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Book review: Author Steven Levy goes beyond bits, bytes and balance sheets to tell the inside story of Facebook

'In Facebook: The Inside Story', Levy turns his massively insightful gaze to the trajectory of Facebook from its birth, its dizzying growth, and its embattled present, when its reputation is extensively scarred.

April 29, 2020 / 05:47 PM IST

The writing of this review was interrupted, not once but several times, by a bit of Facebook browsing on my cellphone. It was an act in which I saw nothing amiss, because checking Facebook has become one of my habits. Chances are you are in a similar situation; you share it with billions of people around the world. Facebook had 2.5 billion monthly active users in December 2019 (as per FB itself). Social networking, of which FB is a prominent part, is a major cultural phenomenon. Naturally, there has been at least one film on social networking and the people behind it, and quite a few books.

But a book by Steven Levy is special, and a book by him about Facebook has the potential to be a compelling proposition. TL;DR – This book is. Levy’s writing career is as high-profile as they come: he is presently an editor-at-large for Wired magazine, which is to tech what The New Yorker is to the world of writing. Levy has previously been a senior editor for Newsweek. His writing has appeared in A-list publications: The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, among others. He has eight books to his credit, all about major tech behemoths or developments. But I have a soft corner in my heart for his book titled Hackers, which profiles tech luminaries who advanced computing in myriad ways: a massive spectrum of personalities from Richard Stallman, father of the Free/Libre Software movement, to his ideological antithesis, Bill Gates of Microsoft. More importantly, in Hackers, Levy captured the ethos of the ‘hacker ethos’ -- a term that he invented, and which has now passed into tech culture.

In Facebook: The Inside Story, Levy turns his massively insightful gaze to the trajectory of Facebook from its birth, its dizzying growth, and its embattled present, when its reputation is extensively scarred. Using multiple sources, notably Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, the key people involved with Facebook at various periods, and public information, Levy highlights the prominent cultural and technological facets of the Facebook phenomenon.

A fast-paced look at the growth of FB

It is always endearing to read narratives about startup culture, because these narratives are aspirational, even inspiring to many people, fairytale-like in their rags-to-riches arc, and even humorous. All these traits are apparent in the book, which gives us a fast-paced look at the growth of FB through an increase in the cast of characters – the coders who join it in its phase of headlong expansion, and the funders who put their money into the cool company. Speaking of cool, FB’s informal corporate culture makes for some fun reading: “Before noon, the office would be sparsely populated, and in the early afternoon, people would drift in and settle at their workstations for fourteen hours or so of coding. Zuckerberg would be wandering around, often in his pyjamas.” Of keen interest to managers in IT companies are the insights we are given into Facebook’s subversive mode of functioning that began when it was a startup– pushing out code super fast, even “four or five times a day”. This would give nightmares to a traditional IT manager; Levy writes that an engineer at Oracle, for instance, would take months to make a ‘commit’ to the code base, after code review by four reviewers; the updated code would go to customers after two years or so. At Facebook, instead, it was more of “being given control of a rocket ship the first time you entered the cockpit.” Further vignettes follow which would not be out of place in a fictional narrative, but which actually happened. Such as: a graffiti artist was paid in FB stock for painting edgy murals on the walls of the FB office. This stock holding eventually rose to worth more than $200 million. It’s an exciting journey laced with insights into FB’s ethos of ‘move fast and break things’. There’s lots more, but I wouldn’t want to offer too many spoilers. All in all, Levy capably takes us into FB’s office, and into the mindsets of its engineers.

He does so in a brilliantly readable narrative. Indeed, Levy’s expertise at narrative non-fiction – the use of scenes, dialogue, and other techniques, to create a story on the page – is ample, and it shows in the smooth and pacy flow of this book; as does his ability to go beyond bits, bytes and balance-sheets to map the mindspaces of the techies behind Facebook, their ambitions, creative impulses, greed and desire to succeed.

