x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Mark Zuckerberg, the not-so-public face of Facebook

We profile the social networking revolutionary who celebrated his 28th birthday this week, just as his website's upcoming IPO is set to rake in billions of dollars.

Mark Zuckerberg. Kagan McLeod for The National
Mark Zuckerberg. Kagan McLeod for The National

As he turned 28 this week, Mark Zuckerberg confirmed his status as one of the youngest billionaires on the planet as well as exactly half the age of the average S&P 500 CEO. And as he quietly celebrated his birthday, the world gasped at the soaring value of Facebook, the company he cofounded, controls and intends to float on the US stock exchange (but will continue to control). The scale of the initial public offering is unprecedented for a media company - the offer of some 421 million shares estimated to bring the company's worth to $100 billion (Dh367 billion) - but the subject of the sale and the man behind the concept, the face behind Facebook, remains intriguing.

Mark Elliot Zuckerberg was born on May 14, 1984, the only son of four children of Edward Zuckerberg, a dentist, and his wife, Karen, a psychiatrist who gave up her career to care for the children and manage her husband's practice. Known as "Painless Dr Z", the website of Zuckerberg Senior's practice says "We cater to cowards". Young Mark grew up in Dobbs Ferry, New York and a comfortable, uncomplicated Jewish upbringing. While other children played computer games, Mark created them and, when he was11, his father hired a software developer to tutor him. The tutor, David Newman, soon recognised a prodigy.

His school days at Phillips Exeter Academy were not all spent with his face in a screen. He earned a diploma in classics and was captain of the school fencing team, although he and a friend managed to write a software programme they named Synapse, which gauged users' listening habits. In what became a standard response, he rejected a bid by AOL and Microsoft to buy the programme.

In the autumn of 2002 he entered Harvard and had soon - in fact, in his first week - developed CourseMatch, a programme that helped students choose which classes to take. Some less cerebral, more controversial software soon sprung up from the prodigy. Called FaceMash, it registered responses to photographs of other students, two-at-a-time, and whom was judged to be "hotter". The programme was considered to be offensive and the college authorities closed the site, letting Zuckerberg off with a warning. His reputation as a programmer grew and, by November 2003, he was helping write code for three thrusting Harvard seniors, twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss and Divya Narendra, who were developing a social networking site on campus called HarvardConnection.

But at the same time, Zuckerberg was developing, with two roommates, a similar programme with online photographs and identifying facts. Harvard had intended to convert its directory for some time; Zuckerberg decided to take it on himself. The idea was anyone with a Harvard email address could join. "I wanted to make an application that would allow people … to share as much information as they wanted while having control over what they put up," said Zuckerberg.

Thefacebook.com went live on February 4, 2004 and, within 24 hours, they had between 1,200 and 1,500 registrants. At the end of the month thefacebook.com was launched at Columbia, Stanford and Yale. A few months later it freed itself from the preppy confines of the Ivy League and had 150,000 students in 40 schools. By September of that year there were 250,000 users, while Zuckerberg's biggest cost had been an $85 (Dh312) monthly rental for server space.

Having spent the summer in Palo Alto, Silicon Valley, working on their burgeoning project, Zuckerberg decided not to return to Harvard. He sought venture capital to expand and Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, invested $500,000. In early 2005, Zuckerberg and his colleague moved out of the house they called Casa Facebook into a suite of offices near Stanford and soon had a staff of more than 100.

As success became clear, the HarvardConnection trio sued Zuckerberg and litigation dragged on for years. Cameron Winklevoss claimed, "He stole the moment, he stole the idea, and he stole the execution." A settlement in June of 2008, worth about $86 million, would give some credence to this, but the sum now seems a pittance as the face value of this "stolen moment" continued to soar.

By the end of 2004, Facebook was in several hundred US college campuses. In 2005 it had expanded to high schools and foreign schools. In 2006 it was in workplaces and eventually available to anybody over the age of 13. In 2009, having become the social networking site, TheFacebook shed its definite article, and today it is estimated to have 900 million users. Such is its reach that one of Zuckerberg's partners has not unreasonably claimed, "If you don't have a Facebook profile; you don't have an online identity."

What accounts for this astonishing popularity? In a lengthy profile of Zuckerberg, its 2010 Person of the Year, Time magazine observed, "On Facebook, there is one kind of relationship: friendship, and you have it with everybody. You're friends with your spouse and you're friends with your plumber." In the case of the founder, his parents are friends; so are his sisters. As Time put it, "While other IT entrepreneurs saw the internet as a network of computers, Zuckerberg could see a network of people."

In 2010, The New Yorker wrote of an over-sharer in the age of over-sharing: the extraordinary details of one's life that can be shared with friends, with friends of friends, and/or with the world at large. The narcissistic element of the medium is both breathtaking and appalling. And not just text, but images: by the end of 2010, Facebook hosted more than 15 billion photographs, with users uploading 100 million every day.

The complex and evolving concept of privacy continues to demand changes in settings, parameters, policies and protections. And advertising too, its only source of revenue, must also be controlled. Banner ads were banned and Zuckerberg has always asserted that users' personal data would not be sold to advertisers. But ultimately the mantra remains: you only share what you want to share.

And the young man himself? He dresses like a frat boy - in grey T-shirt, blue jeans and trainers. He is about five-foot-eight, slim, short brown curly hair, blue eyes and very pale. In September 2010 he was renting a two-storey, four-bedroom house in Palo Alto, which he complained was "too big". Tyler Winklevoss described him as "the poorest rich person I've ever seen". Time visited Facebook's offices and saw "no cubicles, no offices, no walls, just a rolling tundra of office furniture." Everyone, including Zuckerberg, worked in open plan. There was just an internal room for brainstorming.

Zuckerberg wrote on his bio page some years ago: "I'm trying to make the world a more open place." And yet, he remains, personally, private and wary. The box-office success of The Social Network, Hollywood's 2010 critically acclaimed adaptation of Ben Mezrich's book about the origins of Facebook, do much to explain this reticence. The book and film portray an aggressive, ruthless, socially awkward 19-year-old, dumped by his girlfriend and shunned by the smartest fraternities and determined to show them all up.

In fact, Zuckerberg has been involved with the same girl, Priscilla Chan, a Chinese American whom he met at Harvard, before he founded Facebook. There was no dumping. And yet some aspects of Jesse Eisenberg's portrayal of Zuckerberg were true to the original. Although the film portrays him as such, to label him arrogant would be unfair. But in the first days of Facebook, every page bore the tag "A Mark Zuckerberg production". Zuckerberg himself identified every T-shirt worn by his character in the film as one he had owned. The wide-eyed, blank stare and long silences when he was disinterested or distracted also seem to summon up the original. He rarely submits to interviews and shrinks from public speaking. Time quoted him as saying, "I usually don't like things that are too much about me." It was then an extraordinary event to see him appear, after the film, at Eisenberg's aside in an episode of popular US satire, Saturday Night Live.

While he seems to have assiduously avoided the celebrity trap by living quietly and working hard, he has shouldered the obligations that inevitably follow. With enormous wealth has also come some incredible philanthropy. In July 2010, having met the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, he pledged $100 million of his Facebook equity to fund schools in the city. It was only the insistence of the mayor and New Jersey governor that the gift was made public. This comes from no obvious links to the area. More recently he joined his fellow billionaires, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, in pledging to dispose in his lifetime of half his wealth to good causes.

With not even three decades behind him, the life of Mark Zuckerberg still carries much promise - as does his life-changing creature, Facebook. The world need only sit back, log on and watch.

 

The bio

1984 Born Mark Elliot Zuckerberg in White Plains, New York, on May 14

2002 Enters Harvard University

2003 Meets long-term girlfriend Priscilla Chan

2004 thefacebook.com first comes online on February 4

2009 "the" is dropped and the site becomes facebook.com

2010 Premiere of The Social Network on October 1; becomes Time magazine's Person of the Year; pledges $100 million to fund New Jersey schools