Sep 29, 2010

With "The Social Network" (don't call it "The Facebook Movie") opening this week, writer and journalist David Kirkpatrick will be online to discuss his Outlook article, "5 Myths about Facebook."

Glad to be talking with the readers of the Washington Post about my article "Five Myths about Facebook" and anything else about this world-altering service you want to discuss. With the movie The Social Network debuting tomorrow, there's a lot in the wind about Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Did you read Gene Weingarten's column this week? What do you think he got right and what do you think he got wrong? For whatever it matters, I think he got the banality of Facebook right. Most of life is banal, so that's to be expected. I think he missed the larger transformation in the way we communicate and live our lives via Facebook. In all their banal glory.

Weingarten, like so many others, seems incapable of grasping Facebook in its entirety. All the things he points out about the banal tedium and idiocy of Facebook status updates etc. are fair points. But Facebook is a system being actively used by 550 million people--that means there are as many different forms of human behavior exhibited there as there are types of people. I wrote my book because in addition to all the silly stuff and "meet me at the mall," there are a huge set of "effects" that I was convinced people didn't understand, in the realms of politics, business, media, marketing, government, identity, privacy, etc. Facebook is far larger, far more impactful, and far more important than Weingarten realizes. He should read my book.

Mr. Kirkpatrick: Is there any reason to trust that Facebook will not, at its sole discretion, release any personal information required to join that it currently states it will not release? Thanks.

There is more or less the same reason to trust it as to trust any company that holds data about you. If they betray the trust that users have given them they would risk losing users--they know that. Just look at the furor that has enveloped them each time they expose slightly more user data. That said, I always say that anyone should realize that once data about you is in digital form there is not guarantee that it will not escape your control. That is more likely to be because of the behavior of one of your "friends" on Facebook than because of the policies and practices of the company itself, in my opinion. In the book I write at some length about the problem of "peer-to-peer" privacy violations. 

Facebook (and Google, Apple, etc.) has changed its terms of service with customers several times, changing the default distribution of their information without consent. Should corporations be subjected to strict 'opt-in' privacy protections that would require explicit user consent when any change to information distribution takes place? Please bear in mind that the vast majority of consumers have no means by which to hold social networks accountable for breaches of trust, or even to find out how their information is being used, sold, exchanged and so on. The legal terms of service that companies use to shield themselves from liability are invariably intentionally complex formulations - often literal fine print - that most users simply click through. How do these considerations factor into your assertion that consumers simply 'don't care about privacy'?

These are good questions, and you sound like a lawyer. I just base my opinions on the empirical evidence--people willingly reveal astonishing amounts of information about themselves on Facebook.

Practically, if a service like Facebook were to move entirely to opt-in it will reduce the amount of information shared. That's why the company will fight it, because it reduces use, which reduces page views, which reduces the number of pages on which to show ads, etc. 

Nonetheless, over time I believe that regulators and governments worldwide--because this issue is far more fraught in Europe than here, for example-- will require Facebook to move to an opt-in architecture. Yet I think even when they do the vast majority of users will simply opt in and continue behaving more or less like they do. For most of them they feel the benefits of disclosure are worth the tradeoffs--knowing what their friends are doing and gaining a much clearer window on the world around them.

Wish there was a way to permanently shut down Facebook account instead of just deactiviting it.

There is. Facebook simply requires a period of time between the request and the action because so many users have tried to shut down their account and later had second thoughts and been mad when Facebook could not revive it.

Is it possible for my Facebook friends to find out when, or how often, I have looked at their profile, or wall?

No. This has never been possible, though many spam and hacking efforts rely on peoples' fear that this could happen. Don't ever join an application which promises to show you how to see who has seen your profile. It is almost certainly an effort to steal your password or do something else nefarious.

I guess there a two types of people, one that finds it weird to post a profile picture of themselves online (I'm in that camp) and one that isn't bothered by it at all.

