Zuckerberg: Non-Evil Non-Genius?

The Opinion Pages – NEW YORK TIMES

By ROBERT WRIGHT

Is Mark Zuckerberg a bad person? Did he, as the movie “The Social Network” suggests, steal the idea for Facebook from two of his fellow undergraduates at Harvard?

One view — recently expressed by the movie’s screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin — is that in some ways it doesn’t matter. Whether or not you believe that Zuckerberg conceived the idea of Facebook, says Sorkin, he went on to turn it into something amazing, so you can’t deny that “Mark Zuckerberg is a genius.”

Actually, you can. Sure, sometimes nurturing a great idea into an amazing reality takes genius. But to assume as much in this case is to misunderstand the real magic behind the Facebook juggernaut.

I’m not saying Zuckerberg did steal the idea for Facebook and isn’t a genius — at least, I’m not saying these things in this paragraph; like Sorkin’s screenplay, I’ll let my verdict on Zuckerberg unfold slowly in hopes of keeping you from wandering off to some other theater in the Cineplex. But I am saying that to even think about Zuckerberg’s role clearly we have to first meet his real-life co-star, who, alas, went unnamed in the movie.

The co-star’s name sounds exotic because it comes from a foreign language, economics: “positive network externalities.” In English it means that the more members a network has, the more valuable membership in the network is. The reason you would join Facebook rather than some upstart rival is that Facebook has so many members that the people you’d like to “friend” are more likely to be found there than on the rival site.

Such is the power of establishing a clear lead in market share that you can make an inferior product and still triumph.

Positive network externalities can apply to things that aren’t so literally networks. Bill Gates harnessed this dynamic in making Microsoft’s computer operating system the dominant desktop platform. As more people used Windows, more programmers designed software for Windows; and the more software there was for Windows, the more people chose to join the Windows “network” by buying a PC rather than a Mac — which further encouraged programmers to design software for Windows, and so on.

Positive network externalities can give a big advantage to early birds, because an early lead in market share feeds on itself; the bigger your market share, the more valuable your service, and thus the bigger your market share and so on. Indeed, such is the power of establishing a clear lead in market share that you can make an inferior product and still triumph.

That’s why the VHS format beat out the better Betamax. That’s why Microsoft’s rarely great and sometimes horrible software has flourished. And that’s why if you stole the idea for Facebook and then did a reasonably competent job of implementing it, you could become fabulously wealthy without demonstrating true genius along the way.

So, did Zuckerberg steal the idea from those two undergraduates, twins named Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss? The claim, both in the movie and in the real-life lawsuit that wound up transferring $65 million to the Winklevosses via an out-of-court settlement, is that they enlisted Zuckerberg, a prodigy programmer, to carry out their idea for them and that he did — except for the “for them” part.

Is he guilty? The Winklevosses’ idea was indeed like the earliest version of Facebook in the broadest sense: they wanted to make it easier for people with harvard.edu e-mail addresses to plug into the Harvard social network. (HarvardConnection was the name of their project. “Facebook” may sound like a less Harvard-bound name, reflecting more global aspirations, but in fact Facebook was the campus name for a physical book featuring pictures of Harvard students, and Zuckerberg’s project was initially, in large part, an electronic version of that book.)

Zuckerberg claims that, actually, Facebook is quite different from the mere “dating site” that the Winklevosses had in mind. Well, it wasn’t so different that he didn’t feel the need to sabotage their site. He left the Winklevosses under the impression that he was building it, and that it would be finished any day now, when in fact he was feverishly building Facebook so he could beat them to the punch.

That doesn’t mean he got the initial inspiration from them. The idea of a campuswide online network wasn’t exactly radical in 2003. A few other colleges had such networks, and there had long been talk at Harvard of creating an online version of the physical Facebook.

What’s more, Zuckerberg’s version may have had a crucial edge over the Winklevoss version (as David Kirkpatrick, author of “The Facebook Effect,” recently explained to me in spirited fashion). The Winklevosses were going to pretty up their site with restaurant reviews and such, whereas Facebook had no such magazinishness; it was just a platform, and all content would be furnished by the users. In other words, it was a network in a purer sense and thus, perhaps, a clearer conduit through which positive externalities could work their magic.

Did Zuckerberg realize this — in which case he might qualify as a visionary and a genius? Or was the purity of Facebook a result of things other than vision — maybe a kind of aesthetic instinct? Or could it have been just a side effect of taking the physical Facebook, with its user-generated content, and putting it on online?

My sense is that, in general, Zuckerberg didn’t have a clear vision of the path to world domination. The path consisted, in retrospect, of at least three big steps:

First, having established Facebook at Harvard, he built separate versions for Yale and other elite schools. But the Winklevosses claim this was part of the original idea they shared with him, and, in any event, Zuckerberg himself emphasizes that the inter-campus initiative was powered by the entrepreneurial energy of a roommate, Dustin Moskovitz.

Second, Zuckerberg eventually allowed students at one college to become friends of students at another. But this seems to have come in response to student demand, not as a long-planned masterstroke. And it was only after Zuckerberg acceded to this demand, as Kirkpatrick notes in his book, that Facebook developed a now-core feature: two people can become linked in friendship only by mutual consent. Initially, everyone at any college was linked to everyone else at that college.

Third, after Facebook had spread from campus to campus to campus, and the campuses had become interlinked, Zuckerberg opened the gates to the world. Now communities would be defined not at all by geography — by the bounds of a campus — but only by the mutual-consent links that don’t seem to have been part of Zuckerberg’s original vision.

In retrospect, I think there was something uniquely powerful about this path — building islands of dominance at elite universities, spreading to less elite universities, then linking the islands and finally abandoning geography altogether as the organizing principle. I think this path gave Facebook a momentum that helped it dislodge the pre-existing social networks Friendster and MySpace. And it’s fairly clear that the path wasn’t planned.

So can you be considered a genius, a visionary, if the globally dominant network you built wasn’t the fruit of far-reaching vision — if, indeed, the network’s internal momentum was such that it was almost destined to build itself, and the question was only which driven and capable entrepreneur would happen to be standing at the right place at the right time when it started to unfold?

My own view of technological history is that this is often the way big leaps happen. The people we call visionaries and geniuses, like Bill Gates, typically weren’t any more prescient than some of their rivals. They were mainly just in the right place at the right time.

Sure, they were really smart, and they had some other key features. Gates and Zuckerberg shared an instinct that helped them exploit network externalities: they were always willing to sacrifice short-term profit in exchange for growing market share.

And, of course, both of them played hardball. I’m not aware of any tactical deceptions Gates perpetrated that were as egregious as Zuckerberg’s duping of the Winklevosses, but none of Gates’s competitors ever confused him with Mr. Rogers.

It’s certainly possible, as Sorkin suggests, to be an evil genius. But the much more common condition is to be not quite evil and not quite a genius. When your co-star is positive network externalities, that’s plenty.

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