Facing up to the phenomenon

The man behind the world’s greatest social networking site is set to lose his low profile, says Dan Buckley.

THERE aren’t too many people who manage to keep a low profile on Facebook.

One of them is Mark Zuckerberg, the man who started the global phenomenon six years ago.

The company he founded in his Harvard university dorm room was built on the idea that people would want to share personal information on the web. Yet the 26-year-old self-made billionaire has managed to keep schtum about his own personal life even as Facebook catapulted Zuckerberg past Apple’s Steve Jobs to become the 35th-richest American on the latest Forbes list.

At work, Zuckerberg sits among a sea of desks like the hundreds of other workers at the company. A casual visitor to Facebook might not even spot him in T-shirt and jeans.

He sticks close to the office, usually taking one two-week holiday each year with college sweetheart Priscilla Chan. On the weekends, he roasts pig in his backyard for Facebook pals, hangs out at local dive bar Antonio’s Nut House and takes lessons in Mandarin Chinese.

So far, so very ordinary and unexciting – apart from his incredible wealth.

That is about to change.

The Social Network, a movie from director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin, about the messy and contentious founding of Facebook, made its debut at the New York Film Festival last night, and the world will soon know a lot more about Zuckerberg – or at least Hollywood’s version of him.

The movie, with the provocative tag line “You don’t get to have 500 million friends without making a few enemies,” is an unflattering portrait focusing on the legal clashes between Zuckerberg and Harvard classmates over who should get credit for the Facebook success.

Worried that the film could damage Zuckerberg’s image, Facebook executives pressed the filmmakers for changes they did not get. According to the Wall Street Journal, they sought to discredit the film’s unflattering portrayal of Zuckerberg, even as they worked behind the scenes to influence the movie.

Now Facebook – often criticised for being too cavalier with the intimate details of other people’s lives – is bracing for a movie that casts its chief executive as a scheming back-stabber accused of stealing the idea for Facebook.

“If this movie becomes big, a lot of people will be exposed to a side of Mark Zuckerberg that won’t reflect positively on privacy issues on Facebook,” says Augie Ray, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, an American market research company that tracks social networks.

Neither Zuckerberg nor his close associates co-operated with the Sony Pictures film.

“The film is at its most fictional in its portrayal of Mark,” according to Facebook director Peter Thiel.

“It’s a pretty good portrayal of how business gets done in Hollywood, but not how business gets done in Silicon Valley.”

The filmmakers say they set out to capture a generation-defining moment, weaving a story from different points of view of the founding of Facebook.

“I would not want a movie made when I am 26 years old about decisions I made when I was a 19-year-old kid,” admits producer Scott Rudin. “I am very sympathetic, but I didn’t invent Facebook.”

“My personal feeling is that Mark Zuckerberg did not steal anything,” adds the Oscar-winning producer&. “This is the story of a guy with a remarkable vision.”

A computer geek with a rebellious streak who turned down big bucks and jobs at AOL and Microsoft to go to college, Zuckerberg, as a Harvard sophomore, hacked into the university computers in February 2004 to put the “face books” – yearbook-style photos of incoming freshmen – online.

The site was an instant success. Zuckerberg and his cohorts moved to Silicon Valley, where they opened Facebook to high-school students, corporate networks and then everyone. Facebook is the dominant social networking site, with about 550 million users worldwide.

Zuckerberg has said he has grown up since he was a college student accused of questionable ethics in building Facebook. If Zuckerberg has achieved a level of maturity, so has Facebook. The company has more than 1,700 employees with rising sales expected to hit $2 billion this year.

Yet Facebook’s airy Californian headquarters still hums with youthful energy and irreverence. A large white wall is covered in scribbles and doodles that, in homage to Facebook users who leave comments on one another’s walls, says, “Write something....” Engineers zoom by on skateboards on their way to play speed chess or pig out on gourmet barbecue on the rooftop patio. They work long hours, so the cafeteria, staffed with ex-Google chefs, serves up three meals a day.

On the front door is a giant sign that says “hack,” stressing the importance of trying new things and underscoring the engineering culture that still dominates. “Hackathons,” in which engineers work all night on creative projects that are not part of their day jobs, happen regularly.

Zuckerberg has said that his personal mission is to make the internet a more connected place. That mission could become quite profitable for him and Facebook: The more people share information about themselves online, the more money Facebook stands to make selling highly targeted advertising. Zuckerberg is already worth $6.9 billion, according to Forbes.

Facebook executives say they are committed to giving their users the tools they need to protect their privacy. But the company, estimated to be worth $34bn based on the value of its shares, has come under fire from consumer groups and privacy advocates who say it puts its ambitions ahead of its users.

Even prominent voices in the technology community have expressed reservations that Facebook keeps pushing users to reveal more personal information than they signed up for.

That’s the kind of mistake that Zuckerberg himself is not about to make.

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