Facebook is one of the fastest growing companies in history, an essential part of the social life not only of teenagers but hundreds of millions of adults worldwide. As Facebook spreads around the globe, it creates surprising effects — even becoming instrumental in political protests from Colombia to Iran.
Veteran technology reporter David Kirkpatrick had the full cooperation of Facebook’s key executives in researching this fascinating history of the company and its impact on our lives. Kirkpatrick tells us how Facebook was created, why it has flourished, and where it is going next. He chronicles its successes and missteps, and gives readers the most complete assessment anywhere of founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the central figure in the company’s remarkable ascent. This is the Facebook story that can be found nowhere else.
How did a nineteen-year-old Harvard student create a company that has transformed the Internet and how did he grow it to its current enormous size? Kirkpatrick shows how Zuckerberg steadfastly refused to compromise his vision, insistently focusing on growth over profits and preaching that Facebook must dominate (his word) communication on the Internet. In the process, he and a small group of key executives have created a company that has changed social life in the United States and elsewhere, a company that has become a ubiquitous presence in marketing, altering politics, business, and even our sense of our own identity. This is the Facebook Effect.
To introduce readers to a book that provides unprecedented access to one of the biggest private companies in the world, Digital Journal received permission to reprint the prologue of The Facebook Effect
Prologue: The Facebook Effect
From THE FACEBOOK EFFECT by David Kirkpatrick. Copyright (c) 2010 by David Kirkpatrick. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Oscar Morales was fed up. It was holiday time in his hometown of Barranquilla, Colombia, just after the 2008 new year. The gentle-spirited civil engineer with a gift for computers was spending his days at the bucolic nearby beaches with his extended family. But despite the holidays, like much of the country his thoughts were dark, and occupied with the suffering of a little boy named Emmanuel.
Emmanuel was the four-year-old son of Clara Rojas, who had been a hostage in the jungles of Colombia for six years. Her son had been born while she was held by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials, FARC. FARC held a total of seven hundred hostages, including Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, kidnapped along with Rojas during the 2002 campaign.
Sympathy and sadness about the plight of FARC’s hostages was an ever-present fact in contemporary Colombia, as was fear about what the powerful and murderous revolutionary army might do next to disrupt the country. But the case of Emmanuel had lately acquired outsized prominence in the popular press. For some time President Hugo Chavez of neighboring Venezuela had been attempting to negotiate with FARC about releasing Betancourt and others. Then abruptly in late December the guerrillas announced that they would soon turn over Rojas, her son Emmanuel, and another hostage to Chavez. In a nation exhausted from a decades-long battle with the violent guerrillas, this was a rare piece of good news. “People were longing for a gift, for a miracle,” says Morales, thirty-two. “And Emmanuel was a symbol. The whole country was feeling the promise: ‘Please let Emmanuel get his freedom. We would like that as a Christmas present from FARC.’”
But as the new year arrived, Emmanuel still hadn’t been freed. Then, in the first days of January, Colombian president Alvaro Uribe went on national television to deliver the shocking news that it appeared that Emmanuel was not even in the possession of FARC! It turned out Emmanuel had become seriously ill some time earlier, and FARC had taken him away from his mother, Clara, and dumped him with a peasant family. He was now, unexpectedly, in the government’s hands.
The nation was still on holiday with plenty of time to watch the news, which was all about poor, sick, abandoned Emmanuel. Morales’s politically engaged extended family, hanging out by day at the beach, debated what might happen next. “People were happy because the kid was safe, but we were so fucking angry,” Morales says. “Forgive me for using that word but we felt assaulted by FARC. How could they dare negotiate for the life of a kid they didn’t even have? People felt this was too much. How much longer was FARC going to play with us and lie to us?”
Morales wanted desperately to do something. So he turned to Facebook. Though the service wasn’t yet even translated into Spanish, Morales spoke fluent English, as do many educated Colombians, and had been maintaining a profile there for over a year, posting his own information in Spanish and connecting with old college and high school friends. Spending time on Facebook was already a daily ritual for him.
