… - The Times of India, Oct 19 2010
Australia police serves court order through Facebook - The Times of India, Oct 20, 2010
Best of the Site
The Accidental Billionaires is a dramatic, narrative account based on dozens of interviews, hundreds of sources, and thousands of pages of documents, including reports from several court proceedings.
- From the Author’s Note
The Harvard Crimson made Zuckerberg notorious after facemash was launched.
Cameron Vinklevoss was one of Zuckerberg’s seniors at Harvard who along with his twin brother is today involved in legal proceedings against Facebook. Cameron is on facebook; just like Mark his ‘add as friend’ button too is disabled.
Games and their virtual currencies are a part of FB’s business model; that and keeping users on the site for longer stretches of time.
A Facebook mobile application.
100m users: mid-2008
200m users: early 2009
300m users: late 2009
400m users: early 2010
A picture from TIME Magazine May 31, 2010. The caption reads - Private citizen Zuckerberg is responsible for turning friend into a verb. But don’t try to friend the 26-year old CEO: the button on his profile has been disabled.
How FB overcame Google & Yahoo on time spent on the web. From Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s FB Page / SI Insider, Comscore.
Eduardo Saverin’s profile picture.
Mark Zuckerberg’s profile picture.