True-- and the profile photo is the least of it. If you're the kind of person who won't even post a picture of yourself, you should not be using Facebook. People like you are increasingly in the minority, however. 

Do you think "The Social Network" would work as a story that was clearly about Facebook but never used the word Facebook and had a character that was to Mark Zuckerberg what Charles Foster Kane was to William Randolph Hearst?

Although it would be a harder to film to market since most folks in USA know what Facebook is.

Yes. I don't see why that wouldn't have succeeded. I think it was easier--and less fair--for them to take the real people and real events and conflate them with things that didn't happen. There are lots of things in the movie which are real and many that aren't.

As a graduate student studying Public Communications I often discuss social networking and social media sites in class discussions. The idea of self promotion through social media sites has come up and the notion of recreating one's self and image to society.

Facebook has given anyone that chance to display themselves however they want to seem to society. Zuckerberg believes that Facebook gives people the chance to be more effective citizens, but does he take into account people who create "fake" personas and different personalities than who they really are? THANKS!

Yes, and this is a problem on Facebook, but not as big as you might imagine. Most "fake" profiles are known to other users for what they are. That's because the only way to use Facebook successfully is to connect with other users. If you are truly functioning there anonymously you cannot get much done because you cannot connect with others. People assume fake names for playing games, or if they are a celebrity who does not want to be bothered by fans. 

There are several ways of authenticating that you are who you say you are on Facebook--the most important one is who agrees to make a bilateral "friend" connection with you. 

I am really puzzled by some Facebook users. People advocate strongly for privacy rights; yet, they put all their personal information on Facebook for everybody to see. Can you explain this paradox? Thank you...

Sure-- the explanation is that the people who advocate for privacy rights are not the same ones who share so freely. There seem to be far more in the latter camp than the former. If there weren't, then 550 million people would not be sharing regularly on Facebook. 

David, Facebook, ick!

What is the point? I would rather be spending my time living living my life instead of posting about how "fabulous" I am.

How fabulous can I really be if I'm spending hours on Facebook. Seriously.

Feel free not to use Facebook. But be aware that a lot more happens there than posting how fabulous someone is. This has become the de facto place where, for example, marketers are seeking to have a dialogue with their customers in order to sell their products and build better new ones. It's also where people in many places around the world, including the United States, express political views and effectively organize around issues. In countries like Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Colombia, Mexico, and elsewhere Facebook activism has had an impact at the national level. 

Facebook gives each of its members the equivalent of a broadcast platform of the type that formerly was only available to professionals. So when they are upset and want to tell others about anything that concerns them, they are likely to do so on Facebook. Local issues around the country and around the world are being addressed and changed because of Facebook activism. There are plenty of other things happening on Facebook that have nothing to do with fabulosity.

If Facebook did something this morning that I found intolerable, where could I go and take all my friends with me?

You couldn't, so far as I know. You could join another social network like MySpace or Orkut or whatever Google is trying to cobble together, but it would take a very long time to induce all your facebook friends to join you there. This is one of the main glues that keeps Facebook intact and growing--it is hard to leave. One of the other main glues is the photo archives that members have created there. They are loath to give it up.

Guess I'm old fashion. Looking at pictures of other people's vacations seems like a boring punishment to me.

It is. But like I answered several others here, beware of oversimplifying what is happening on Facebook. Like anything in life, what you get out of it is proportional to what you put into it. 

In your conversations with Zuckerberg, did he ever mention the increase in Twitter's popularity and how that has impacted Facebook, if at all?

There was a time when he was quite concerned about it--in 2008, mostly. Facebook went through a lot of changes aiming to replicate the features of Twitter alongside all the other things it does. With the launch of Facebook's Pages function, which enables any marketer or brand to promulgate messages to fans, Twitter's functionality had more or less been imitated. There is now little that you can do in Twitter that cannot be done--often with more flexibility and interaction, inside Facebook. However, a problem remains for Facebook--the most credible and influential voices--particularly in media and academia, even politics--still often prefer the simplicity of Twitter to Facebook. 

