Mark Zuckerberg is a genius.
Not in the Asperger's, autistic way depicted in the very fictional movie The Social Network, the cognitive genius of exceptional ability. That's a modern definition that reduces the original meaning.
Nor would I say he was the Steve Jobsian product genius, either. Anyone claiming as much will have to explain the crowded graveyard of forgotten Facebook product failures. Remember "Home," the Facebook-enabled home screen for Android phones, launched with much fanfare at a Facebook press event in 2013, Zuck appearing alongside the C.E.O. of the soon-to-be-disappointed smartphone-maker HTC? Or Facebook's misguided bet on HTML5 in 2012, which slowed the mobile app to a frustrating crawl? How about Facebook's first version of Search, available in English only, mostly useful for checking out your friends' single female friends, and since discontinued? The stand-alone mobile app Paper, which was a shameless rip-off of Flipboard? Some unlaunched products I can't name consumed massive resources, dying internally after Zuck changed his mind and shut them down.
If he's a product genius, then there's lots of serendipity counterbalancing his divine madness.
No. I submit he is an old-school genius, the fiery force of nature possessed by a tutelary spirit of seemingly supernatural provenance that fuels and guides him, intoxicates his circle, and compels his retinue to be great as well. The Jefferson, the Napoléon, the Alexander… the Jim Jones, the L. Ron Hubbard, the Joseph Smith. Keeper of a messianic vision that, though mercurial and stinting on specifics, presents an overwhelming and all-consuming picture of a new and different world. Have a mad vision and you're a kook. Get a crowd to believe in it as well and you're a leader. By imprinting this vision on his disciples, Zuckerberg founded the church of a new religion. All the early Facebook employees have their story of the moment when they saw the light and realized that Facebook wasn't some measly social network like MySpace but a dream of a different human experience. With all the fervor of recent converts, newly recruited followers attracted other committed, smart, and daring engineers and designers, themselves seduced by the echoes of the Zuckian vision in others.
Down in the Valley
Then there was the culture he created.
Many cool Valley companies have engineering-first cultures, but Facebook took it to a different level. The engineers ran the place, and so as long as you shipped code and didn't break anything (too often), you were golden. The spirit of subversive hackery guided everything. In the early days, a Georgia college kid named Chris Putnam created a virus that made your Facebook profile resemble MySpace, then the social-media incumbent. It went rampant and started deleting user data as well. Instead of siccing the F.B.I. dogs on Putnam, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz invited him for an interview and offered him a job. He went on to become one of Facebook's more famous and rage-filled engineers. That was the uniquely piratical attitude: if you could get shit done and quickly, nobody cared much about credentials or traditional legalistic morality. The hacker ethos prevailed above all.
This culture is what kept 23-year-old kids who were making half a million a year, in a city where there was lots of fun on offer if you had the cash, tethered to a corporate campus for 14-hour days. They ate three meals a day there, sometimes slept there, and did nothing but write code, review code, or comment on new features in internal Facebook groups. On the day of the I.P.O.—Facebook's victory rally—the Ads area was full of busily working engineers at eight P.M. on a Friday. All were at that point worth real money—even fuck-you money for some—and all were writing code on the very day their paper turned to hard cash.
Left, Facebook headquarters; Right, Google's Mountain View, California, campus.
Left, © Aerial Archives/Alamy Stock Photo; Right, Marko Priske/Laif/Redux.
At Facebook, your start date was celebrated by the company the way evangelicals celebrate the day they were baptized and found Jesus, or the way new American citizens celebrate the day they took their oath in front of the flag. This event was called (really) your Faceversary, and every colleague would rush to congratulate you on Facebook (of course), just as normal people did for one another on their birthdays. Often the company or your colleagues would order you a garish surprise bouquet for your desk, with one of those huge Mylar balloons in the shape of a 2 or whatever. When someone left Facebook (usually around when the balloons said 4 or 5), everyone would treat it as a death, as if you were leaving the current plane of existence and going to another one (though it wasn't assumed this next plane would be better than the current one). The tombstone of your Facebook death was a photo posted on Facebook of your weathered and worn corporate ID. It was customary to include a weepy suicide note/self-written epitaph, and the post would garner hundreds of likes and comments inside a minute.
