Reflections on Steven Levy’s recent book: Facebook the Untold Story. This is an Entrepreneur & Geek’s take on the many stories that weave together to create the story of Facebook.
Mark Zuckerberg‘s work has impacted the world and this book explores the details of his story and those of the people around him. Most interestingly for most people they can see how their own story interleaves with Facebook’s Story since most of the planet has crossed paths with Facebook’s growth and journey.
Hi! So I’m going to try a book that I read recently or listened to that was quite insightful. So Steven Lee is a great author who has written quite a few books that are related to Silicon Valley and a reporter for a long time. And I found his latest book about Facebook: The Untold Story to be quite fascinating actually.
I am a little bit biased because I knew a couple of the stories before, stories about ZuckNet. Dr. Zuckerberg is one of my advisors so he’s told me stories about ZuckNet and about innovation and other things. And, of course, I’m also biased by – I met Mark once and, of course, I’ve met Dr. Z several times and his wife, Karen. They’re wonderful people and I think the world of them. They’re very kind, so just full disclosure there.
It is a little bit odd to read in a book about a person that you know. So you know what they were talking about, Dr. Z himself and I was like “Well I know him”. But there are other things that didn’t make sense before that didn’t really reconcile and some of those things, especially about Facebook given the election and the constant coverage, I was definitely very interested in finding out more.
Another reason that I actually read the book is because the information, which I’m a proud subscriber to, is that they started a book club and this was the very first book on their book club reading list. And I was really excited, I was even more excited when there was an audiobook version of it. I downloaded it right away as soon as it was available on audio and I started listening to it and I travel a lot so even though it was a pretty big book, it was 18 hours. Most of the books I listen to – it’s crazy instead of counting hours, I count audio. So most of the books I listened to are 7-8 hours, shorter books are 4 hours. This was 18 hours and it was so good in fact that I finished it within a week. So whenever I got the chance I was listening to it. I found myself sitting in my driveway yesterday just listening to it and waiting to get to the end. And I did.
So just some observations. I hope if you’re planning on reading the book I hope you’ve read it. There might be some spoilers in here but then again who doesn’t know about Facebook right? Who doesn’t know about what’s going on? When you read the book or if you’ve ever seen Mark Zuckerberg around you can tell that Steven Levy generally likes him and I can’t blame him, he’s a pretty likable guy, he’s pretty down-to-earth and as a hacker I have a particular bias and affinity toward someone that’s a fellow hacker. They get the hacker spirit like I understand critiques of you know “move fast and break things”. I’m a little bit older than Mark Zuckerberg so things aren’t quite – okay I have some benefit of a regular job and working the government and whatnot, which tempered some of those “move fast and break things” instincts.
But overall, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to move fast. Of course, things such as “oh young people are smarter”, “you only need young people in your companies” like those are some of the things that I don’t subscribe to. It’s not true and as an engineer I’ve learned a lot from seasoned engineers and I’ve also learned from younger engineers. For example, Unbound Energy and my first hackathon at Startup Weekend. There are a couple of these 19-year old programmers, the hackers, and they just coded for 40 hours straight without sleeping and just like chugging back Red Bulls. That’s something that was interesting.
I remember my early days when I would do things like that. There’s benefits to it like when you’re in the zone, just focus and get things done. There’s also short cuttings to it. Once you become a software architect you realize the value of thinking things through right?
That was actually a pretty interesting part of the book because they talk about Mark Zuckerberg and his journey. You can tell he goes from this hacker’s mind and said “let’s do this, let’s just build this thing” to where he starts architecting things and he starts seeing things a little bit further out. And it’s clear he’s a visionary even now, I think it’s clear that he is a visionary. What I found particularly interesting in the book is I think Steven Levy was trying to be balanced and I think he was pretty balanced. It went between this picture of Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and others. It’s just like human beings, good people – people who are trying to make a difference and who believe we’re idealistic, which was contrasted by things like the acquisition of Instagram or its fierce competitors. What I like to say is there was a kind of a love. Not so love “relationship”, not a “love/hate relationship”. Mind you I used that deliberately because I don’t think there was really any hate in the book, which I noticed because there was a lot of Facebook hate out there right now and I personally was expecting there to be more negative content. But I think it was pretty well-balanced. I don’t think the author was trying to inject any point of view particularly so it was going back and forth between like “hey, here’s this really awesome person” and “here’s awesome people that are doing really cool things” – the founder of Instagram, founder of Snapchat, and all this other stuff.
All these other folks, as an entrepreneur it’s kind of fun to listen to some of those stories. There’s the road left less traveled, obviously I did not raise hundreds of millions of dollars or building a social media company these folks have and just to find out about their interactions, how they thought about it. And also to realize that as much as we like to think things are under control, you have the right people at the helm, you have this executive in that executive, and all that. Although all of those things are good at the end of the day the world is pretty unpredictable.
You don’t know how things are going to turn out and I personally feel that the most you can really do is just try. Try to be true to yourself, try to be a good person and what else are you going to do but do what you think is best at the moment. And I feel like that comes across in the book where Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, they genuinely do believe that they’re the best people to grow Facebook and to have a global impact. And it’s definitely interesting to see, for me this was very interesting because in Silicon Valley there’s this whole numbers metrics-driven focus but you can tell how mission-driven these folks are even when Facebook wasn’t as big as it is today. The earnings the metrics are great but even in 2008/2009 when it wasn’t as big, the vision gave them clarity.