In Facebook’s search box he typed the four letters “FARC” and hit enter. There were no results. No groups. No activism. No outrage. Groups devoted to almost everything under the sun were common on Facebook. But when it came to FARC, the citizens of Colombia had become used to being angry but cowed. In effect, the entire country had been taken hostage, and this had been going on for decades.
Morales spent a day asking himself if he was willing to go public on Facebook. He decided to take the plunge, and on the 4th created a group against FARC. “It was like a therapy,” he says. “I had to express my anger.” He wrote a short description of the group’s simple purpose—to stand up against FARC. A self-confessed “computer addict,” Morales was skilled at graphics tools, so he designed a logo in the form of a vertical version of the Colombian flag. He overlaid it with four simple pleas in capitals running down the page, each one slightly larger than the last— no more kidnappings, no more lies, no more killings, no more farc. “I was trying to scream like if I was in a crowd,” he explains. “The time had come to fight FARC. What had happened was unbearable.”
But what should he call his group? On Facebook it’s conventional to give groups names like “I bet I can find one million people who hate George Bush.” But Morales didn’t like such titles. They were juvenile. This was not a contest. This was serious. Yet he liked the idea of a million. A famous Spanish song is called “One Million Friends.” One million people against FARC? The word voices sounded more literary. One million voices against FARC—Un Millon de Voces Contra Las FARC. That was it.
After midnight on January 4, Morales created the group. He made it public so that any Facebook member could join. His personal network included about one hundred friends, and he invited them all. He was tired. At 3 a.m. he went to bed.
At 9 a.m. the next morning he checked his group. Fifteen hundred people had joined already! “Woooooooo!!!” Morales howled in delight. This was an even better response than he had expected! That day at the beach he told his extended family about the group and asked them to invite their own Facebook friends to join. Most of them were avid Facebook users as well, and they hated FARC, too. By the time Morales returned home in the late afternoon, his group had four thousand members.
“That’s when I said to myself, ‘Okay, no more beach, no more going out.’” He was ready to get serious. “I felt, ‘Oh my God! This is what I want! A committed community around the message.’”
A Facebook group has a “wall,” where members can post thoughts, as well as discussion forums that allow organized, long-lasting conversations among many members. Morales soon bonded with several people who were posting there with special vigor. They exchanged instant messaging and Skype addresses and cell-phone numbers so they could continue their conversations offline.
As more and more Colombians joined the group, members started talking not only about how mad they were about FARC, but what they ought to do about it. On January 6, just the second full day, a consensus on the page was emerging that the burgeoning group should go public. By the time it hit eight thousand members, people were posting on the discussion board, over and over, “Let’s DO something.”
Late on the afternoon of the 6th, his newfound Facebook friends, especially two he was speaking to by phone, convinced Morales that he should propose a demonstration. When he did, the idea was received on the wall and discussion board by acclamation. By the end of the day the group, still operating only out of Morales’s upstairs bedroom, had decided to stage a national march against FARC. It would be February 4, one month after the formation of the group. Morales, who was used to being left out of things since he lived in a provincial city, insisted the march take place not only in Bogota, the capital, but also many other places throughout the country, including of course his hometown of Barranquilla.
So Morales created an event called the National March against FARC. He and his co-organizers, several of them already as consumed by the project as he was, immediately got pushback from unexpected quarters. Members in Miami, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Los Angeles, Paris, and elsewhere argued that it should be a global demonstration. Morales didn’t even realize people living outside Colombia had joined the group. These Colombian émigrés were on Facebook partly to stay in touch with things back at home. They wanted to be involved in this movement, too. So it became a global march.
What ensued was one of the most extraordinary examples of digitally fueled activism the world has ever seen. On February 4, about 10 million people marched against FARC in hundreds of cities in Colombia according to Colombian press estimates. As many as 2 million more marched in cities around the world. The movement that began with an impassioned midnight Facebook post in one frustrated young man’s bedroom led to one of the largest demonstrations ever, anywhere in the world.