I suppose you’ve got the question uppermost in your mind: “What about Zuck?” Facebook: The Inside Story also tells us, beautifully, what makes Mark Zuckerberg tick. Levy has interviewed Zuckerberg on several occasions from 2006 to the present day; he has a close enough vantage point from which to observe Zuckerberg. The writer is not too close to his subject, but close enough. It would have been easy for anyone to succumb to Zuckerberg’s larger-than-life persona, and idolise the founder of FB. To the writer’s credit, however, he doesn’t, and so we see Zuckerberg up close, warts and all, from childhood to adulthood.

Zuckerberg’s problematic approach to privacy

The writer maps out Zuckerberg’s personality expertly. He never succumbs to Zuckerberg’s public relations, neither does he demonise the man. Tell-tale details and incidents are meticulously and succinctly provided, so as to create a moving image of Zuckerberg in front of our eyes – the long silences, an all-consuming love for programming, geekiness, ruthlessness, and aspirations to become a global presence through FB. Levy writes, “[Zuckerberg was] shockingly bold in his ambition. We are going to connect the world and be this global fabric! Zuckerberg [said]. Can you imagine what that would be like?” We are also told, however, that Zuckerberg was interested in adding features to FB without necessarily having a clue that these features would become world-shaking. Levy writes that Zuckerberg did not know initially “how important [New Feed] would be, that democracies could fall and minds could deaden by the wrong stories appearing on one’s News Feed”. No, Zuckerberg was apparently interested in doing cool stuff that would be popular on a global scale. User commenting, for instance, was rolled out on FB without figuring out who would own these comments and how inappropriate and offensive comments would be handled. In a huge scoop, the writer managed to get hold of a few pages from one of Zuckerberg’s diaries from the time when Zuckerberg was contemplating releasing FB into the world. In this diary, Zuckerberg is said to have written, “What makes this seem secure, whether or not it actually is?” Here, Zuckerberg’s problematic approach to privacy is apparent.

A problematic approach to privacy also makes itself apparent in the introduction of new FB features, which were designed with an eye towards bolstering data-hungry Facebook, while on the face of it being only to help users connect with each other. For instance, Facebook made itself a ‘social operating system’ that let third parties plug their apps into FB and read user data. Levy writes that though FB had put in safeguards to protect user data in the hands of third parties, “the safeguards were built on an optimistic view of what developers might do. Facebook’s executives at the time now admit that the protections were relatively weak.” So spammy content began appearing on the News Feed. Developers began to harvest data from users, and some even installed data-harvesting software on users’ computers when the users clicked on FB ads. As for FB’s rules against such behaviour, Levy writes, “[these are] routinely ignored by developers and [are] rarely enforced by Facebook.” FB later came out with Facebook Connect, which let developers “[use] Facebook as a log-in on their own services and apps”. This, the writer says, was “a step towards making Mark Zuckerberg’s company the de facto arbiter of identity on the Internet”. Worse, FB began to pass on information about users and their friends to third parties without taking consent from these friends of users. And that data could be used for any purpose by third parties. Eventually, FB withdrew access to friends-of-friends data to third-party developers, except for a select few such as Netflix and Tinder. But FB gave a grace period of one year before ending the feature. This enabled the activities of Cambridge Analytica.

Or take the Like button as another instance of a feature that was pitched as user-friendly but was another way for FB to learn more about its users – the Like button was an easy way to track user preferences by analysing what posts they ‘liked’. The addition of the Like button made users compete for more likes, and even become dissatisfied when their posts weren’t ‘liked’ enough. The Like button, Levy writes, “... boosted Facebook’s business, gave users an easy way to express themselves, and set the company on a disturbing course of overemphasizing trivial or angry content... the Like button was a gateway drug for Facebook’s data gathering to extend beyond its borders.” The FB employees who worked on the Like button, Levy writes, accept that “... their work has been a factor in degrading society...”

