The Irony of the Social Media Era: It Was Created By the World's Least Social People

Facebook was created in 2004. A year later came the launch of 'TechCrunch,' the first major blog to obsess over 'web 2.0' and the companies and personalities that created it. Thanks to TechCrunch, and rival blogs like GigaOm and All Things D, Facebook became the first Silicon Valley Web giant to have nearly every move watched, reported, analyzed, over-analyzed and analyzed again since birth. The traditional media outlets played a big part, particularly as Facebook picked up tens, then hundreds, of millions of users -- but it was the bloggers who picked every minute detail.

Many at Facebook will tell you that's been a disadvantage. One of the nice things about being a private company is operating without the intensity of public glare. It's hard to grow a company under a microscope of constant second guessing. Now Facebook is preparing to go public and the interest in the company has never been higher. If you're thinking about buying Facebook stock, Mark Zuckerberg's eight-year headache is your gain. You may not have watched this company every day of the last eight years, but tech reporters certainly have. Ahead of the IPO we assembled some of the best of those reporters and asked them to share their insights into the people behind Facebook, the Facebook product itself, the ethical challenges that have dogged the company since its earliest days, the $2 billion in private equity it raised to get to this point, its revenues and business model. The result is a 25,000 word ebook: Buy This Book Before You Buy Facebook.

In the book, we start by examining how founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has grown from awkward Harvard dropout to the head of a $100bn public company. After all, one of the great ironies of the social media era is that some of the least social people in the world created it.

Back in 2007, when I asked Netscape founder Marc Andreessen why he was investing so heavily in social networking, he said simply, "People love people." I looked at him askance. From anyone else this would have been an unremarkable statement, but Andreessen hates people. Being around them all day at Netscape made him "manage like the Incredible Hulk," in his words. This is the man who would several years later spend the office warming party for Andreessen Horowitz Partners holed up in his office with a glass of scotch and a handful of friends before packing his bag, hopping off the balcony and going home. "I mean, I don't like people," he clarified. "But most other people do."

Investor Peter Thiel -- who would provide the first risky money into companies like LinkedIn, Facebook, Slide and Yelp -- isn't much better. He speaks in a staccato halting rhythm seemingly lost within the logic of his own head, then waves his head from side-to-side when he gets in the rhythm of the argument. You can know him for years and still have that awkward do-we-hug-or-not-hug exchange each time you see him.

Evan Williams, cofounder of Twitter and one of the company's three CEOs to date, answers most questions with a shy smile and almost pathologically avoids confrontation.

And then there's the most awkward of them all: Mark Zuckerberg. The first time I interviewed Zuckerberg in person, he -- astoundingly -- thought he was doing a good job at being natural. After all, he was answering all of my questions in short single word bursts. Like many coders, he places efficiency next to Godliness. He built Facebook so you could be in-and-out within minutes, but come back many times a day -- even though this was anathema to anyone who knew anything about building an ad business online. Surely an interview was the same, right?

Not really, no. I asked broader and broader questions hoping to tease a useful quote out of his mouth. Anything that might betray his thinking. Just anything polysyllabic, really. I asked more and more off-topic, vague questions, grappling for anything that couldn't be answered in one word.

It was a bizarre chess match. I would ask a question and rather than simply answering it, he'd try to parse why I was asking, what I really wanted to get out of the exchange and then answer in the fewest number of words possible. It was almost like he was a living natural language search engine. Then I would respond by asking something even more confusing.

After one particularly awful question from me, Zuckerberg broke down like a cartoon robot that simply could not compute. His eyes darted from place to place, like a bird. He furrowed his brow and looked up at me after several moments of silence. "That's a really broad question. I don't know how you want me to answer that," he said. 404 error. I had crashed Mark Zuckerberg.

I put down my notebook. I'd spent weeks negotiating this interview. The success of my very first cover story was on the line, and it was an absolute train wreck. I leveled with him. "I don't care how you answer it. It was a stupid question. I'm just trying to get you to say more than one word."

"That's. Really. Hard." He stammered, looking very intently into the distance, trying to make sense of what I was saying.

"Three words," I said. "Congratulations." We were making progress. By the end of the meeting, he'd sweat through his T-shirt.

Everything about Mark Zuckerberg is pure hacker. Hackers don't take realities of the world for granted; they seek to break and rebuild what they don't like. They seek to outsmart the world. If Mark Zuckerberg doesn't understand something, it's not defeat. It's not even something he has to accept. It's merely a challenge he needs to engineer his way out of, and that includes human emotions and relationships.

At the end of the interview, he thanked me for being honest. "I never knew that's why reporters asked questions like that," he said. "It helped me that you told me what you wanted." The next time he was better. Today, to see Mark Zuckerberg interviewed is to watch a media-trained pro.

This is emblematic of how Zuckerberg built Facebook, which is at its essence a company that combines human-entered data and the efficiency of computers to make sense out of, organize and categorize something inherently messy -- every kind of human relationship. Friendships, marriages, families, coworkers and the ties between them are the ultimate unstructured data in the world, and Facebook seeks to structure it. It is like teaching a robot how to love.

For Facebook to become an unfathomably large $100 billion giant, Zuckerberg had to become the world's most unlikely expert in people. He had to learn that they didn't want their data to be too accessible. He had to learn there was only so fast he could push his "social graph" idea -- which he sometimes forgets is really made up of hundreds of millions of people's very personal relationships -- into the broader Web. He had to learn that one man's increased efficiency was another man's massive breach of privacy.

But there was another less public level on which Zuckerberg had to learn about people. As a 19-year-old, he knew he never wanted to hand the reins of his company over to anyone else, but he also knew what he didn't know. He knew he'd need to surround himself with the right mentors, executives, programmers and -- as much as it pained him -- marketing and press types if he was going to make it. He'd need to know who he could trust and who he couldn't. He'd need to know who he could learn from. He'd need to know when to listen to his gut and when to listen to someone with more experience. He'd need to go from being someone who didn't get people at all, to someone who got precisely what he needed out of them to keep Facebook growing and keep the education of Mark Zuckerberg the CEO going.

Of all of the things Zuckerberg's hacker mentality has pulled off this is probably the most important.

Having known him since those early very awkward days, it's also the most remarkable. Few people would doubt that Mark Zuckerberg would build a great product. But I, at least, would never have expected him to become so great at hiring, motivating, managing and ultimately getting whatever it is his company needs from people.

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