Facebook’s very newness helped Morales’s demonstration garner attention in Colombia. Though several hundred thousand Colombians were already using Facebook, it had not appeared on the radar of the average citizen. So when the press began covering plans for the upcoming demonstration, its stories focused heavily on the astonishing impact of this strange American import and the “Facebook kids,” as many articles and TV and radio programs called them. Though Morales and his co-organizers were mostly in their early thirties, the country was also captivated by the possibility that younger people were not cowed by FARC.
Once Colombian president Alvaro Uribe and Colombia’s political establishment saw this Facebook uprising emerge, they did everything they could to make it a success. After a week or two the local army commander began providing Morales with three bodyguards and a car, which he used through February 4. Mayors and city governments throughout the country worked closely with demonstration volunteers to grant march permits.
But what remains remarkable is the way so many Colombians on Facebook signed up on the group under their real names. By the day of the march there were 350,000. Despite decades of fear and intimidation, Facebook gave Colombia’s young people an easy, digital way to feel comfort in numbers to declare their disgust.
Even after news about the march had become a daily drumbeat in the press and the website had turned into a key promotional tool, Facebook remained central. “Facebook was our headquarters,” says Morales. “It was the newspaper. It was the central command. It was the laboratory—everything. Facebook was all that, right up until the last day.”
Morales himself had volunteered to coordinate the local demonstration in Barranquilla. He expected about 50,000 people to show up. In fact 300,000 did, about 15 percent of the city’s population. They filled more than ten city blocks. At exactly noon, Morales read a statement that the group had jointly agreed upon. It was broadcast on television all over Latin America. Demonstrators gathered even in remote places like Dubai, Sydney, and Tokyo. On local TV news, one woman was interviewed in the crush of the Bogota march. Had she been personally injured by FARC, the interviewer asked? “Yes, because I am Colombian,” she replied. Morales and his group members had tapped into frustrations deep in the collective national psyche.
While pressure from President Uribe has played a major role in weakening FARC, the demonstrations seem to have struck their own blow. In a sign that the guerrillas were acutely aware of the impending march, on the Saturday before it took place they announced that they would release three hostages, all former Colombian congressmen, as a “humanitarian” gesture. Ingrid Betancourt and fourteen other hostages were rescued in a commando operation by the Colombian army in July 2008. In interviews she recalled listening to a radio in the jungle on February 4, surrounded by her FARC captors. She said she was deeply moved when she heard the demonstrators chanting in unison, “No more FARC! Freedom! Freedom!” Then the guerrillas couldn’t stand it and turned off the radio. Oscar Morales is telling me about this in a coffee shop in Manhattan in late 2008. As he does, his voice catches. Tears well up. His group and the subsequent demonstration made him into a national and international celebrity. But the conviction and concern that fueled his creation of Un Millon de Voces Contra Las FARC remains alive. Today he devotes his entire life to the anti-FARC crusade.
Though Facebook was not designed as a political tool, its creators observed early on that it had peculiar potential. During the first few weeks after it was created at Harvard University in 2004, students began broadcasting their political opinions by replacing their profile picture with a block of text that included a political statement. “People were using it back then to protest whatever was important,” says Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz. “Even if they were just upset about a minor issue with the school.” People from the beginning intuitively realized that if this service was intended as a way for them to reflect online their genuine identity, then an element of that identity was their views and passions about the issues of the day.
“The Colombia thing,” says Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, “is a very early indicator that governance is changing—[and of how] powerful political organizations can form. These things can really affect peoples’ liberties and freedom, which is kind of the point of government. . . . In fifteen years maybe there will be things like what happened in Colombia almost every day.”
Now, two years after Morales’s stunning success, one can find Facebook-fueled activism and protest in every country and community where the service has caught on—and that is pretty much all of them in the developed world. Facebook, along with Twitter, famously played a role in the revolt against the outcome of the mid-2009 elections in Iran. As New York Times foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman pointed out, “For the first time, the moderates, who were always stranded between authoritarian regimes that had all the powers of the state and Islamists who had all the powers of the mosque, now have their own place to come together and project power: the network.” It was on Facebook that defeated Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi told his followers when he thought it was time for them to go into the streets. And when a young woman was tragically killed during one of those protests, it was on Facebook that video of her murder emerged, to be shared worldwide as a symbol of Iranian government repression. The Iranian government, embarrassed, tried several times to shut off access to Facebook. But it is used so widely in the country that it was difficult to do so.