Did Pres. Obama warn today's youth about posting pictures of themselves on Facebook. Considering in his own memoirs, he admits to using illegal narcotics and being unfocused and lackluster student, wonder if he would have survived politically if there was a Facebook during his high school days with him and his friends posting on it.

It's a good question, but I also think you have correctly pinpointed how Obama exemplifies exactly why Facebook is becoming so successful. Bill Clinton got in trouble for saying he smoked pot but didn't inhale. George W. Bush admitted smoking pot and it didn't hurt him. Obama pro-actively, or we might say pre-emptively, announced he had used cocaine--and nobody seemed even to care. This is exactly the kind of historical social dynamics that young people today have intuitively noticed and altered their behavior accordingly. People seem to care less and less about disclosing information about themselves. In addition, there is the interesting phenomenon that the more people reveal about themselves, the less remarkable are the revelations of any individual. It may seem embarrassing or overly revealing to have a photo of yourself drunk at a party on Facebook. However, if many millions of others also have drunken photos of themselves online it may be less problemmatic. And believe me, that is the way most 20-year-olds look at it.

As CEO is Mark ever angry/mad or does he shout?

This is one of the great errors of the movie, whose screenplay opens by saying that Zuckerberg has "a very complicated and dangerous anger." That's just not true. He is among the least angry people I have ever met. I have never heard him shout, and I literally cannot recall anyone ever having told me of an incident in which he did. I'm sure he sometimes shouts--who doesn't?--but it is not a major part of his behavior or personal style.

I'm not a Facebook user and never will be. I'd just like to share a joke that was originally told by Conan. The owners of the Web sites YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are going to create one giant waste of your time Web site named: YOUTWITFACE. Facebook will go the way or CompuServe, AOL, MySpace, etc., and the users of Facebook need to get lives.


Read some of my other answers here...

Do you think the access you have to Zuckerberg has made you less critical toward him than you would be otherwise?

No. I think I arrived at the project from the beginning with a deep conviction that what Facebook was doing was historically important and unique. That's why I decided to devote two years of my life to researching and documenting it. I am a big admirer of Zuckerberg and make no secret of that in the book or anywhere. Anyone who doesn't admire him has the onus of explaining how, then, he has led a company to grow to 550 million users in a mere 6.5  years.

        I criticize him and the company when I think it appropriate, and I have been increasingly critical lately, as I think the company has failed to properly address many of the problems with privacy, for instance. I think Facebook needs a radical overhaul of the way users can manage their friends in groups and insure that only certain people see certain information. It needs to be much easier to manage those processes.

      In addition, Zuckerberg personally has not--until very recently--begun to rise to the challenge of being the CEO of a company which by necessity has to explain itself much more aggressively to the world. With regulators and governments worldwide arguing for limits on Facebook, if he doesn't turn his attention more fully away from product development and toward serving as a public spokesman and face for the company, he should bring in someone else to be CEO. 

What do you think about the new Facebook Places feature? Also, what do you think about the rumors of a Facebook phone?

Places is an inevitable development for Facebook, because the kind of information people want to share about themselves will inevitably grow to include location data. So far I don't think it has been very successful, but I suspect it will grow more so over time. Like all Facebook features, it will likely evolve quickly. 

      There has been a Facebook phone in Asia for over two years. The way Facebook is spreading around the world is typically via mobile devices. Facebook has a hugely successful growth strategy called which enables users in many countries to use Facebook on their phones without incurring data charges. This is inevitably the only way that Facebook can continue moving towards Zuckerberg's goal of making his service available to everyone on the planet. 

Do you envision a future where we can integrate Google/earth maps into Facebook? Mapping locations in social media would be fantastic and Google is the map leader and provides open source integration. The Google/FB relationship will be very interesting in the future.

