The man who's made billions by selling your secrets: Facebook's £4.4bn founder Mark Zuckerberg aged 26
2nd October 2010
Worth £4.4bn at 26, Facebook's founder lives in a rented house and drives an old Honda. He's created a global network of friendships, but ruthlessly betrayed his own friends.
What happened when David Jones met Mark Zuckerberg...
Forget Big Brother. This is the age of Big Buddy, in the unlikely form of Mark Zuckerberg, the nerdish, socially dysfunctional genius who ironically created the world’s favourite social networking website.
An astonishing 550 million people in more than 200 countries now befriend one another on Facebook, the site he created seven years ago in his college dorm.
At 26, Zuckerberg was recently declared the youngest self-made billionaire in history. According to more than one magazine, this dentist’s son from a New York suburb is also the most influential figure on the planet — not least because much of the personal information Facebook’s users reveal is passed to advertisers, who use it to target them.
Since every message placed on Facebook is stored on the company’s vast computer mainframes, Zuckerberg has also been placed in a position of unimaginable power — the kind of power, incidentally, of which totalitarian tyrants could only dream.
His astonishing ascent is documented in an acclaimed new film, The Social Network, which opens in Britain this month. The big question is, should we trust a young man who has declared the age of privacy to be over — and who appears to be on some turbo-charged mission to redefine the concept of human friendship — to use this power responsibly?
Observing him this week, and talking to those who know him, he certainly seems harmless enough. Indeed, his life is remarkable only because it is so boringly ordinary.
Despite being worth a staggering £4.4 billion, he has no interest in mansions, fast cars, parties and model girlfriends, and is said to be only truly at ease when gazing into a computer screen.
Zuckerberg lives in a rented four-bedroom house in a quiet cul-de-sac in the U.S. computer industry capital of Palo Alto, California.
He has been there for around a year and, though it is an ordinary, middle-class street, by sheer coincidence, one of the inventors of YouTube lives in an equally modest home next door.
Zuckerberg recently placed a note on the windscreen of another neighbour’s battered, 35-year-old BMW, asking whether it was for sale. His offer was rejected, so he continues to drive the sort of Honda saloon car handed out to sales reps.
According to one woman on the street, he is an ‘ill-mannered dork’, for she claims that when her 83-year-old mother bade him good morning, he ignored her.
But others say he is friendly enough, and Andrea Barlas, a marriage guidance counsellor who lives nextdoor but one, told me she was hoping to match him up with her 17-year-old daughter Alie.
She was joking, but in any case Zuckerberg is spoken for. His long-term girlfriend Priscilla Chan, a Chinese-American student paediatrician, moved in with him this month.
Inevitably, this momentous event was marked with a folksy message to his Facebook friends (he lists 879 of them): ‘Now we have 2x everything, so if you need any household appliances, dishes, glasses etc, please come by and take them before we give them away,’
Last Wednesday was another typical day in Zuckerberg’s life, although for me it was the chance to meet an icon of the modern world.
If he had bothered to record our encounter on his Facebook page, I suspect this is what he might have written: ‘Another sunny day in Silicon Valley — so I walked the few blocks to the office.
‘On the way, I met this guy from the Daily Mail. He said he was a reporter and he’d flown all the way from London to California just to meet me! Wow!
‘I posed for a photo with him and made polite conversation, but told him I was far too shy — and busy thinking about my upcoming business meeting — to talk for very long.’
What’s certain is that after our brief encounter, Zuckerberg began another 16-hour day at the Facebook HQ; an anonymous modern building half a mile from his house.
He does not recline in a well-appointed office, but sits at a desk amid his youthful staff — techie disciples who skateboard or jog to work and wear the unofficial company uniform of trainers, T-shirt and Bermuda shorts (‘Zuck’, as they call him, prefers jeans).
If Zuckerberg felt uncomfortable when I approached him, he could hardly complain that I invaded his privacy. After all, this is the man who not so long ago declared ‘the age of privacy is dead’.
