A Secret Told: Facebook's Past, Present and Future

This is a guest column I wrote for Georgetown University’s The Hoya. The editors of The Hoya titled the piece “Facebook Affects More Than Just Your Social Life” but that doesn’t truly suit the point behind the article: Mark Zuckerberg’s untold secrets. Enjoy and let me know what you think!

For Mark Zuckerberg, the old adage, “a picture speaks louder than a thousand words” has never rung true. The 23 year-old Harvard University drop-out turned $15 billion valued sensation has always been embroiled in a war of words. When he first arrived in Palo Alto, Calif., years ago to harvest Facebook, he carried a business card that read, “I’m C.E.O. … bitch.” (To date, the card has not been spotted at casual happy hours throughout the Valley.) What has been spotted, though, is a service that makes Wall Street analysts and investors swoon. Welcome to Facebook, Version 2.0.

The site, which launched at Harvard nearly four years ago, was a simple idea: Connect with your friends in a virtual space. Other social networks like Friendster and MySpace were already around and had a strong following, but Zuckerberg’s Facebook was different. Together with his roommate at Harvard, Dustin Moskovitz, and fellow Horace Mann graduate, Adam D’Angelo, Zuckerberg decided to target his site at the college demographic, which would later prove to be an extremely wise decision. Users could upload pictures from parties, share interesting stories, publish open commentary on what became known as the “wall” and more importantly, stalk the opposite sex. “This site rocks,” I remember hearing from a friend when I was a freshman in 2003, “Look at this Dave. You can go online and check out the girl down the hall without her ever knowing!” At the time, I didn’t think much of the “stalking” side of Facebook, but years later, it would become clear to me: Sex leads to money, and money leads to fame, and fame leads to Mark Zuckerberg. Today, Facebook’s $300 million (publicly known) business model of SocialAds (peer-influenced online advertising) can largely be attributed to the first layer of hyper-addicted users who have been with the site since day one: voyeuristic profile picture fans — “the poke audience,” as one famous blogger put it.

Even if you don’t agree with my initial character assassination of Facebook’s users and detail of its prolific start, you can’t deny the change the site has made in your life, both in and out of the classroom. Whether you’re a casual status/picture/notes “updater,” buyer/seller in the marketplace or a developer, Facebook simply does what its tagline pronounces: “Facebook is a social utility that connects you with the people around you.” Today, the site boasts 60 million users from around the world with more than 250,000 registering a day. It excited the technology industry (and eventually you) when Zuckerberg announced an application economy built within the site last May. “The poke audience” has changed hands to “the zombie/vampire audience.” College students have been replaced with corporations and forests of work networks.

But, at the end of the day, what does it matter to you, the user who made Facebook such a success and wunderkind to beloved Wall Street? Let me let you in on a little secret that only Facebook executives know, okay? Promise you won’t tell anyone? Your data, which you so willingly uploaded when you first registered ages ago, has a higher importance for both advertisers and Zuckerberg: a new way to interact with the Internet, a new way to find and pull content from Web sites and a new way to experiment and spearhead the Web’s next evolvement. We may never know if Zuckerberg intended to create a site that would (one day) pounce Google’s artificial intelligence search capabilities or form an experience as a natural extension of our offline lives, but one thing is for sure: There’s a lot of money to be made in the shadow of the “Mark Zuckerberg production.”

David Ambrose graduated from Georgetown College in 2007 and wrote his senior thesis on using Facebook to analyze cross-cultural Web sites.