To the deceased, it felt like a passing, too. When you left Facebook, you left the employee-only Facebook network, which meant that all the posts from internal groups (with secret company stuff) were gone, your posts got less distribution among other Facebook employees (who were on it 24/7, of course), and your Facebook feed, which had become your only social view of the world, suddenly slowed to a near-empty crawl. Almost instantly, someone would add you to the ex-Facebook secret groups, which served as a sort of post-employment purgatory where former employees discussed the company.
Pause and consider all this for a lingering moment: the militant engineering culture, the all-consuming work identity, the apostolic sense of devotion to a great cause. The cynics will read statements from Zuckerberg or some other senior exec about creating "a more open and connected world" and think, "Oh, what sentimental drivel." The critics will read of a new product tweak or partnership and think Facebook is doing it only to make more money.
Facebook is full of true believers who really, really, really are not doing it for the money, and really, really will not stop until every man, woman, and child on earth is staring into a blue-bannered window with a Facebook logo. Which, if you think about it, is much scarier than simple greed. The greedy man can always be bought at some price, and his behavior is predictable. But the true zealot? He can't be had at any price, and there's no telling what his mad visions will have him and his followers do.
That's what we're talking about with Mark Elliot Zuckerberg and the company he created.
In June 2011, Google launched an obvious Facebook copy called Google Plus. Obnoxiously wired in to other Google products like Gmail and YouTube, it was meant to join all users of Google services into one online identity, much as Facebook did for the Internet as a whole. Given you had a Google Plus sign-up button practically everywhere in your Google user experience, the possibility of its network growing exponentially was very real indeed. Also, the product itself was pretty good, in some ways better than Facebook. The photo sharing was better and more geared to serious photographers, and much of the design cleaner and more minimalist. An additional plus for Google Plus: it had no ads, as Google could subsidize it with AdWords, its paid-search gold mine. This was the classic one-hand-washing-the-other tactic of the ruthless monopolist, like Microsoft using the revenue from Windows to crush Netscape Navigator with Explorer back in the 90s. By owning search, Google would bankroll taking over social media as well.
This sudden move was somewhat surprising. For years Google had been famously dismissive of Facebook, the rarefied heights of its search monopoly making it feel untouchable. But as the one-way parade of expensive talent from Google to Facebook continued with no end in sight, Google got nervous. Companies are like countries: the populations really vote only with their feet, either coming or going. Google instituted a policy whereby any desirable Googler who got a Facebook offer would have it beaten instantly by a heaping Google counter-offer. This, of course, caused a rush of Googlers to interview at Facebook, only to use the resulting offer as a bargaining chip to improve their Google pay. But many were legitimately leaving. The Googlers at Facebook were a bit like the Greeks during the rise of the Roman Empire: they brought lots of civilization and tech culture with them, but it was clear who was going to run the world in the near future.
Google Plus was Google finally taking note of Facebook and confronting the company head-on, rather than via cloak-and-dagger recruitment shenanigans and catty disses at tech conferences. It hit Facebook like a bomb. Zuck took it as an existential threat comparable to the Soviets' placing nukes in Cuba in 1962. Google Plus was the great enemy's sally into our own hemisphere, and it gripped Zuck like nothing else. He declared "Lockdown," the first and only one during my time there. As was duly explained to the more recent employees, Lockdown was a state of war that dated to Facebook's earliest days, when no one could leave the building while the company confronted some threat, either competitive or technical.
How, might you ask, was Lockdown officially announced? We received an e-mail at 1:45 P.M. the day Google Plus launched, instructing us to gather around the Aquarium, the glass-walled cube that was Zuck's throne room. Actually, it technically instructed us to gather around the Lockdown sign. This was a neon sign bolted to the upper reaches of the Aquarium, above the cube of glass, almost like the NO VACANCY sign on a highway motel. By the time the company had gathered itself around, that sign was illuminated, tipping us off to what was coming.
Zuckerberg was usually a poor speaker. His speech came at the rapid clip of someone accustomed to analyzing language for content only, and at the speed of a very agile mind that didn't have time for rhetorical flourishes. It was geek-speak, basically, the English language as spoken by people who have four screens of computer code open at once. His bearing was aloof and disconnected from his audience, and yet he maintained that intense stare that bordered on the psychopathic. It was an unnerving look that had irrevocably rattled more than one interlocutor, typically some poor employee undergoing a withering
product review, and it stared out from every Fortune or Time cover he graced. It was easy to project a creepy persona onto that gaze. That unfortunate first impression, plus the mischaracterization in the film The Social Network, was probably responsible for half of the ever present suspicion and paranoia surrounding Facebook's motives. But occasionally Zuck would have a charismatic moment of lucid greatness, and it would be stunning.
