Zuckerberg’s Early Diary Plays a Starring Role in New Facebook Opus
Facebook: The Inside Story provides deep access to company executives, including Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg.by Austin Carr
Several weeks ago, Mark Zuckerberg, the perennially embattled chief executive officer of Facebook Inc., said he’s done caring if he’s liked. His new goal? He wants to be understood.
Steven Levy, a veteran technology journalist, sets out to do just that in Facebook: The Inside Story (Blue Rider Press, $30). Levy charts how, in a move-fast-and-break-things pursuit of market share and consumer data and advertising dollars, Zuckerberg opened a Pandora’s box of social ills, from viral misinformation and hate speech to digital colonialism and election interference. Yet the more the CEO attempts to explain away these Facebook-facilitated calamities as unintended and fixable, the more apparent it becomes that he doesn’t have substantive answers—and that he still hasn’t come to grips with all the harm his creation has wrought.
At “Finnegans Wake-ish proportions,” to steal a description from the author, Levy’s book first delves into the social network’s early days, with stories of Harvard, the Winklevii, Sean Parker, and Myspace-era privacy scandals. In rehashing old news, albeit with novel color, the author’s goal is to identify precursors of Facebook’s current woes.
Levy got his hands on a significant portion of Zuckerberg’s 2006 diary, a small notebook full of ideas the future billionaire named the “Book of Change.” The journal outlines lofty ambitions Zuckerberg had for transforming Facebook into a “futuristic government-style interface to access a database full of information linked to every person.” Even nonusers would be ensnared: Zuckerberg wrote of implementing “Dark Profiles,” placeholder accounts for network holdouts, constructed with data mined from friends who’d already signed up. Levy confirms that these profiles existed, at least for a time. Facebook is said to have taken out Google search ads linked to them, apparently aiming to attract nonusers with prebuilt profiles.
This may seem quaint by 2020 standards. The Trump era of Facebook described in the book is meatier and, by extension, more distressing. Company leaders ricochet from one corporate crisis to the next, unequipped to deal with fallout and seemingly far more concerned about their public-relations strategy than addressing the underlying problems of their services.
Notably, insiders point fingers at Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. As the critical 2016 election year approached, she was “not operating at peak performance,” Levy writes, which he attributes to her husband’s tragic death the previous May. Sandberg is depicted as a micromanager, fanatical about her public image—her “center of gravity”—and known to scream at underlings. In Levy’s telling, she’s unnecessarily manipulative and calculating, faking nervousness in front of journalists to induce softer questions. He describes how Sandberg didn’t want to suggest she was in cahoots with Twitter Inc.’s Jack Dorsey before a congressional hearing, so she decided to avoid a hug with her industry friend. By the time she begins weeping over her faults in front of Levy during an emotional two-hour interview—“I’m upset, we’re all upset,” she says—a reader is led to wonder how much of her anguish is an act.
Zuckerberg is harder to read, ping-ponging in Levy’s portrayal between naive genius and robotic robber baron. He, too, is consumed by his public image. (A communications exec is shown blow-drying the CEO’s armpits before speaking appearances to eliminate anxiety sweat.) Far worse, Zuckerberg’s deepest reflections on Facebook’s catastrophes are surprisingly shallow: He was merely too idealistic about technology’s use for good vs. bad, and he’s learned his lesson but realizes Facebook has work to do. “People think that we’ve eroded [privacy],” he says. “I would actually argue we have done privacy innovations, which have given people new types of private or semiprivate spaces in which they can come together and express themselves.”
All this raises questions about the virtue of Levy’s access. This is clearly a book in which Facebook’s executives—an impressive number of them—decided to participate to tell the company’s side of the story. But I’m not sure I’m much more informed about Facebook’s moral compass as a result, given how often company boilerplate dilutes the truth. Still, the book does an admirable job calling balls and strikes on the execs’ revisionist version of Facebook’s past and present. Zuckerberg’s answers reveal a founder-CEO still deeply defensive about Facebook’s role in so many societal challenges. Sincerely engaging with these issues is apparently beyond his emotional range, which means repairing them is likely a pipe dream.
(Corrects web headline for time period Zuckerberg kept his diary.)