I’ve been on the social networking beat for a long time. How long? Well, when I interviewed Facebook engineers Chris Cox and Andrew “Boz” Bosworth about the tenth anniversary of the News Feed earlier this week, I was reminded of the stories I’d written a decade earlier when it launched. At the time, like many others in the media, I was critical of the cavalier way in which the company had addressed — or rather, failed to address — privacy.
As significant as it was for the evolution of the social web, the News Feed also represented a turning point for the company’s nascent management team, and its founder Mark Zuckerberg. Shortly after it launched, Zuckerberg posted his first-ever letter of apology. (You can read it here.) He spoke directly to users, which then numbered just 10 million or so, beginning, “We really messed this one up,” and explained his reasoning for making the changes. This strategy has come to define Zuckerberg’s leadership style: He takes bold actions that sometimes anger Facebook’s users, and then speaks directly to them to share his thinking.
Zuckerberg has always been a remarkably clear thinker. I first spoke with him a year before News Feed launched in the summer of 2005, when he was still crashing on a friend’s couch in Menlo Park. He was on his cell, pacing back and forth in the backyard as he explained his parents’ reaction to his startups: “The thing I made before Facebook almost got me kicked out school,” he said, referencing an early MP3 player he’d created in high school. “When I started making Facebook they were like, ‘don’t make another site, you’ll get kicked out of school.’” Then, of course, all of his classmates — as well as the student bodies of all the schools in the Ivy League — joined, and he spent the remainder of his college money on servers.
Even in that initial interview, Zuckerberg believed he wasn’t building another social network for college kids. He called Facebook a “social utility” and explained that one day, everyone would be able to use it to look up people on the web. “Take Harvard. There are only 6,400 undergrads. All we needed to do was get maybe half of that, 3,000 people, to sign up and then the other people will all sign up. It kind of seems ubiquitous. If you want to look someone up, it makes sense to do so.” It worked at Harvard. Why not do it for the whole world?
In that conversation, we spoke a lot about how Facebook planned to make money. I wrote for Businessweek, after all, and we were speaking shortly after Rupert Murdoch had paid $580 million — then an ungodly sum! — for Myspace. “Banners suck,” he told me. “I think that we’re learning this and beginning to support it with data,” he said. “We’re happy about that because I didn’t ever really want to have banners on our site.”
Even so, Facebook did run banner ads back then. “The majority of our revenue comes from banners still, but it’s not that much,” said Zuckerberg. “Up until now, we haven’t built out any large sales organization to sell anything. We just have a few guys who are going off and selling stuff and trying to make sure that the company is profitable while it’s growing.” It was a strategy that would continue to work for Facebook for a number of years.
The summer was winding down, and I asked Zuckerberg if he had thought about returning to school. “I think that this is a little bit more interesting than school for now,” he said. “When I first started out in Palo Alto and had taken time off from school, I was more free to do whatever I wanted. I could work for Facebook one term and then if it wasn’t working out, I could not work next term. But at this point we’ve made so much of an investment in it, as have [early investors] Peter [Thiel] and Jim [Breyer] and all the employees who’ve worked for us and their families who have moved here. This isn’t something that, even if it became no longer fun, that I would just ditch at this point,” he told me. “That said, it’s awesome and it’s a lot of fun and being a 21-year-old and being able to do something like this is just crazy. I can’t really understand why I’d want to go back to school when this year I’d be a senior, and after this, most of my friends will have graduated anyway.”
I am going to go out on a limb and say that Harvard would probably still let him come back.
Generally, these types of early conversations with the people who have made tech’s most important contributions fascinate me. Embedded within them is often the character that comes to define the products and services they create and launch. Have you read or collected — or conducted — any memorable ones? Please send them to us, and let’s share them with the larger Backchannel community.
Have a great week!