From top, the LOCKDOWN sign; a Facebook workspace.
From top, by Jason Kincaid, Kim Kulish/Corbis/Getty Images.
The 2011 Lockdown speech didn't promise to be one of those moments. It was delivered completely impromptu from the open space next to the stretch of desks where the executive staff sat. All of Facebook's engineers, designers, and product managers gathered around him in a rapt throng; the scene brought to mind a general addressing his troops in the field.
The contest for users, he told us, would now be direct and zero-sum. Google had launched a competing product; whatever was gained by one side would be lost by the other. It was up to all of us to up our game while the world conducted live tests of Facebook versus Google's version of Facebook and decided which it liked more. He hinted vaguely at product changes we would consider in light of this new competitor. The real point, however, was to have everyone aspire to a higher bar of reliability, user experience, and site performance.
In a company whose overarching mantras were DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT and PERFECT IS THE ENEMY OF THE GOOD, this represented a course correction, a shift to the concern for quality that typically lost out to the drive to ship. It was the sort of nagging paternal reminder to keep your room clean that Zuck occasionally dished out after Facebook had suffered some embarrassing bug or outage.
Rounding off another beaded string of platitudes, he changed gears and erupted with a burst of rhetoric referencing one of the ancient classics he had studied at Harvard and before. "You know, one of my favorite Roman orators ended every speech with the phrase Carthago delenda est. 'Carthage must be destroyed.' For some reason I think of that now." He paused as a wave of laughter tore through the crowd.
The aforementioned orator was Cato the Elder, a noted Roman senator and inveigher against the Carthaginians, who clamored for the destruction of Rome's great challenger in what became the Third Punic War. Reputedly, he ended every speech with that phrase, no matter the topic.
Carthago delenda est. Carthage must be destroyed!
Zuckerberg's tone went from paternal lecture to martial exhortation, the drama mounting with every mention of the threat Google represented. The speech ended to a roar of cheering and applause. Everyone walked out of there ready to invade Poland if need be. It was a rousing performance. Carthage must be destroyed!
In the Trenches
The Facebook Analog Research Laboratory jumped into action and produced a poster with CARTHAGO DELENDA EST splashed in imperative bold type beneath a stylized Roman centurion's helmet. This improvised printshop made all manner of posters and ephemera, often distributed semi-furtively at nights and on weekends, in a fashion reminiscent of Soviet samizdat. The art itself was always exceptional, evoking both the mechanical typography of W.W. II-era propaganda posters and contemporary Internet design, complete with faux vintage logos. This was Facebook's ministry of propaganda, and it was originally started with no official permission or budget, in an unused warehouse space. In many ways, it was the finest exemplar of Facebook values: irreverent yet bracing in its martial qualities.
The Carthago posters went up immediately all over the campus and were stolen almost as fast. It was announced that the cafés would be open over the weekends, and a proposal was seriously floated to have the shuttles from Palo Alto and San Francisco run on the weekends, too. This would make Facebook a fully seven-days-a-week company; by whatever means, employees were expected to be in and on duty. In what was perceived as a kindly concession to the few employees with families, it was also announced that families were welcome to visit on weekends and eat in the cafés, allowing the children to at least see Daddy (and, yes, it was mostly Daddy) on weekend afternoons. My girlfriend and our one-year-old daughter, Zoë, came by, and we weren't the only family there, by any stretch. Common was the scene of the swamped Facebook employee with logo'd hoodie spending an hour of quality time with his wife and two kids before going back to his desk.
And what was everyone working on?
For those in the user-facing side of Facebook, it meant thinking twice on a code change amid the constant, hell-for-leather dash to ship some new product bell or whistle, so we wouldn't look like the half-assed, thrown-together, social-media Frankenstein we occasionally were.
For us in the Ads team, it was mostly corporate solidarity that made us join the weekend-working mob. At Facebook, even then and certainly later, you got along by going along, and everyone sacrificing his or her entire life for the cause was as much about self-sacrifice and team building as it was an actual measure of your productivity. This was a user battle, not a revenue one, and there was little we could do to help wage the Google Plus Punic War, other than not totally horrifying users with some aggressive new Ads product—something nobody had the nerve to do in those pre-I.P.O. days.
