The evolution of Facebook

Topics Facebook | Mark Zuckerberg | Twitter

The book devotes sufficient space to the travails of Instagram founder Kevin Systrom after his company came under Facebook’s umbrella
After Donald Trump won the White House in 2016, members of the liberal establishment argued that social media giant Facebook played a major part in his victory by allowing misinformation to spread on its platform, resulting in the defeat of Hillary Clinton, Mr Trump’s opponent.

Over the next few years, Facebook would battle several such allegations. When ethnic violence gripped Myanmar, it was attributed to the lightning speed with which divisive rhetoric was shared on the site. Most damagingly perhaps, Cambridge Analytica, the British consulting firm, was found to have harvested user data with Facebook’s explicit consent.

In the book under review, technology journalist Steven Levy probes the founding and history of the social network to help readers understand the serial quandaries it faces today. Facebook gave him unprecedented access after the 2016 US election and the result is a wide-ranging though mostly charitable account of the firm and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

While Mr Levy focuses attention on Facebook’s entire journey — the book’s first few chapters recount the birth of Facebook in a Harvard dorm room, Mr Zuckerberg’s dropping out from Harvard, and the establishment of a makeshift office in Silicon Valley — these early accounts are largely known to Facebook watchers and even the lay public. The success of The Social Network, notwithstanding its less-than-kind portrayal of Mr Zuckerberg, ensured that the Facebook origin story is firmly ensconced in the global consciousness.

Facebook:The Inside Story
Author:Steven Levy
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 584
Price: Rs 799
The book then pivots to the company’s growth and the corporatisation of what was until 2006 a mostly private, somewhat jejune enterprise. Sheryl Sandberg was brought in as chief operating officer and she, like Eric Schmidt at Google, was the diplomatic and articulate foil to Facebook’s product engineering ethos. She handled the day-to-day running of the company, while Mr Zuckerberg focused on taking Facebook to the next level, a theme that dominates the rest of the book.

The late noughties were also the time that the basic architecture of what most of us recognise as Facebook was established. The Wall was replaced by the News Feed, a shift to more personalised content that went beyond status updates. On the tech side, the company released that future growth would come not from the desktop version but on mobile. 
Mr Levy calls this phase the “Twitterisation of Facebook” (in 2008, Mr Zuckerberg made an abortive attempt to buy Twitter). The experience with Twitter, Mr Levy argues, taught Zuckerberg two things: To buy out competition if it looks tempting, and failing that, to copy its most desirable features. This strategic ruthlessness would be displayed with Instagram and WhatsApp, which Mr Zuckerberg bought in 2012 and 2014, respectively.

The book devotes sufficient space to the travails of Instagram founder Kevin Systrom after his company came under Facebook’s umbrella. Mr Zuckerberg was peeved at the rapid rise of the photo-sharing app, which threatened the supremacy of the parent network. His decision to starve Instagram of resources was explained as a need to integrate the company more closely with Facebook, particularly on data sharing. It is telling, but not surprising, that the founders of both Instagram and WhatsApp left the mothership.

The book is weakest in explaining the central controversy plaguing Facebook today: Its ginormous control over the flow of global information and misinformation. Mr Levy frequently quotes Mr Zuckerberg whose thinking on the subject has evolved but does little to provide a judicious framework to measure the aptness of those utterances. For example, Mr Zuckerberg now contends that Facebook should move to an era of “user-controlled privacy” that would change the nature of the platform from a public square to the living room. This, Mr Zuckerberg argues, would lessen the impact of fake news.

Examples such as these bolster the impression that the company continues to take a piecemeal approach to the charges levelled by its critics. At several points, Mr Levy portrays Mr Zuckerberg as a misunderstood savant but the evidence he presents dilutes this diagnosis. It is likelier that Zuckerberg has genuine — and genuinely noble — ambitions for the future of the internet but absent any precedent, he is stumbling his way, one hopeful patch at a time, through the dark.

In the final analysis, the Facebook story is remarkable in how significantly the platform has restructured online networking. It has unspooled new business ideas and made millionaires of next-door coders. The details of the company’s inner working may excite us but only inasmuch as they give pointers to the dynamic ecosystem that Facebook is shaping and being shaped by. On the larger question of the company’s culpability in stoking the vulnerabilities of our age, it will be years before we can definitively paint Mark Zuckerberg as saint or sinner.

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