With disquieting arrogance, he also announced that when it came to personal confidentiality, his website was setting a new ‘social norm’.
Moreover, there is just a suspicion that Zuckerberg’s unaffected, geeky image has been cultivated to chime with his vision of a sharing, open society.
He may appear awkward and ill-at-ease, but there is a ruthless streak — for Zuckerberg is a man with a mission.
He dreams of a world when every man and woman on earth is connected via Facebook and his website serves as their social club, noticeboard and computerised confessional.
Watching the new film about him this week, one had to wonder whether he is the right character to control such a world.
In The Social Network, which is expected to contend for Oscars, Zuckerberg is portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg: a slightly built, tousle-haired young actor who resembles him strongly and comes from the same middle-class, New York Jewish background.
The film portrays Zuckerberg as trapped by his own massive IQ, as someone who finds it so difficult to form close relationships and empathise with others that, at times, he seems to border on the autistic.
More disconcertingly, he is portrayed as an amoral, remorselessly ambitious young man who is prepared to betray his one true friend to ensure Facebook’s success.
Based on a purportedly factual novel called The Accidental Billionaires, the story takes us back to Harvard in late 2003.
Then a 19-year-old computer science undergraduate who had already designed various innovative websites, Zuckerberg had just been rejected by a girl he was courting.
For all his brilliance, he was also acutely aware he would always be an upstart in the eyes of the wealthy elite WASPs (White Anglo Saxon Protesants) who held sway at Harvard.
Drunk and embittered, Zuckerberg created a crudely sexist website in which he juxtaposed the photographs of female students and invited users to vote which one was ‘hottest’.
As he purloined the pictures by hacking into computerised college yearbooks — known at Harvard as facebooks — he called his site ‘ facemash’.
It proved so popular that within hours the entire university computer system had crashed.
But in the hallowed halls of America’s leading educational institution it caused outrage, and Zuckerberg was hauled before a disciplinary committee. He escaped expulsion by apologising, but was placed on probation.
However, his notoriety brought him to the attention of Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, 6ft 5in identical twins who starred in the university’s rowing team and later represented the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics.
Eager to follow their wealthy father into business, they had come up with the idea for a new dating website, exclusively for Harvard students, and needed someone to write the computer code. Who better than the ace hacker behind facemash?
All this is true and undisputed. The story of what happened next is much muddier and Zuckerberg is still embroiled in a legal wrangle with the Winklevoss twins to this day.
If we believe the brothers, he shamelessly stole their concept, refined it and turned it into thefacebook.com (the prefix was dropped later).
It went live in February 2004 and spread with viral speed to hundreds more colleges and universities across America.
That summer, Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard and moved to Silicon Valley, where his heroes such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple’s Steve Jobs had made their fortunes.
Several college friends followed him. Dossing on mattresses in a cheap rented house, they worked night and day on the site, adding new features and opening it to everyone, not only college kids.
A rich venture capitalist provided the funds Zuckerberg needed to expand — and the rest is history. Today, his company employs 1,700 people, has offices all over the world and is valued at £20 billion.
Yet Tyler Winklevoss claims he is unfit to run it. ‘In my experience, he is clearly amoral and non-ethical from top to bottom,’ he told me this week. ‘We had an agreement and he totally misled us. I don’t think he should be trusted with anything. That’s what’s so scary about it.’
In an out-of-court settlement two years ago, Facebook agreed to pay the twins a reported £43 million, but they are now appealing against this, claiming the company was over-valued at the time, so the shares they were awarded are not worth as much as they were promised.
They are determined to force Zuckerberg into court, and if they succeed their lawyers will doubtless highlight a series of emails he sent during the website’s creation.
For many years the emails remained secret, but they were recently leaked to the website Silicon Alley Insider.
Asked by one friend what he intends to do about the Winklevoss brothers, he recklessly states his intention to: ‘F*** them . . . probably in the ear.’