Internal Facebook groups sprang up to dissect every element of the Google Plus product. On the day Plus launched, I noted an Ads product manager named Paul Adams in close conversation with Zuckerberg and a couple members of the high command inside a small conference room. As was well known, before he defected to Facebook, Paul had been one of the product designers for Google Plus. Now that the product had launched, presumably he was no longer restrained by a non-disclosure agreement with Google, and Facebook was having him walk the leadership through the public aspects of Google Plus.
Facebook was not fucking around. This was total war.
I decided to do some reconnaissance. En route to work one Sunday morning, I skipped the Palo Alto exit on the 101 and got off in Mountain View instead. Down Shoreline I went and into the sprawling Google campus. The multicolored Google logo was everywhere, and clunky Google-colored bikes littered the courtyards. I had visited friends here before and knew where to find the engineering buildings. I made my way there and contemplated the parking lot.
It was empty. Completely empty.
I got back on the 101 North and drove to Facebook.
At the California Avenue building, I had to hunt for a parking spot. The
lot was full.
It was clear which company was fighting to the death.
Carthage must be destroyed!
Left, a Facebook mantra abandoned in light of the challenge from Google; Right, employees at work.
Left, by Kim Kulish/Corbis/Getty Images; Right, Gilles Mingasson/Getty Images.
While Zuck wouldn't burn Google to the ground, take the wives and children of Google employees as slaves, and salt the grounds of the former Google offices so nothing would grow there for generations, as some say Rome did to Carthage, it was still about as ignominious a defeat as one got in the tech world.
Not that this was clear from the first skirmishes, mind you.
In fact, the initial signs were more than alarming. Google Plus wasn't some halfhearted effort by Google to knock off a pesky upstart. The news coming out of Google, leaked via the press, or via current Google employees (former colleagues to many Facebookers, who'd come from their current mortal rival), was that all of Google's internal product teams were being re-oriented in favor of Google Plus. Even Search, then and now the most frequented destination on the Web, was being dragged into the fray and would supposedly sport social features. Search results would now vary based on your connections via Google Plus, and anything you shared—photos, posts, even chats with friends—would now be used as part of Google's ever powerful and mysterious search algorithm.
This was shocking news, even more so to Googlers. Search was the company's tabernacular product, the holy of holies, the on-line oracle of human knowledge that had replaced libraries and encyclopedias.
By all accounts (and Google information security was clearly not as good as Facebook's), this caused a considerable stir internally. In January 2012, Google co-founder Larry Page, at the companywide Q&A session known as "TGIF," addressed this new direction forcefully, quelling the internal dissent and reportedly vowing: "This is the path we're headed down—a single, unified, 'beautiful' product across everything. If you don't get that, then you should probably work somewhere else."
Gauntlet thrown down, Google products were soon ranked via one unique metric—how much did they contribute to Google's social vision?—and were either consolidated or discarded appropriately.
Ne Plus Ultra?
As part of the budding media seduction around this new product, Google posted eye-popping usage numbers. In September 2012, it announced that the service had 400 million registered users and 100 million active ones. Facebook hadn't even quite reached a billion users yet, and it had taken the company four years to reach the milestone—100 million users—that Google had reached in one. This caused something close to panic inside Facebook, but as we'd soon learn, the reality on the battlefield was somewhat different than what Google was letting on.
This contest had so rattled the search giant, intoxicated as they were with unfamiliar existential anxiety about the threat that Facebook posed, that they abandoned their usual sober objectivity around engineering staples like data and began faking their usage numbers to impress the outside world, and (no doubt) intimidate Facebook.
This was the classic new-product sham, the "Fake it till you make it" of the unscrupulous startupista, meant to flatter the ego and augment chances of future (real) success by projecting an image of current (imagined) success.
The numbers were originally taken seriously—after all, it wasn't absurd to think Google could drive usage quickly—but after a while even the paranoid likes of Facebook insiders (not to mention the outside world) realized Google was juicing the numbers, the way an Enron accountant would a revenue report. Usage is always somewhat in the eye of the beholder, and Google was considering anyone who had ever so much as clicked on a Google Plus button anywhere as part of their usual Google experience a "user." Given the overnight proliferation of Google Plus buttons all over Google, like mushrooms on a shady knoll, one could claim "usage" when a Google user so much as checked e-mail or uploaded a private photo. The reality was Google Plus users were rarely posting or engaging with posted content, and they certainly weren't returning repeatedly like the proverbial lab rat in the drug experiment hitting the lever for another drop of cocaine water (as they did on Facebook). When self-delusion and self-flattery enter the mind-set of a product team, and the metrics they judge themselves by, like the first plague rat coming onto a ship, the end is practically preordained.
