095- Social networking – 2004

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Little girls think its necessary to put all their business on MySpace and Facebook, and I think its a shame. 
I’m all about mystery.  Stevie Nicks

Mark Elliot Zuckerberg, a psychology student at Harvard, was a keen programmer.  His father taught him Atari Basic and hired a private software tutor for him.

With his school friend Adam D’Angelo he created the Synapse Media Player that used AI to learn the user’s preferred listening.  Both Microsoft and AOL wanted to buy it and hire him but he chose to go on to Harvard.  D’Angelo went to CalTech and would later become the CTO at Facebook.

At Harvard Zuckerberg studied psychology and computer science.  In October 2003 he hacked into the college computer system to acquire the administration’s photos of students, files known as Face Books.

He used these photos to develop Facemash which would place two pictures on the site and ask students to decide who was the fitter and hotter.  A friend’s chess algorithm managed the rankings.

This had already been done by sites like ‘Hot or Not?’ and ‘F*** it or Chuck it?’, but with featured images that were anonymous, not from a closed community.  Within four hours of launch Facemash had 450 visitors and 22,000 viewings of the vying images.  It spread quickly to other campuses and the high level of traffic interfered with the Harvard network.

Those selected for comparison were annoyed and the college took down the site, putting Zuckerberg ‘on probation’ for breaching security and invading privacy, but the charges were ultimately dropped.  The daily student paper

The Harvard Crimson wrote up the Facemash event giving Zuckerberg some notoriety.

But he was never far from controversy and legal action.  In April 2003 he worked on the StreetFax project with Paul Ceglia.  In 2010 Ceglia would claim he had a signed contract with Zuckerberg that gave him an 84% ownership of Facebook.  Zuckerberg and Facebook suggested the claims were frivolous; the court ordered no transfers of ownership could be executed while the claim was under investigation.  

Three Harvard seniors had been working on the social networking site HarvardConnection.com from December 2002.  Its initial aim was to interconnect students and alumni of Harvard before rolling it out to other universities and schools.

The founders were twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss who were USA competitors at the Beijing Olympics in men’s pairs rowing, and Divya Narendra.  They enlisted the programming help of Sanjay Mavinkurve but he soon left to join Google.  A second programmer, Victor Gao, became a consultant but left the project in late 2003.

Prompted by the ‘Crimson’ article on Facemash they approached Zuckerberg on 25 November 2003.  They insisted on secrecy, stressing the significance of being the first site of its kind.  They showed him where they were and how they intended to expand.  No contract was signed between but Zuckerberg became a partner and agreed to work in return for equity; indicating it would not take him long.

Through December he kept apologising that he was caught up in problems, mid-December he indicated he was almost finished.  He promised to show them what he had achieved on 14 January.

In the meantime he was exchanging instant messages with his friend Eduardo Saverin and planning his own site.  Saverin provided cash to fund the required servers, a total of $15,000 for a 30% share. 

We hit a big milestone today – 100 million people around the world are now using Facebook. This is a really gratifying moment for us because it means a lot that you have decided that Facebook is a good, trusted place for you to share your lives with your friends. So we just wanted to take this moment to say, ‘thanks’. Mark Zuckerberg

11 January 2004 Zuckerberg registered his new website domain ‘thefacebook.com’.  He did not mention this at meetings with the HarvardConnection team, instead expressing doubts about their project and pleading that he was busy with college work.  Later revelations suggested he was deliberately stalling their progress while developing his own site.

February 2004 with Saverin’s help, Zuckerberg launched ‘thefacebook.com’, a social networking site for Harvard students, also planned to roll out to other universities.  Zuckerberg suggested he saw HarvardConnection.com as a dating facility and that while both had Harvard students as users there were different objectives.

The HarvardConnection team was of course enraged by this turn of events.  They asked Gao to review the work Zuckerberg had completed for them and he suggested it was cursory; one of the things he highlighted was that the registration process was not connected to the back-end systems.

They asked The Harvard Crimson to investigate and took a legal ‘cease and desist’ action against Zuckerberg on 10 February.  Instant messages that he had sent at that time to ‘friends’ were uncovered; these did suggest he had intentionally delayed the Harvard Connection’s progress while planning his own launch.

Dustin Moskovitz

Chris Hughes

Notwithstanding all this legal background, thefacebook.com had spread to almost half the undergraduate body within a month of launch.  Saverin focused on the business aspects of the operation and they were joined by other computer science students Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes as programmers.

Unlike MySpace, Facebook insisted users show their true identity with a profile, photos and personal data, referencing personal interests and contact data.  Users could communicate publicly, privately or through the chat function.  There were interest groups and various privacy settings.

The Wall feature allowed users to post messages for friends to see.  They could identify where they were, upload whole photo albums unlike on other sites.  They could also ‘poke’, or say hello, to a user. 

 ‘thefacebook’ soon expanded to other colleges – Columbia, Stanford and Yale in March 2004, then on to Boston, MIT and New York…

The Winklevoss twins and Narendra launched ConnectU in May 2004 and took legal action against Facebook; Facebook reciprocated.  The settlement in February 2008 saw Facebook acquire ConnectU for $65m – made up as $20m in cash plus shares said to be worth $45m.  In 2010 the valuation of this stock at $45m was queried through another legal case, the litigants suggesting that it was only worth $11m.  In May 2012 its IPO valued it at $100bn+.

The success of Facebook attracted unwelcome attention from ‘cyberstalkers’ who found the site a simple means to track individuals’ photos, interests, work and contact details and locations which they could use to harass, threaten or burgle them.

A mild form of this was someone checking a new friend’s Facebook entries to gain insight into habits and interests before a meeting or date.  Prospective employers often looked at applicants’ Facebook pages to gauge their character and suitability for a new role – those embarrassing photos might come back to haunt them.

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