How could Colombia’s anti-FARC movement go from A to Z—from one man in his bedroom to millions in the streets—so quickly? Why should Facebook turn out to be a uniquely effective tool for political organizing? How did founder Zuckerberg’s decisions at crucial moments in the company’s history increase its impact? And in what ways do its unprecedented qualities help explain the rapidity with which Facebook has become a routine part of the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world? As the rest of this book will explore, many of the answers lie in a set of phenomena I call the Facebook Effect.
As a fundamentally new form of communication, Facebook leads to fundamentally new interpersonal and social effects. The Facebook Effect happens when the service puts people in touch with each other, often unexpectedly, about a common experience, interest, problem, or cause. This can happen at a small or large scale—from a group of two or three friends or a family, to millions, as in Colombia. Facebook’s software makes information viral. Ideas on Facebook have the ability to rush through groups and make many people aware of something almost simultaneously, spreading from one person to another and on to many with unique ease—like a virus, or meme. You can send messages to other people even if you’re not explicitly trying to. It’s how Un Millon de Voces Contra Las FARC grew so fast from its very first night.
Any member who joined was merely making a statement about himself—“Yes, I am against FARC.” A new member was not necessarily saying “send this information to my friends,” he was just joining the group. But as each new person joined, Facebook took that information and distributed it to the News Feeds of that person’s friends. Then when those people joined the group, Facebook reported that news to their friends’ News Feeds. Something like Morales’s anti-FARC campaign that taps into a latent need or desire can spread virally with lightning speed, making groups huge overnight.
Large-scale broadcast of information was formerly the province of electronic media—radio and television. But the Facebook Effect—in cases like Colombia or Iran—means ordinary individuals are initiating the broadcast. You don’t have to know anything special or have any particular skills. Twitter is another service with a more limited range of functions that can also enable powerful broadcasting over the Internet by any individual. It too has had significant political impact.
This all may be either a constructive or a destructive force. Facebook is giving individuals in societies across the world more power relative to social institutions, and that may well lead to very disruptive changes. In some societies it may destabilize institutions many of us would rather stay the same. But it also holds the promise—as is starting to be shown in Egypt, Indonesia, and elsewhere—of posing challenges to long-standing repressive state institutions and practices. Facebook makes it easier for people to organize themselves.
There’s no reason why the self-organizing component of the Facebook Effect only need apply to serious gatherings, of course. In mid2008 a Facebook group organized a huge water fight in downtown Leeds, England. And in September 2008 more than a thousand people spent twenty minutes or so smashing each other with pillows in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They heard about the pillow fight on Facebook. Public pillow fights became something of a fad around the world as Facebook-empowered young people embraced a new way to blow off steam.
The Facebook Effect can be no less powerful as a tool for marketers, provided they can figure out how to invoke it, a topic we will explore in greater depth later. Similarly, the Facebook Effect has potentially profound implications for media. On Facebook, everyone can be an editor, a content creator, a producer, and a distributor. All the classic old-media hats are being worn by everyone. The Facebook Effect can create a sudden convergence of interest among people in a news story, a song, or a YouTube video. One day recently I had been working on this book and hadn’t paid any attention to the news. I happened to see that a friend’s News Feed read “Dow up 3.5%.” I would in the past have received that information from Yahoo News, or from radio or television.
The games business, one that is playing a big role in Facebook’s development, has already figured a lot of this out. The best games take advantage of the Facebook Effect, with the result that some games are played by as many as 30 million members per week. PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo Wii were the platform choices of the previous generation. Now, however, all the video-gaming consoles are starting to build in Facebook connectivity as well.
As Facebook grows and grows past 500 million members, one has to ask if there may not be a macro version of the Facebook Effect. Could it become a factor in helping bring together a world filled with political and religious strife and in the midst of environmental and economic breakdown? A communications system that includes people of all countries, all races, all religions, could not be a bad thing, could it?
Continued in Part 2