The Flexibility to Explore: Zuckerberg on Facebook’s Early History

10/22/12Follow @wroush

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let people share the things they wanted and let them control it. I think Facebook did that. One definition of technology is that it extends natural abilities. Glasses extend your ability to see. Steve Jobs once famously compared a computer to being “a bicycle for your mind.” And basically extending your ability to think. And the word “computer” comes from the Latin for “think together.” A social network, I think, extends people’s very real social capacity. You hear all these approximations. There is this famous Dunbar’s Number: That humans have the capacity to maintain empathetic relationships with about 150 people. I think Facebook extends that.

PG: On Facebook do you see certain groups stop at 150?

MZ: When people sign up the average amount of friends they get is 150, but after that it expands and you can keep in touch with a lot more people. So, given that, I actually think one of the lessons from that is, do something fundamental. I think a lot of people in a lot of companies that I see are operating on small problems. And it’s cool if you are an entrepreneur and you have a partner and you’re building a company to solve some tangible problem, but I think the most interesting things operate on these phenomena in the world which are really just fundamental things about how the world operates.

PG: So what you did was something that was fundamental for a small market. Then you just expanded the market, from Harvard students to everyone.

MZ: Well, it was fundamental for me. I felt this need really acutely. I really wanted this. It turned out that this wasn’t just for college students. Almost everybody in the world who has friends and family wants to stay in touch with those people.

PG: In retrospect—this is a bit of a controversial question perhaps—but do you think MySpace had a chance, once you started the center of gravity shifted. From the point you started expanding out of Harvard, it seems like in retrospect they were doomed.

MZ: I don’t see it that way.

PG: You think they could have won?

MZ: No, it’s not about winning and losing, it’s about doing something valuable. Almost every product and category was going to get transformed. There are things that MySpace did that Facebook has never done. You know, MySpace was a much better service early on for meeting new people. Facebook was never primarily about meeting new people. It was about staying active with the people you knew. And kind of mapping out the real relationships that existed. I think part of the issue is that they saw us growing and they felt threatened by that and they tried to copy what we were doing. You are never going to win that way. Of all these interesting social services and apps that are being built today—think about all the new apps that you guys install on your phones. There are so many interesting things. Eight of the top 10 iOS apps plug into Facebook. 50 percent of the top 400 iOS apps plug into Facebook. They are all socially integrated, but the companies that are getting started now that are just trying to copy the stuff, that has already been done, aren’t going be successful.

PG: Do you think MySpace could have survived if they’d gone into some marginal territory?

MZ: It’s a question of bringing real value. I think people have a fundamental need to stay connected with the people they know. I think people have many fundamental needs, to meet people and expand their horizons as well. That has never been the primary problem Facebook is trying to solve. And, I think it’s something we can do, or that someone else could do using our platform, or something that someone else could build independently. I also never bought this music thing for MySpace. They always said they were a music service. I’m not sure.

PG: Before we go I want to ask you about how you ended up out here. How did you end up in a house in Palo Alto.

MZ: I remember bits of the story. I wrote the first version of Facebook in January of 2004. The reason I did it in January was at the time Harvard had this weird intersession thing.

PG: They don’t have reading period anymore?

MZ: I think they changed it. Now they just kick you out if you start anything interesting there. [Laughter] I think they are actually changing that. Strike that! But they had this thing before where in January you basically had this dead month where you could study for finals. Hypothetically.

PG: I remember reading that you started Facebook during reading period. It was because you had this time where you weren’t too busy with stuff.

MZ: Yeah, although I actually probably should have been studying. I was taking this course on the Rome of Augustus. And on the final there are these pieces of art that you studied from class and on the final they show you some pieces of art and you have to write about the historical significance of that. I hadn’t really done much of the studying for the class. I spent most of my time programming and reading things that I enjoyed. I could have used reading period to study but instead I was building Facebook. So instead what I did was I hacked together this website where I went and downloaded from the course website the 200 or so images that were going to be potentially on the final. And I built this very simple site where it showed one of the images and then you could … Next Page »

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

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