x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

People of the decade: Mark Zuckerberg

Ten years ago, we had e-mail. Today, we can let the world know what we're doing quicker than you can say "status update".

Illustration by Beto Alvarez
Illustration by Beto Alvarez

The thing about technology is that, well, it's technology. Technology never stays still and never ceases to amaze. What you may see or hold in your hands today could be radically different tomorrow. With technology, obsolescence is truly seconds away.

And it's always been like that, from the time we invented the wheel to today's website that promises to be the Next Big Thing in under 140 characters. But when you really boil it down to how technology affects us today, it's our ability to communicate with one another that has resulted in a tidal wave of change in the past 10 years. A case in point: you may be reading this article on your laptop while sailing out in the Arabian Gulf, connected to a high-speed internet connection over the airwaves using a small cheap doohickey computer plug-in. Or you may be riding the Dubai Metro while skimming the latest news on your iPhone or BlackBerry, momentarily taking a break from SMSing your best friend about tonight's plans. Or maybe you like things the old way and prefer to take a break from Skype-ing with your grandparents to read these glossy pages.

As I write this, two grown men sit on a children's see-saw, laughing into the night, a rather odd sight that a friend takes advantage of by capturing the moment on her mobile. Chances are that the picture will be uploaded, tagged and shared among a network of friends, more likely than not on Facebook. And as they reminisce about what that moment meant to them years later with photographic proof, it's hard to imagine what that photo could mean to them without having a social network such as Facebook around.

So when we consider what the major benefit that technology - and by proxy the internet - has given us, the ability to communicate more efficiently is right up there. And if that is true, surely that massive media shift has made us more social. Humans, by our nature, are social creatures. We love to talk to each other, to gossip, to inform, to debate - and we tend to harness every new technological innovation to enable us to do it more easily. The invention of the telephone brought us much closer to each other than the telegraph did. The internet has brought us even closer. E-mail, originally an invention of university professors looking for a quick way to exchange academic information, has made communication a simple mouse click away.

So when Mark Zuckerberg, a skinny, shy Harvard student sat down in front of his computer in his dorm one day and mapped out the prototype of what would become Facebook, who could have guessed what an effect his creation would have on our lives? The social network wasn't Zuckerberg's creation. There were plenty of other websites already out there that could do more or less the same thing - Friendster, Orkut and the former king of the internet, MySpace. But Facebook seemed special. Maybe it was the clean, intuitive interface. Maybe it was the simple way you could keep unwanted strangers from stalking your personal digital lives. Maybe it was the fad of being able to "poke" someone, even though you could be thousands of miles away.

The story of Facebook borrows heavily from its past, so that's where we'll start. Truly the first online social network was e-mail. Being able to chat with anyone was so simple, so effortless. No picking up the phone, no trying to remember a 10-digit number, no struggling to come up with witty, original conversation. Under the blank glare of the computer monitor, we felt at ease typing our thoughts as freely as they seeped into our subconsciousness, ending our digital conversations by hitting the "send" button.

Then came the instant message and its evolution, from ICQ to AIM to MSN Messenger, that caught on with the masses. Initially adopted by savvy, plugged-in teenagers, "IM- ing" made e-mail seem passé. Why wait hours, days or even weeks for a response when you could talk to your friends immediately? Its immediacy appealed to humanity's innate desire for instant gratification. Besides, what would LOL mean without someone else at the other end of a chat window to decipher and reply with an equally atrocious acronym?

Both e-mail and instant messaging had their drawbacks, most notably the way the technology limited our ability to share more about ourselves. Transferring photos from last night's party, for example, was complicated and more often than not didn't work as computer networks buckled trying to keep up with the massive amounts of internet traffic. But in the past decade, as the internet became faster and less expensive, so did the ability to further personalise one's digital life. Friendster was the pioneering social network, the first to let anybody create a personal profile, display pictures and bug people about what so-and-so got up to last night.

Like a shy, curious puppy warming to a new owner, people begun to flock to Friendster. And when MySpace was launched in 2003, more people began to sign up to that. MySpace made it easier and faster to share your pictures and taste in music, but it also let you find new friends who shared your interests. Best friends could be found in seconds. Couples who had caught a glimpse of one another waiting at a bus stop, could now find their soulmate.