Given that Zuckerberg now has access to the highly personal musings of half a billion people, another email exchange is even more disturbing.
‘Yeah, so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard . . . just ask,’ he boasts to his friend. ‘I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses . . .’
Friend: ‘What!? how’d you manage that one?’
Zuckerberg: ‘People just submitted it . . . they trust me . . . dumb f***s’
Zuckerberg strongly denies stealing the Winklevosses’ idea, insisting he was already forming plans for his own, radically different social networking site when they approached him.
And, as he points out, these emails were sent out seven years ago by a gauche 19-year-old student, not the head of a multibillion-dollar company.
Indeed, a few weeks ago, when a New Yorker magazine reporter questioned him about them, Zuckerberg sounded chastened and embarrassed. ‘I think I’ve grown up and learned a lot,’ he said.
Certainly, in Silicon Valley the consensus is that he is fast developing into a savvy and astute corporate chief.
Yet some critics question whether, deep down, his regard for people’s confidentiality has really changed that much.
Then there is Zuckerberg’s curious attitude towards friendship — the value that underpins his website. At Harvard, his one real friend was Eduardo Saverin, who hailed from a wealthy Brazilian Jewish family.
While Zuckerberg was the engineer behind the Facebook project, Saverin was the business brain.
An economist who made £200,000 from share trading while still at university, he funded the website in its early days.
When Zuckerberg decamped to California, however, his partner opted to remain in New York to try to raise advertising revenue. Soon afterwards, he was frozen out of the company — for in California, Zuckerberg had found a more influential new sidekick.
He was Sean Parker, the slick operator behind the now defunct pirate music website Napster.
In the film, the louche Parker (played by pop star Justin Timberlake) impresses Zuckerberg by introducing him to a lifestyle that had always seemed beyond him; a world of fancy restaurants, high-octane parties and beautiful women.
The geek can hardly believe his luck as a beautiful lingerie model flaunts her charms in his direction, in a San Francisco fleshpot.
What happened next is left to our imagination, but according to Ben Mezrich, author of The Accidental Billionaires, this scene is authentic.
‘I know that they left the club together, but after that I have no idea,’ he says.
But back to Eduardo Saverin. Stunned by the way he was discarded, he sued, and in yet another out-of-court settlement, he received a reported £750 million.
His name has also been reinstated in the list of founders on Facebook’s website — but it is highly unlikely he is among Mark Zuckerberg’s many Facebook friends.
‘All his friends from the early days have gone,’ says Nicholas Carlson, the Silicon Alley Insider’s deputy editor. ‘He may have no social skills, but don’t be deceived — he’s cut-throat and he never lets anyone forget that Facebook is his show.’
So will The Social Network harm Zuckerberg’s reputation and that of his cherished creation?
Certainly his PR advisers appear to fear as much. This week, he trumped the film’s U.S. release by going on the Oprah Winfrey show to announce he is to donate $100 million (£63 million) to an educational project for disadvantaged children, yet his largesse was interpreted as a damage limitation exercise.
Facebook’s media chief, Elliot Schrage, has also moved swiftly to dismiss large parts of the story as fiction.
‘Every creation myth needs a devil,’ he says.
In a strange way, however, I think the movie lends Zuckerberg a certain allure. Yes, he comes across as dorkish and emotionally stilted, but he is the super-brainy outcast fighting the might of the East Coast establishment.
He is also scripted with a razor-sharp wit (which those who know him say he doesn’t really possess) and, in the end, we feel rather sorry for him.
None of this concerns him, he insists. For, as he told me, he has no intention of watching the film that will complete his extraordinary transformation from faceless nerd to instantly recognisable celebrity.
And whatever people might make of Facebook’s eccentric founder, half a billion users speak for themselves.
The age when friendships are formed in cyberspace and privacy is dead — Mark Zuckerberg’s startling ‘new social norm’ looks set to stay.