Earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg found himself onstage at a technology conference being grilled about Facebook’s often controversial approach to privacy—no small issue when you’re the CEO of a company that floats on an ocean of deeply personal information about 500 million-odd users. The tough questions, lobbed like mortar shells, clearly rattled the 26-year-old Facebook co-founder and CEO, who is an awkward public speaker at the best of times. Beads of sweat formed on his brow, and his eyes panned the room, as if looking for someone to come bail him out. No one did.
It was both a learning experience and a taste of things to come. Silicon Valley may be in love with Facebook, having determined that it’s no longer a fad and could in fact be “the next Google,” but 2010 was the year Zuckerberg himself was put under the microscope. Who exactly was this fresh-faced King of the Web, who only seemed to wear fleece jackets and rubber sandals, and did he really have our best interests at heart?
Hollywood, for one, suggested otherwise. The Social Network, written by Aaron Sorkin, was released in October and dramatized the events that led to the creation of Facebook in Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room in 2004, as well as the company’s early days in Palo Alto, Calif.—and the controversy that dogged both. The box-office hit paints an unflattering picture of Zuckerberg, portraying him as a brilliant but scheming young Harvard student who resents the university’s elite social clubs he is not invited to join. That leads “Zuck,” with the help of some classmates, to create Facebook—a sort of online social club for the rest of us. Along the way to becoming a billionaire Web visionary, he cunningly cuts friend and co-founder Eduardo Saverin out of the business. We also see him screw over a trio of fellow students who had hired him to create a similar website called Harvard Connection. The image is clearly of a man who is not to be trusted to keep our secrets safe, although Zuckerberg and Facebook, which didn’t co-operate with the film’s makers, have pointed out that the movie only reflects one side of the story: much of the material was gleaned from lawsuits, now settled, that were filed against Zuckerberg by some of his disgruntled former peers.
Unfortunately for Zuckerberg, it all fed into a narrative that’s been building over the years. Facebook, despite its meteoric rise, or perhaps because of it, has made several troubling missteps when introducing new products and features, including, most notably, Facebook’s first stab at social marketing in 2007. Its Beacon service tracked the actions of users on some third-party websites and broadcast the information to their friends. Privacy advocates called it creepy and likened it to stalking. Zuckerberg apologized, but hasn’t necessarily stopped pushing the envelope—he envisions a Web where more personal information is shared, not less, which helps explain why new Facebook offerings always seem to reduce users’ privacy (unless they adjust their privacy controls), not enhance them.
It didn’t help matters that a series of questionable instant messages Zuckerberg sent to a colleague while at Harvard also surfaced this year. They suggested a cavalier attitude toward users’ personal information. “They trust me. Dumb f–ks,” he is alleged to have typed when asked why some 4,000 students willingly handed over their names and email addresses.
Of course, it takes a considerable leap of faith to assume that a couple of instant messages written by a 19-year-old accurately reflect Facebook’s corporate thinking. The same can be said of a Hollywood drama, which Zuckerberg took to task for incorrectly suggesting he is driven by a burning desire to show up the cool crowd that once rejected him. “It’s interesting the stuff they focused on getting right,” Zuckerberg recently told an interviewer. “Every single shirt or fleece in the movie is actually a shirt or fleece that I own . . . [but] they just can’t wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things.”
That would indeed make for a dull Hollywood storyline, but it’s actually a more convincing explanation of how Zuckerberg transformed Facebook from a website used by a few Ivy League students to one with a half-billion global users in just six years. In fact, Facebook is now a potential threat to Google’s Web dominance. Google used clever algorithms to help people find what they were looking for online; Facebook believes the future will be about relying on your “friends” to determine what you should be doing—or buying—in the first place. “We want to take the Web and the world of consumer products on and offline and make them social,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, told Maclean’s in an interview in November. “Our belief is everything is better when you bring your friends to it.” (For the record, Sandberg stressed that Zuckerberg is “funny,” “nice” and deeply caring, but most definitely shy.)
Getting the balance right isn’t easy. Users value privacy but the site’s power comes from sharing. It’s a constant tug-of-war and Zuckerberg is among the first to admit he hasn’t always got it right. “Basically, any mistake you think you can make, I’ve probably made it, or will make it in the next few years,” he recently said during a tech conference in an unusually candid onstage moment. “But, I think, if anything, the Facebook story is a great example of how, if you’re building a product that people love, you can make a lot of mistakes.” And more than half a billion users seem inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.