Just When I Was Working Up Some Sympathy for Mark Zuckerberg—Facebook Blows It Again

10/8/10Follow @wroush

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“never informed that I was ‘force-joined’” to the group. “If you guys want to run these new features by me before you launch them, I can probably save you from a couple of privacy lawsuits each year,” Calacanis quipped.

Anyone who’s watched The Social Network is bound to see some irony in the way Facebook Groups works. The premise of the movie is that Facebook’s early years were shaped by Zuckerberg’s bitterness over his exclusion from Harvard’s patrician final clubs. In Sorkin’s version of history, Zuckerberg double-crossed first his business associates Cameron and Tyler Winkelvoss, varsity rowers and Porcellian Club members for whom he’d agreed to develop a social networking site called Harvard Connect, and then his friend Eduardo Saverin, who was Facebook’s first investor and business manager but was frozen out of the company after he was accepted to the Phoenix Club.

If you buy all of that, then the funny part is that Zuckerberg wanted to get into a final club but was never invited—and now Facebook puts people into groups without even asking them.

Of course, it’s hazardous to make comparisons between the real world and the patently dramatized one of the movie. What upset me most* about The Social Network was its relentless portrayal of Zuckerberg as a self-absorbed adolescent whose ambition to build a new kind of communications tool—one of the most successful the world has ever seen—was entirely the product of his sublimated resentment. (I’m not sure whether this message originated in Ben Mezrich’s book, Sorkin’s screenplay, Fincher’s direction, or Jesse Eisenberg’s merciless performance as Zuckerberg; perhaps it was all of the above.) Zuckerberg is shown in the movie to have software-engineering chops, but there’s no sign that the filmmakers appreciate or even understand what he invented or how that invention is changing the world.

It’s not often that Hollywood turns its magic on entrepreneurs—so it’s a real shame when the guy who’s arguably the most influential entrepreneur since Bill Gates or Steve Jobs gets portrayed as an anti-hero. Facebook, despite its privacy missteps, has created something of real value and meaning to millions of people seeking to stay in contact online. (Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig makes this point much more eloquently in his review of the movie for The New Republic.)

But while I think Fincher and Sorkin give us a sadly distorted and one-sided picture of Facebook, I wouldn’t call them fabulists. Clearly, the filmmakers had a lot of real-world material to draw upon, and Facebook, in its endless push-and-pull with users over who gets to access and control their data, seems to keep creating more. Why is it so hard for the company to understand that people might not want to be added to groups and e-mail lists without giving their permission first? This is why Google Groups and virtually every other group and mailing list mechanism I know about are opt-in by default, not opt-out. The “force-join” nature of the new Groups reinforces the impression that … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri

    Hey Wade. I haven’t seen the movie but I’ll be glad to have your lens on it before I go. Happily, it will save me from getting angry over the last objection since you already did it for me.

    But here’s an angle to consider on your main point. Namely youthful blinders and limited life experience. Here’s a parallel. When I look at etsy (also a young founder) I see a site with brilliant content and vision but absolutely no clue how their most likely/productive customers need to search and shop. You are “forced” to spend countless hours experiencing unwanted choices because the founder overly prioritizes an open marketplace over customer experience.

    I often see the same in Facebook. A guy with a brilliant vision but not enough life experience to understand diversity. I have seen these blinders in older founders too so perhaps youth is not the issue. But come on! Forced Groups???

    When I was at social network Ziggs we built a beautiful Groups feature (we competed with LinkedIn and they had not touched Groups. They still really haven’t done it well.). As busy adults with multiple social networks of varying importance, the fundamental tenant was “quick, easy, voluntary.” I think Zuckerberg’s only social network is his group of subordinate employees who have to agree with his vision. (And being a fellow entrepreneur, I can see how very easily that could happen, even innocently.) Perhaps that is the reason for his curious inability to prioritize other points of view.

  • http://www.woodka.com donna

    Facebook is like America — it will eventually do the right thing after it does all the wrong things.

    It is still little more than an amusement to me, where things like Twitter and Tumblr have become profoundly interesting parts of my day. The things most people are willing to post in a forum that may include any of their friends or family are rather mundane. The things people post in a forum of interested friends or strangers who choose to follow them or read their blogs are far more intriguing.

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  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @Jules — I think you’re probably right. So many people have come and gone at Facebook, and Zuckerberg is the one constant. He seems to have a Steve Jobs-like commitment to overseeing product development, so it’s probably safe to say he either explicitly or implicitly endorsed the forced groups feature. Objections that seem obvious to outsiders or those with more experience may simply escape him or seem trivial. The odd thing is that COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose role is reportedly to provide some adult supervision and counterbalance Zuckerberg on decisions like this, apparently didn’t step in.

  • Jules Pieri, CEO Daily Grommet

    Wade, I thought that exact same thing. OK maybe Mark has never dealt with a Mother-in-law who likes to send too many stupid cat jokes, or a hyper Softball coach who thinks you want to hear from him every day, or a condo association gone militant, but surely Sheryl has. She should understand perfectly well that all groups are not created equal. And that it is awkward to opt out of your psychotic family or PTA group, but pretty easy not to opt in.

    By the way, I admire Mark for staying close to product and that he trusts himself to be the leader. I just think his definition of leader may be too closed-minded.

  • http://technologyreview.com Conrad Warre

    While facebook has been an interesting case study, complaining about a service that is free to it’s users seems fairly meaningless. As soon as you enter the web you have implicitly given up some aspects of control and/or secrecy about your identity, ranging from your IP, to Geo Location, hosting/isp, bandwidth access, OS, time of day, frequuency, the size of your monitor, the list is almost endless – you’ve (auto) already been recognized as a part of some group whether you like it or not – and the sites you visit will treat you, and serve you according to their wishes – not necessarily yours.

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  • rjr_of_florida

    I’m sold on the Frid.ge for staying connected in ad hoc ways with select people. For instance with selected groups such as groups of friends from school–not elementary school friends who look you up from ages ago and latch on to your whole network via other social networking sites. Work groups, task oriented associations, neighborhood friends, mentor/mentee connections, etc. are other viable examples. This company will undoubtedly scale up as it receives more visibility.