For several years, it seemed that MySpace was going to be the social network of the decade. Everyone seemed to be on it - artists, friends, enemies, lovers, corporations and exes. Then, on February 4, 2004, Zuckerberg flipped the switch on his little hobby and the social network revolution begun. Originally designed as a way for Harvard students to judge the attractiveness of their fellow classmates, "TheFacebook", as it was originally called, exploded on the sleepy Ivy League school, taking Zuckerberg and his fellow creators, Eduardo Saverin, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes, by surprise. However, it was Zuckerberg, the brains behind the concept, who saw the website's potential and decided to expand TheFacebook outside Massachusetts to college campuses around the United States. He left Harvard in June 2004 before graduating and relocated to Silicon Valley, California. One year later, it finally became the website we all know and love today, dropping the "The" from its URL for $200,000 to a domain name squatter.

Taking its cues from MySpace, Facebook allowed users to join and create groups according to their interests or areas of expertise, write each other messages and send links on a users "wall" or a space on a user's profile page, and upload photos or videos and "tag" other Facebook user's. Unlike MySpace, users could not further customise the look of their profile page, a key ingredient that led MySpace detractors to flock to Facebook's clean, classier, organised design. A feature that caught on quickly was letting users provide status updates, borrowing an idea made popular with instant messaging service MSN Messenger.

Perhaps the real secret of Facebook's popularity lay in its initial plan to give access only to students who had a university e-mail account. Unlike MySpace, Facebook was designed to keep the riff-raff out, at least for the time being. And as MySpace accounts began to appear disorganised, messy and full of weirdos you might accidentally run into on the street, there was something rather calming about keeping your network confined to your own community.

"Our goal is to create a richer, faster way for people to share information about what was happening around them. We thought that giving people better tools to communicate would help them better understand the world, which would then give them even greater power to change the world," Zuckerberg said in a Facebook blog post. Slowly, as Facebook's popularity began to swell, Zuckerberg lifted the requirements needed to sign up to the website in 2006, taking it from an exclusive members-only club to a free-for-all. By then, Zuckerberg's own popularity began to rise. As the 21st century began with the notorious bursting of the internet bubble following a series of failed online ventures, he became a media darling, the wünderkind who was going to herald in a new digital era. There were countless magazine covers and interviews, Barbara Walters and 60 Minutes came calling.

Zuckerberg wasn't your typical CEO. Although he was too young to order a drink, his rising influence meant he had potential investors and employees at his beck and call. In a take-off of a popular Dave Chappelle comedy sketch, his business card notoriously read "I'm CEO ... b****." He looks more like an awkward boy than the founder and owner of an internet phenomenon, an identity that apparently suits him just fine.

As it continued to grow, Facebook kept adding more features. Users could send digital gifts to each other. A marketplace, similar to Craigslist or a newspaper's classified section, was launched. In what was pegged as a potential game changer, Zuckerberg opened up the website to software developers, giving them the codes to create applications within Facebook. The result is thousands of time-wasting, yet extremely popular add-ons that have given start-up developers an opportunity to make their own millions. Unsurprisingly, Facebook became a multibillion-dollar darling in Silicon Valley. The software giant Microsoft, realising its potential, took a stake in the company, while billionaires from Russia and Hong Kong followed.

But Zuckerberg's desire to continuously improve the look and feel of Facebook didn't please everybody. Though they had eagerly embraced the concept of social networking, Facebook's users proved a curiously conservative bunch, resisting any changes to their beloved toy. Every alteration Zuckerberg and his team introduced produced an outcry. The reaction to changes to Facebook's news feed and privacy settings was particularly rabid. If it ain't broke, countless Facebook groups complained, as countless of old fogeys have done down the years, why fix it?

In February, Zuckerberg issued a rare correction to the website's terms of conditions after eagle-eyed users noticed that a recent update had given the website free range to the rights of the original content people uploaded to Facebook. The incident mirrored a similar situation in December 2007 after Facebook launched Beacon, a feature intended to share online retailing information on a user's wall. It famously backfired when a girl found out what her Christmas present was on her boyfriend's Beacon update.