The face of Google Plus could not have been more perfect: Vic Gundotra was a former Microsoft exec who'd climbed the treacherous corporate ladder there before jumping to Google. It was he who had whispered a litany of fear into the ear of Google co-founder Larry Page, who had green-lit the project, and it was he who headed the rushed and top-down effort (unusual for Google) to ship a product within an ambitious 100 days.
A certain resinous smarminess coated Gundotra, like a thin layer of annoying motor oil on a socket wrench, never letting you get a real grip on it. And toolish he was, stumping loudly for Google Plus in countless media interviews and at Google-sponsored events. What was most insulting to a Facebooker was his studiously avoiding mentioning the social-media behemoth in public statements, as if the very raison d'être for his now towering presence at Google didn't even exist. Like some Orwellian copywriter, engineering language and perception to suit a fictional reality, Google would rarely mention the Facebook elephant in the room in any public statement, insulting any viewer by suggesting they had practically invented the notion of Internet-mediated social interaction. "Networks are for networking," intoned Gundotra, any reference to Facebook always oblique and dismissive. "Circles are for the right people," he continued, referring to Google Circles, a way of organizing social contacts, shamelessly copied from Facebook's long-ignored Lists
Vic's mere visage had an almost Emmanuel Goldstein-esque quality, and many were the rips and the gibes that he suffered in internal groups, a socially mediated Two-Minute Hate, whenever someone posted a link to some pro-Google bloviation of his. This had gone beyond mere corporate rivalry to become a personal struggle to Facebookers, many of whom saw their identities wrapped up in the company, Facebook as an expression of themselves (or was it vice versa?).
In April of 2014, after the Google-Facebook war had mostly run its course, Vic suddenly announced he was leaving Google. There was a "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" note of triumph inside Facebook, as everyone breathed a sigh of relief at the passing threat.
Like a general's fall marking the rout of his army, Vic's departure was as clear a sign as any that Google had given up on social, sucking up a defeat at the hands of a company it had previously ignored, if not held in outright contempt. This was only confirmed when it was simultaneously revealed that many Google Plus product teams, such as the chat app Hangouts and the photo-sharing app Photos, would be rolled into the Android team, the mobile operating system Google owned. Google spun it as Google Plus becoming not a "product" but a "platform," a sort of general-use tool that would enhance the user experience across Google's wide array of products.
It was like a government announcing their army was not in retreat but rather advancing in reverse, and everyone at Facebook saw through the face-saving P.R. wordplay. Google Plus was over; Facebook had won. The Lockdown circling of the wagons had triumphed.
Left, a poster with a charge from Zuckerberg targeting Google (a quotation from Cato the Elder that translates as "Carthage must be destroyed"); Right, an exhortation to all.
Left, Mick Johnson; Right, © Dai Sugano/San Jose Mercury News/TNS/ZumaPress.com.
The long-term conclusion was this: Facebook lived inside an unassailable redoubt of its own social network, a fortress that was completely impregnable, at least to conventional assaults via lots of money and smart people, as Google had attempted. Once everyone and his mother was on Facebook, they weren't leaving it, even when the Internet's most used site (i.e., Google Search itself) was used as inducement to join.
While Facebook clearly outpaced Google in focus and esprit de corps, the plucky upstart against the complacent incumbent, there was still the issue of revenue. Google's was still more than five times Facebook's, and the social-media giant, for however many hours of user time it managed to ingest via its blue-bannered maw, still wasn't monetizing users very well. If Facebook was ever to really hold its own against Google (not to mention revenue geysers like Apple and Amazon), it would need its own revenue geyser, like Google's AdWords or Apple's iPhone. In pursuit of that, Facebook would embark on an ambitious and ill-conceived company-spanning project of its own. Like Google Plus, that product would consume the company entirely, only to end in the smoldering ruin of abject failure. But from those ashes, plus the anxiety of a looming I.P.O., Facebook would finally find its own gold mine: monetizing mobile usage.
Adapted from Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley, by Antonio García Martínez, to be published this month by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; © 2016 by the author.