Makes a lot of sense. It might more likely happen in partnership with Microsoft, whose maps are in many ways just as good, and often better, than Google's. And yes, the relationship or rivalry between Facebook and Google is going to be one of the most interesting things to watch in coming years.

If anything, the fictional Charles Foster Kane probably did more to cement to public's ideas about William Randolph Hearst than if Orson Welles had named the character simply William Randolph Hearst and more closely copied the biography of William Randolph Hearst. Plus Orson Welles used other elements of famous rich business tycoons of the day (Charles Foster Kane marrying the niece of the president of the United States being taken from Franklin Delano Roosevelt being one example) and nobody was bothered since "Citizen Kane" was a work of fiction while this "Social Network" is "claiming [to be] based on a true story" status. So maybe Mark Zuckerberg got off easier then if they had gone the thinly veiled fiction route.

Could be. The problems with The Social Network go back to its being based on the book Accidental Billionaires, which was marketed by Doubleday as non-fiction but which was, even by the author's own admisssion, partly made up. I think that is a dangerous and pernicious way to write about living people, and the moviemakers extended the problem by taking that as the basis for their movie.

Why is there so much angst about this social network site? A lot of people act like there's something wrong with you if you're not on Facebook. Then there are the people who refuse to join simply as backlash because it is so immensely popular. I'm not on Facebook because I could never be bothered. I'm still accepted in the world. I still know what's going on. I really don't think it's a life altering decision to be on Facebook or not. So why does everyone act like it is?

I don't think everyone does. I am 57 and the majority of my best friends either don't use Facebook at all or are very light users. None of them feel they are missing out. 

     My own opinion is that Facebook is becoming such a central part of the times in which we live, and so defining of the social and daily experience of so many people, that not to be at least using it enough to check it out is to allow yourself to be somewhat ignorant of the time and place in which you live. That's a main reason why I wanted to write a book about it. People don't nearly enough realize the impact that this service is having--if not on their life, at least on the lives of others. This is even more true in many other countries than it is in the United States. 

Is it true that Zuckerbarg communicates mostly via AOL Instant Messenger?

He increasingly uses Facebook chat, but yes, chat and instant messaging on the phone are his two favored mediums of communication. He's not a big e-mailer. And in my opinion he doesn't even post that much on Facebook.

In your book you do mention that Zuckerberg did settle out of court with both Saverin (co-founder) and the Winkelvosses twins and Narendra in both lawsuits? Why would this not indicate that facebook could in fact have been a creation of someone else's brain?

Companies often settle lawsuits in order to avoid the time and publicity of a public trial. Whether or not that was the motivation here I don't know, but it very well may have been. This is not something i have been able to get either Zuckerberg or the company to talk much to me about. My own opinion based on all the evidence is that almost none of the key ideas that led to Facebook came either from the Winklevoss/Narendra camp or from Saverin. And what ideas Zuckerberg might have gotten from them were ideas they got themselves from others. The movie makes far more out of this than it should--but that makes a great drama. 

I haven't seen "Social Network" yet, but is just about Facebook or about Mark Zuckerberg. Confused on this. I guess Mark Zuckerberg must have a father and a mother as well as perhaps siblings and certainly had a childhood. Did any of that make into the movie?

No-- the movie is about the first year of Facebook, at Harvard and in Palo Alto. There isn't anything at all about his upbringing. In addition, it fundamentally misrepresents his relationships with others, because it portrays him as being desperate to win the attention of a girlfriend who spurned him, when in fact he had a serious girlfriend during this entire period.

What I want to know is why are so many people like the "Waste of Time" poster so angry at Facebook? I used to FB, now I don't, but I don't find online forums just to tell FBers that "need to get lives." You know, just like I don't stand outside movie theaters telling people they're wasting their money on a Sandra Bullock film or write letters to the Times to say I never read the Post. (Not "this" Post, of course.) Really, what is that about?

Ask your local psychologist. I couldn't say, but I agree with you.

Are you just a big fan of the network, or do you work for them in some capacity?