There were more public relations snafus for Zuckerberg. His former classmates Divya Narendra and the brothers Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, received a reported US$65 million (Dh238.7 million) in a court settlement in June 2008 after it was alleged that Zuckerberg stole the concept of Facebook from their own site, ConnectU. Then came a salacious non-fictional book on Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook written by Ben Mezrich, titled The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding Of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius And Betrayal. Although the book has been lambasted for blurring the line between fact and fiction, Mezrich writes about Zuckerberg using his new-found celebrity to date models, hacking Harvard computers and eating koala meat on the yacht of a Sun Microsystems executive. The book is now being made into a film to be released next year.

The result of Facebook's efforts to protect the privacy of its users as well as shape the public persona of the most popular social network in the world is that Zuckerberg today is as distant as a stranger you might walk past in the street. Although he is worth more than US$2 billion and ranked 52 in Time's 101 most influential people in the world, he appears content to keep his head down, avoid the limelight and dress and act like a regular 20-something. "I'm here to build something for the long term," he told Fast Company in 2007. "Anything else is a distraction."

Although Zuckerberg has not given a sit-down interview in some time, a number of personal photos were leaked online after changes to Facebook's privacy controls. The pictures reveal a young, happy, dedicated and well-travelled businessman who surrounds himself with friends and appears to not let the success of Facebook distance himself from his peers. There are also the pictures of him playing Star Wars joust in the office, which immediately dispels the notion that Facebook operates in a traditional corporate environment.

For all the opportunities a billionaire has at his disposal, Zuckerberg apparently lives a rather frugal life. He says he lives in a one-bedroom flat near Facebook's office in Palo Alto, California, furnished with just a mattress and a couple of chairs. He dresses in baggy trousers, sandals and a T-shirt, and he has been seriously dating his girlfriend Priscilla Chan since meeting her at Harvard, despite what that tell-all book may say. Instead of driving a tricked-out Mercedes-Benz, he walks or rides his bike to work.

The son of a dentist and a psychiatrist, Zuckerberg grew up in the sleepy village of Dobbs Ferry in upstate New York. As a child, he was often seen plugging away at his computer, typing programming codes for fun while his friends were playing outside. In high school, he built a plug-in for Winamp, an early precursor to iTunes that played back MP3 files, analysed your music taste and outputted a playlist that catered to music you would like. Microsoft and AOL quickly came knocking at the door. But he turned them down, preferring to focus on his own ideas than become a small fish in a large corporate pond.

When asked by 60 Minutes how his youth had affected managing a billion-dollar start-up, he played up his age as more of an advantage than a detriment. "I mean, there are definitely elements of experience and stuff that someone who's my age wouldn't have, but there are also things that I can do that other people wouldn't necessarily be able to," Zuckerberg told interviewer Lesley Stahl. It is scarcely four years since Facebook was opened up to the general public and in that time more than 350 million people have created a profile, a population nearly as large as that of the United States. More than 1.7 billion user photos and 160 terabytes of photo storage have been uploaded, making it the largest photo-sharing website. More than 100,000 applications have been launched on the Facebook platform, creating opportunities for 800,000 software developers. It is now one of the most visited websites in the world.

At a technology conference in 2007 Zuckerberg announced that "once every 100 years, media changes". Many of the journalists laughed and rolled their eyes. But maybe he was on to something. There's a pretty good chance that you're on Facebook today, sharing photos, links and updating your status. The phrase "What's on your mind?" is more than a simple personal question; it thrusts each and every one of us into our friends' spotlight, giving us a little bit of that 15 seconds of fame we all seem to crave.

Browsing on Facebook has become highly addictive (I've been checking my own Facebook profile countless times while writing this article for, uh, research purposes.) And much still has to be written about what the future holds for the generation that has become used to over-sharing their lives online. How will potential employers deal with the private, embarrassing information that can be obtained by typing a few queries into Google?

What the next decade holds for us - and the internet - is anybody's guess. For all we know, we could all be surfing the web through brainwaves, much as the science fiction novels of yesteryear predicted. But being able to keep in touch with one another, even closer than Facebook does today, is something you can bet on.