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In the World of Facebook

A screen shot of part of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s own Facebook page

Facebook, the most popular social networking Web site in the world, was founded in a Harvard dorm room in the winter of 2004. Like Microsoft, that other famous technology company started by a Harvard dropout, Facebook was not particularly original. A quarter-century earlier, Bill Gates, asked by IBM to provide the basic programming for its new personal computer, simply bought a program from another company and renamed it. Mark Zuckerberg, the primary founder of Facebook, who dropped out of college six months after starting the site, took most of his ideas from existing social networks such as Friendster and MySpace. But while Microsoft could as easily have originated at MIT or Caltech, it was no accident that Facebook came from Harvard.

What is “social networking”? For all the vagueness of the term, which now seems to encompass everything we do with other people online, it is usually associated with three basic activities: the creation of a personal Web page, or “profile,” that will serve as a surrogate home for the self; a trip to a kind of virtual agora, where, along with amusedly studying passersby, you can take a stroll through the ghost town of acquaintanceships past, looking up every person who’s crossed your path and whose name you can remember; and finally, a chance to remove the digital barrier and reveal yourself to the unsuspecting subjects of your gaze by, as we have learned to put it with the Internet’s peculiar eagerness for deforming our language, “friending” them, i.e., requesting that you be connected online in some way.

Facebook was successful early on because it didn’t depart significantly from how its audience interacted, and because it started at the top of the social hierarchy. Zuckerberg distinguished his site through one innovation: Facebook, initially at least, would be limited to Harvard. The site thus extended one of the primary conceits of education at an elite university: that everyone on campus is, if not a friend, then a potential friend, one already vetted by the authorities. Most previous social networks, such as MySpace and Friendster, had been dogged by the sense that, while one might use them with friends, they were to a substantial degree designed for meeting strangers. But nobody is a stranger in college, or at least that’s the assumption at a school like Harvard, so nobody would be a stranger on Facebook.

The site’s connection to collegiate social codes could be seen most clearly in its name, which, unlike that of every previous social network—Friendster and MySpace, but also SixDegrees, Bebo, Orkut, etc.—actually came from a preexisting, even highly traditional item, the freshman “facebook” that many colleges distribute to incoming students, with a photo of each classmate and a few identifying details. Zuckerberg’s Web site would retain the exclusivity of its namesake through one requirement: to join, you would need a Harvard e-mail address.

By starting at Harvard, Facebook avoided another problem that had afflicted previous social networks: those with many friends had little reason to sign up. Zuckerberg got the initial idea from two members of the Porcellian, Harvard’s most prestigious “final club,” who would later sue him for stealing their plan (the case was settled out of court for a reported $85 million). The importance of the site’s Ivy League founding is the primary revelation of Ben Mezrich’s dramatic, narrative account of Facebook’s early days, The Accidental Billionaires. When Zuckerberg launched the site, as Mezrich observes in one of the book’s more accurate moments, he e-mailed the announcement to the Phoenix, a final club. A month later, the site expanded to Princeton and Stanford. Facebook, unlike every previous social network, was at the start a very exclusive club.

If a social network profile was an online “home,” then a Facebook page, in the early days, looked like a room in a recently constructed dorm: you might put up a raunchy poster or fill the shelves with favorite books, but the layout and the furniture remained exactly the same for everyone. One acquired this home in much the same way one acquired a freshman roommate—by sending a picture and filling out a form. Here are a few details you were asked to provide:

Name, Gender, Birthdate, Academic Major, Residence Hall, College Mailbox, High School; Email, Phone Number, Current Address; Political Views, Collegiate Activities, Interests; Favorite Music, Favorite TV Shows, Favorite Movies, Favorite Books, Favorite Quotations.

Not a few budding sociology majors must have been reminded of the work of Pierre Bourdieu, the French scholar best known for using surveys of social class and preferred artworks to argue that aesthetics is largely a matter of social distinction and “position taking.” But Zuckerberg was less interested in sociology than sex, as the most prominent questions on the form showed. These were multiple choice:

Interested In: Men; Women. [You could always choose both.]

Looking For: Friendship; A Relationship; Dating; “Random Play”; “Whatever I Can Get.” [Or all five!]

Relationship Status: Single; In a Relationship; Engaged; Married; “It’s Complicated”; “In an Open Relationship.” [A list Zuckerberg considered expansive enough that he made members pick just one.]

Finally, if you hadn’t managed to convey the complete essence of yourself with the above, you could type something insightful “About Me.”

The way students responded to these queries was often amusing: many listed themselves as “married” to their best friends or roommates; some who were in long-term relationships claimed to be interested only in “Random Play.” Instead of photos of themselves, early members often chose works of art or album covers or portraits of writers; those who included a personal picture rarely chose the most attractive, attempting, through a drunken photo or a candid shot, to convey an attitude of nonchalance. The list of “Favorites” was the occasion for particular anxiety and comedic juxtaposition, as Beethoven might share space with contemporary pop groups like OutKast or, more ironically, commercial schlock like Celine Dion.

The site was a lark. For all that it reduced personality to a series of “position takings” and changed the word “friend” from a noun, something defined by duration, to a verb—“I friended him,” a one-off event—the early Facebook nonetheless appeared as a natural extension of the atmosphere of college, where everlasting friendship often seems as simple as making another late-night dorm-room acquaintance, and whether one names Jane Austen among one’s favorite authors, or removes Charlotte Brontë from the list, can seem enormously important, deeply representative of one’s shifting personality.

What was college if not a series of “position takings”? Much more, of course, but the early Facebook couldn’t be faulted for failing to embody the complete college experience. It even became something of a norm to greet a friend in the dining hall by declaring, for example, “I see you added Trotsky to your list of favorite authors—but dropped Marx!” The site contributed in some small measure to what Thoreau, a student at Harvard two centuries before Zuckerberg, judged the unacknowledged but most significant part of the curriculum: “Tuition, for instance, is an important item in the term bill, while for the far more valuable education which [the student] gets by associating with the most cultivated of his contemporaries no charge is made.”

The first sign that Facebook might cause trouble came, for many, when a few unexpected members showed up—those who didn’t attend your college, or at least one of the same caliber. Especially for students who had graduated from a public high school and then gone on to an elite private college, the addition of state universities marked a turning point, as former classmates joined the site and started asking to be “friends.” A major attraction of the early Facebook, it was suddenly apparent, came from its snob appeal—the fact that some had been kept out, and only a highly selective few let in.

The mechanics of these “friend requests” are worth describing in some detail. Within a single college, in the early days of the site, everyone could see everything. You “friended” a fellow student not to see her page but to add her name and picture, like a trophy, to your list of friends; this “friend list” then appeared not far from your lists of favorite books and favorite music, more evidence of your discriminating tastes, or proof of your popularity. If a college acquaintance wanted to look at your page, she could simply type in your name—just as she might glance your way on the quad, or eavesdrop on your conversation in the dining hall.

Zuckerberg, however, cordoned off each college from all others. The “friend request” then took on a new function, becoming the means of authorizing people at other schools to see your page. The only way someone at a state university, for instance, could access the page of a student at a private college was by asking to become “friends.” But unlike when a student at a private college might run into an old acquaintance on winter break, it was impossible to politely respond to such a request while giving little away. You had to say yes or no.

Bourdieu, it now appeared, might have been right. When Facebook had been limited to a few elite schools, listing Beethoven among one’s “favorite music” could easily stand as a statement of aesthetic discovery. This was due to that other salutary fiction of an elite meritocratic education: that class distinctions disappear, to be replaced by pure judgment and analytic reason. But beneath the gaze of one’s former classmates, such a claim might well come off as a pose. It was no longer possible to treat the site as an extension of an elite college—the private haunt of one’s “most cultivated” contemporaries.

The class basis of Facebook’s early success is most evident in comparison with its greatest rival: MySpace. To join Facebook, you needed a college e-mail address; for everyone else—once Friendster, for various reasons, became less popular—there was MySpace. The result, as David Brooks observed in 2006, was a “huge class distinction between the people on Facebook and the much larger and less educated population that uses MySpace.”

Even after Facebook opened its membership, successively, to high schools, corporations, and the world at large—trying to capitalize on the site’s early success, which, Zuckerberg and his inventors hoped, was due to more than mere exclusivity—class distinctions remained important. Danah Boyd, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society who is one of the best- informed academics studying social networks, wrote a much-discussed essay in 2007 that laid out, in broadly stereotypical terms, the preferred sites of many high school students:

The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other “good” kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college…. MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, “burnouts,” “alternative kids,” “art fags,” punks…and other kids …whose parents didn’t go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school.

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