I am a serious journalist who believes in the importance of Facebook and who considers Mark Zuckerberg one of the most impactful people on the planet. I have spent alot of my time explaining why I believe that. I have never gotten a cent from them.

Why does Mark switch phones every few months. He has gone from BlackBerry to Android to iPhone in under a year. Why is that? Does he use phones for communication THAT much?

He uses lots of different devices to try them out and to experience Facebook on them, especially now that Facebook's growth is increasingly dependent on mobile.

That's what it's about right? I've never used Facebook before - would I still enjoy or appreciate the movie? I assume there will be a lot of things in that movie I won't understand simply because I don't know Facebook.

I've seen it and it's a very entertaining and engaging movie. It's just not a true telling of the story of Facebook's first year.

If you don't like Facebook, don't use it. I don't get why there are all these "get a life" comments. I've used Facebook to reconnect with many old friends I haven't heard from in 10-20 years. I, and 550 million others, enjoy it. Why does this small but very vocal minority feel so threatened by it?

good question. I remember for years my mother refused to use a telephone answering machine, and then later for years refused to use a cellphone. Now of course she has both. 

Jon Favreau, a major speechwriter for Barack Obama as both a presidential candidate and now as president, got a photo of himself and another man holding a bottle of beer in their hands while fondling a cardboard cut-out of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Not much happened to Jon Favreau beyond an statement from the White House that he apologized and Secretary of State Clinton accepted. So that's a good example of folks being more accepting. The one tiny footnote is that Jon Favreau is a far less public face of the White House since the cardboard cut-out come to light. So while people are getting more and more used to the drunken photos, we're not at the promised land yet.

Yes. this story is in my book. I agree with you. btw this photo was posted by one of his "friends" on Facebook.

FB is the biggest networking site with no real competition and it is deeply in debt with no break-even point on the horizon. Shouldn't these facts cause us to worry that the market for social networking sites is badly distorted, with FB demolishing all competitors who must operate as responsible market participants and return a profit?

No. Facebook is NOT deeply in debt--it has excellent cash flow and could turn profitable any time it wants to slow down its growth--it may very well already be quite profitable, though the numbers are not public. I predict it will generate about $1.5 billion in revenue this year. 

      I don't think the issue is about money. I think the issue is about network effects and innovation. If you want to use a social network you are almost certainly going to use Facebook, in almost every country in the world, except Russia, Poland, China, Korea, Japan and a couple other countries. If something else comes along that gives us an even better way to communicate, as I think likely, then Facebook could ultimately be replaced by that. It could be this year or it could be in five years.

I really don't understand why people who hate Facebook so much took the time to come here to tell us all about it. You are on the wrong side of history. Get over it. You probably also said "no one will ever use those new fangled computer thingies. It is just a waste of time" or maybe you were the ones who said "what is this record player? Youth are just wasting time listening to music and it isn't even that good!" There are always people like this but I just chuckle when they come to a forum like this just to express how much they hate it. You don't have to use it, Luddite. You are free to think it is silly but it is not going away. It is here to stay.

Yes. You say it rather strongly, but in general I agree with you. 

I gave up on Facebook because coworkers wanted to be friends and that point I can't be myself (liberal in a conservative world) and high school friends were always posting items bashing Obama and so forth that ended on my wall. So what's the point?

If Facebook were to offer better group controls so you could, for example, sequester your work friends from your close non-work friends, or your conservative colleagues from your liberal friends, then it would not be much of a problem. As it is, Facebook has not solved this very serious problem. So people like you (and me, in somewhat analogous ways, along with many millions of Facebook users) are reduced to only sharing information we don't care if everyone sees.

I enjoyed talking with all of you here today. If you'd like to continue a dialogue about Facebook, I maintain a page on Facebook for discussing the book and the company--

I hope you'll read my book. Thanks -David

In This Chat
David Kirkpatrick
David Kirkpatrick is the author of "The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World."
Recent Chats
  • Next: