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Zuckerberg: Back from the future

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:43 UK time, Thursday, 16 December 2010

What a day we picked to pitch up at Facebook's Palo Alto headquarters on our journey through the past, present and future of social networking. As we arrived, news was emerging that the founder Mark Zuckerberg had been named Time magazine's Person of the Year.

The place was quietly buzzing with excitement, with Facebookers feeling that, after a year in which rapid growth has been accompanied by oodles of controversy, the award was recognition that their company really was changing the world in the way their founder has claimed.

Inside the Facebook offices

A sign on the wall of Facebook's headquarters

It might seem strange that Time chose 2010 to crown Zuckerberg as the world's most newsworthy citizen. After all, it was in 2009 that it became evident that Facebook was here to stay and was going to be a web superpower. And this year was when a movie came out painting the Facebook founder as a ruthless, socially-inept monomaniac.

Actually I think The Social Network captured, albeit in an exaggerated and slightly unfair manner, the drive and focus that enabled a man in his early 20s to ignore all the warnings of his elders and betters and build Facebook just the way he wanted it. The fact that such unpromising material - two hours of awkward young men staring at screens - could turn out to be a movie with such a wide appeal may have played a part in Time's decision to choose 2010 to make its central character the person of the year.

It was not, however, Mark Zuckerberg that we'd come to see at Facebook, though my producer Mike Wendling was left scrambling unsuccessfully for his camera when a distinctive figure in jeans and baseball shoes came loping through the lobby, arriving slightly late for another day running the show.

Mark Zuckerberg's office

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's office

The man we had come to interview probably gave us a far more compelling and articulate account of why Zuckerberg has been such a huge success than the Time Person of the Year himself could.

Chris Cox was studying computer science at Stanford in 2005, and thought Facebook was a passing fad for college kids - until he got invited to an interview at a company which then had 40 employees.

He was so enthused by what he heard about the ambitions of the network that he gave up his studies:

"The energy in the room was just infectious. They were trying to build a very expansive and large vision. That was the thing that drew me in and surprised me As a young person excited by big ideas I just couldn't help but drop out and join."

Far from the frat-house atmosphere you might have expected of a business run by a college drop-out, Cox found his new boss ran a deeply serious operation:

"I just remember Mark as a very quiet, very serious guy who was sitting there working all the time. It was not a very playful, very joyous atmosphere - it was 'guys let's do this thing'."

It's hard to remember now, but in 2005 and 2006, Facebook was not seen by many as the next big thing.

"Nobody was betting on us," Chris Cox told me. "We were a fad, a footnote to MySpace, or a bunch of irresponsible college kids just hacking stuff together."

Each time the business did anything new, both its users and the commentators told Facebook it was getting it all wrong. Moving off the campus and into high schools and businesses was seen as a huge error. "They said it will stop being cool,you will fail - and our users weren't excited about having their younger brothers and sisters at school and then their bosses on Facebook."

Cox was instrumental in the arrival in 2006 of the Newsfeed, which turned Facebook from a simple directory into a social newspaper documenting your friends' activities. "Nobody liked it - I remember my entire inbox filling up with messages saying please turn this off, we hate it."

Through these storms, the man who in the firing-line, from users, investors and the technology bloggers, apparently remained calm:

"Mark has an amazing equanimity about these things. It's one of his defining characteristics. He projects this sense that he's in the future and everything's cool there, and he's come back a few months to where you are just to tell you it's gonna be fine."

As I left, having scrawled my name and a plug for my forthcoming radio series on the giant Facebook wall in the office, I reflected that so far, Mark Zuckerberg had been proved right.

Rory Cellan-Jones writes on Facebook wall

Writing on The Facebook wall

Throughout the various rows over privacy, the concerns about cyber-bullying, the scepticism over whether a social network could ever make money, this quiet, and still slightly awkward man has retained his equanimity.

You may find Facebook one of the curses of modern life, a place where too many people share too much in an unthinking manner, you may believe that it's damaging the minds of a whole generation. But the man from the future keeps coming back to tell his troops and the rest of us "it's all gonna be fine". And for Facebook and its founder right now, things could hardly be finer.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    nice comfy chairs, must be their secret

  • Comment number 2.

    Very interesting article - I go on Facebook every day.

  • Comment number 3.

    I have 267 friends on facebook. You're probably jealous.

  • Comment number 4.

    I go on Facebook everyday and LOVE the news feed for the volume of interesting variety it provides me. I have made an effort to link with a number of different people all over the world and also a number of organisation or group pages. It is also true that time spent on Facebook is not time spent on maintaining the house, work and friendships with people I can actually see and converse with. Oh well.

    There are a number of Pages supporting lunatic religious notions and I'm glad that these are allowed and exposed so that we are aware of what we're up against. Many supporters of these Pages would like to see FB censored - according to their own narrow guidelines of acceptability of course. FB is fantastic for the promulgation of thought and ideas - much of which is petty nonsense, but some of which are absolute gems.

  • Comment number 5.

    I have a Facebook account but rarely ever use it. I've been on the Internet since pre-web days (I got on in May 1992) and I'm afraid I've "been there done that" and got over my urge to broadcast to the world about my private life. There are plenty of ways to communicate with friends (I use email, yahoo groups and skype, with pictures through dropbox if needed). Those who refuse to communicate with me in any other way but Facebook (or Twit/ter), well, too bad - you obviously have nothing worth saying!

    I'd say it is a fad - although it is one destined to stay with us for a while.

  • Comment number 6.

    I like that Mark sticks to his guns with the changes that invariably lead to groups and pages of 90,000 users complaining about it every time they occur. Not one of them has proven to be useless, or change for the sake of it, yet. I doubt many businesses would do that.

    @3 400 friends here. Jealous much?

  • Comment number 7.

    The whole Time magazine thing is a farce.

    The public vote was overwhelmingly for Julian Assange. The editors showed supreme cowardice, lest they upset the US government - they chickened out, saying that it wasn't decided by the public vote and plumped for the guy who came tenth.

    Well why have a public vote then?

    Pathetic.

  • Comment number 8.

    Well wookiecookie seeing as they're Eames chairs then yes they are niceeee & looks like the staff get great work chairs too :)

  • Comment number 9.

    Firstly Time magazines person of the year award is hardly the Nobel Peace Prize. As an award it is to be honest about as useful as a knighthood. As for the Social Network I do not think it was unfair and though the film is nominally about Facebook and Zuckerberg it is about much more. First how ideas come to be; individual or group? also in the film shows a palimpsest of how cinema is created and tech ideas are not so different. Anyway I have reviewed the film here: http://pip.posterous.com/my-new-blog-post-about-the-social-network-a-f

  • Comment number 10.

    Mark wrote:

    "The whole Time magazine thing is a farce.
    The public vote was overwhelmingly for Julian Assange. The editors showed supreme cowardice, lest they upset the US government - they chickened out, saying that it wasn't decided by the public vote and plumped for the guy who came tenth."

    Considering that Time magazine is an American magazine the only vote that counts is the American one, not the hordes of anti-Americans around the world that I'm sure voted for the terrorist sympathizer.

    "Pathetic."

    Yep, it sure is pathetic that anyone would vote for such a low life.

  • Comment number 11.

    @Mark (#10)

    "Yep, it sure is pathetic that anyone would vote for such a low life"

    Hmmm... they vote for politicians don't they...? ;^D

  • Comment number 12.

    Its amazing what Hollywood can do for your image. All you need is Justin Timberlake and few Oscar nomination shouts.

    Should have been Assange - especially seeing as most of the votes were for him in the first place. And, AllenT2 - the award is primarly a factor of global influence and power over the past year (both right or wrong) hence Mr Zuckerbeg joins a luminary list which includes Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Deng Xiaoping, Ayatollah Khomeini and of course good ol' Dubya.