What I thought was interesting was the engine for revolutions. I don’t know how you monetize revolutions but it didn’t see like monetizing revolutions was front and center. And even now it’s kind of refreshing to know there’s all those crazy ad tracking and stuff but tracking is, at least in the minds of the executives there, helps enable newer better technology. Of course, there’s darker sites to it, there’s unforeseen things like what would happen to content moderation, and just the effects of large-scale technological changes like that. But as a founder myself I
think of those things as well and also as a technologists I worked on things that in retrospect haunt me. And most of the times as an engineer when I’m working on something or as a creator I’m building something I don’t necessarily think through all the impacts of it or what could be.
I worked at this startup called Superchips that was awesome, I loved it. But I’m sure that the modifications may have affected some folks negatively. I thought it was a pretty benign product that made your car go faster. You get to hack cars, I’m a car guy so I actually loved it. But I got tickets from when I was working at Superchips for going too fast. Then more recently there were reports of how jeeps and these systems with OnStar could be hacked by a hacker who can do things that are pretty terrible like not just stop your car but maybe you crash your car while you’re in it.
So that’s something I think a lot of technologists grapple with right? On the one hand your technology can do a lot of good and on the other hand it’s every innovation has that possibility creating just the opposite. So I think that’s another reason why introspecting is really important and thinking about it, it definitely sounds like the folks who are in and around Facebook do introspect a lot about their impact. And from the book it definitely also sounded like they were very surprised by some of the things that happened. The election of Trump wasn’t premeditated by Facebook. And it also raises other questions like this thing that you created did you ever think it would have that kind of power. It clearly does and now that people know about it, can it be weaponized right? Especially for someone like me that I never really got into social media and one of the big reasons for that is because I have friends that I can go visit and hang out with.
I was wary of just always posting fake updates of yourself. Clearly the folks a few years after me feel differently and I didn’t think it would be manipulated into something like seriously evil. And now I think the whole world was grappling with “could this really be that evil?” On the ads thing it was actually quite enlightening to know how Facebook Ads work and how it evolved over time? One of the things that I personally have been wondering about is how does it compare to Google AdWords? I’m a big fan of Google AdWords of course, I made a lot of money using Google AdWords or words automation even though I never thought I would. I was a typical geek who did not like marketing until I realized everything is not so black and white.
So when I first interacted with Facebook’s ad platform I wondered how good it would be. The very first time I used it there were a bunch of bots and a bunch of random clicks. So it’s interesting to hear Facebook’s story and kind of reconcile that with my own experiences with Facebook and Facebook ads. One of the companies that I own and a part of currently invest very and Facebook ads and they have crazy attribution. That’s a big part of what I do is attribution and the attributions been showing that Facebook ads do work. It helps you target the people that you want to get to and it you delivers a lot of value. But compared to Google AdWords it was like comparing apples to oranges initially I thought they were just direct heads head-on competitors but the way you optimizing Facebook ad or Facebook campaign is very different from how you optimize a Google AdWords campaign. And it started to make sense you know I’m not very familiar with Facebook’s newsfeed and other things but the book actually was surprisingly insightful and I think I’m going to prescribe it as must read for anybody who’s a marketer. At least for the marketing folks on any teams I interact with if you’re considering Facebook to be a significant part of your marketing going forward I think the book would be a must read.
You have to know how Facebook Ads got to where it is, why it got tightened down, why I got locked down. The whole content moderation problem they’re dealing with and also where they’re going . So if you want to stay ahead of the curve this is like hearing straight from the horse’s mouth and then some, understanding the implications of all of it.
It’ll certainly be a very interesting year. There’s all these things going on. The coronavirus and the elections. And I’m sure based on what happened in the 2016 elections there’s a whole bunch of marketing firms that are going to try to manipulate Facebook Ads and Facebook as a platform. And honestly the verdict is still out how effective it is right? But the marketing and the news spread and funny enough reality cuts both ways even for Facebook. And this latest trend is Cambridge analytic and whatnot, I personally feel some of it is a little bit more inflated than their reality. You can certainly do some crazy things with targeting. I’ve definitely seen how targeting certain people, targeting specific demographics can yield the results that you want. There is something to social engineering but can it really turn people hateful? I think it can definitely amplify negative messages. There’s definitely systemic issues but whether Cambridge analytic actually stole the 2016 election, I think it’s a matter of more marketing for firms like Cambridge Analytica.
I’ve thought about it for for a bit and I was like “hey maybe that’s what I should do. Find one of these firms and just capitalize on both sides, Republicans and Democrats will be your Cambridge analytic”. Yes those are just some of my evil thoughts and I’m not going to do that.
It was certainly a very insightful book. I loved how it was written. I love how it keep differing perspectives. Being me I certainly didn’t agree with what how do you author assessed things, I think the author assessed things from their own bias. But I think it was a pretty good portrait of the story or the stories, many stories behind Facebook and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and finding out more about it. As an entrepreneur myself, as a programmer, as a geek and one who moved to Silicon Valley. My Silicon Valley experience has certainly been very different from Mark Zuckerberg’s or his entire cruise. I live in a different place. I love living in California we’ve got this beautiful view. I try to be more active and everybody’s journeys around. So it was refreshing to read about someone else’s journey and I’m kind of happy that my journey is different and it’s been fun.