    Wikileaks has been vastly more influential in 2010 than Facebook.

  • Comment number 13.

    All that Time has shown is how irrelvant Mainstream media is in the age of Wikileaks!

  • Comment number 14.

    AllenT2 wrote:

    "Yep, it sure is pathetic that anyone would vote for such a low life."

    Not at all.

    Firstly, the Time magazine vote is not a popularity contest. I doubt that the appearance of Ayatollah Khomeini on the front page as Man of the Year was a result of his popularity. The vote is about who you think was most influential in world affairs - nothing more, nothing less.

    Secondly, we're not all mindless muppets, believing every lie that our governments tell us in order to deflect attention from their embarrassment over their shortcomings.

    What's pathetic is some people's inability to think for themselves, or their insistence on childishly insulting those who actually bother to do so.

  • Comment number 15.

    You know they gave the Time award to Hitler also? Just sayin...

  • Comment number 16.

    Facebook. No longer trending. Yesterday's news today.
    Hence the broohaha by the likes of TIME and the BBC.

    Assange has started the next wave. Get with the program.

  • Comment number 17.

    '7. At 12:24pm on 16 Dec 2010, Mark wrote:

    Well why have a public vote then?

    Pathetic.'


    I think that's what Simon Cowell is heading Stateside to 'address'.

    At least there is still 'Strictly'.

  • Comment number 18.

    Mark wrote:

    "Firstly, the Time magazine vote is not a popularity contest. I doubt that the appearance of Ayatollah Khomeini on the front page as Man of the Year was a result of his popularity. The vote is about who you think was most influential in world affairs - nothing more, nothing less."

    As it relates to the anti-American foreigners I refereed to it most certainly is a popularity contest. You would have to be naive, ignorant and/or in denial to think otherwise.

    "Secondly, we're not all mindless muppets, believing every lie that our governments tell us in order to deflect attention from their embarrassment over their shortcomings."

    So what exactly was the point in posting valuable sites all around the world that concern America's national security and that could be used by terrorists?

    "What's pathetic is some people's inability to think for themselves, or their insistence on childishly insulting those who actually bother to do so."

    Right, so you assign yourself to do the thinking for those that are democratically appointed and for those that voted? Your statement is a contradiction for you are doing what you accuse others of doing. Just because you do not agree with someone does not mean that they have an "inability to think" for themselves. THAT is "insulting!" Calling people that you disagree with "mindless muppets" is "insulting!" THAT is "pathetic!"

  • Comment number 19.

    Much better choice than the wikileaks fool.

    The editor is right - Facebook has changed the entire way people think of the internet by bringing together all the various ways of interacting.

    Assange is little more than a pimple. Wikileaks will not change the world.

    As far as the choice being cowardice - it seems to me the risky option since Assange's childish 4chan buddies love to attack anyone who dares turn their back on their hero. "Back our idea of freedom of speech or we will smash your website up."

    So democratic!

  • Comment number 20.

    AllenT2 wrote :

    "So what exactly was the point in posting valuable sites all around the world that concern America's national security and that could be used by terrorists?"

    You make my point [about parroting government propaganda] for me. This was information already in the public domain. It's clear that no amount of rational discussion can ever persuade a neocon that their government may be doing something wrong, because the US government is infallible to the American right wing.

  • Comment number 21.

    "the US government is infallible to the American right wing."

    tbh i dont really care who won it (obviously a small lie since i was reading about it =P im just in denial so im not associated with anyone =P ) (and thus im associated with u all haha) (anyway this is not the point)

    i just don't think its possible to say this. i know u dont mean everyone in the american right wing. ah well, mebs im just bein picky =P

    plus. i know my english isnt teh same as urs, so u neednt tell me =)

  • Comment number 22.

    maybe the fact tht i didnt read th article but jumped straight to the argument goes to show tht social networks are extremely influential. its what i do on fb everyday, haha just jump in and enjoy the show. =D

 

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