Another problematic feature was called People You May Know (PMYK) – which suggested users which you could add as FB friends. Many people like PMYK. Levy writes, however, that PMYK often caused privacy issues by suggesting unwanted connections. A sex worker, whose real name was unknown to her clients, found some of her clients’ names in her PMYK; a psychiatrist “learned that Facebook was recommending that some of her patients friend each other on the service.” It seems to me to be a sign that Facebook’s design had incorporated problematic ideas about user privacy or obliviousness to key aspects of user privacy.

Aggressive emphasis on growth

At least part of Facebook’s problematic design was its aggressive emphasis on growth, which came from Zuckerberg’s monumental ambitions. Growing also involved acquiring potential growth enablers. Facebook’s purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp are covered beautifully, involving not only the business and technological minutiae of the deals but the dramatic situations that were created as a result of the deals and that led to the eventual exits of the original founders of these apps.

For years, Zuckerberg has been implying that Facebook’s mission to connect the world was essentially noble. Certainly, that is how he pitched or Free Basics to the emerging countries of the world. On the face of it, it was a mission to bring the Internet to people who couldn’t afford it. Levy writes that it was actually an initiative to “[gather] data from deceptively “free” apps to inform its money-making business intelligence operations”. Facebook intended to snoop on the online activities of its Free Basics users with technology that came from a company FB had acquired, a company called Onavo. So, Levy makes it clear that Facebook’s ‘noble’ initiative was actually self-serving – part of Facebook’s strategy to have even more people whose data could be used.

Emphasising growth, of course, was part of Facebook’s famous motto to ‘Move fast and break things’. If growing fast meant that the News Feed had to be transformed into a “viral engine”, then so be it – it would keep users hooked to FB. So viral content was given preference on the News Feed. Initially, there was no fact-checking or moderation from Facebook (there is now, but it naturally cannot catch every bit of fake news floating around on FB). FB’s viral engine led partly to the rise of fake news. Political actors gamed Facebook at will, Levy writes – the Russians spread misinformation and leaked emails from the Democratic Party with the intention of devastating Hillary Clinton’s prospects in the presidential election. In the Philippines, authoritarian Rodrigo Duterte “spread misinformation about his opponents and misrepresentations about the conditions in the country at large.” Facebook was being used to “incite violence against the Rohingya” in Myanmar, a country into which “Facebook had rushed in without employing a single speaker of the language.”

Another scandal that hit Facebook involved Cambridge Analytica, and it is covered succinctly yet comprehensively in this book. “[P]ersonal information of a up to 87 million facebook users” had been handed over “to a shady political consultancy that would use it to help elect Donald Trump”. This, of course, was a result of FB’s decision to [share] information with developers on its platform, [change] its News Feed in a way that accelerated sensational content, and [allow] advertisers to microtarget its users based on the unfathomably wide dossier it had built on each and every one of them”. Levy points out that this was far from innocuous – he describes how a group of researchers had discovered that “by studying someone’s Likes, one could figure out people’s secrets, from sexual orientation to mental health”. Also, political leanings and race. Other researchers set up Cambridge Analytica to influence voters for pay. At this point, the narrative moves from Zuckerberg and company to delve deep into the murky dealings at Cambridge Analytica. This is one of the most absorbing, even thrilling, parts of the book. Then, in a dramatic segue, we are taken back to Facebook, which, we learn, did not even demand a data audit at Cambridge Analytica, which was its partner; nor did FB ban Cambridge Analytica from using its platform unless CA deleted the shady and “ill-gotten” data of FB users. No, Facebook was quiet because Cambridge Analytica was paying it “millions of advertising dollars”.

Is Facebook good for its users or not?

One of the things this magnificent book does is to raise the question: Is Facebook good for its users or not? The answer seems to be... but you’ll have to read the book to find out. It is recommended to at least every person who uses social networking, in particular Facebook. One of the (numerous) merits of reading this book: it makes you think about how your online self and networks are sculpted, at least in part, by people sitting continents away, in what ways, how the online self is grafted onto the flesh-and-blood one, and how the online self is manipulated, tweaked, even exploited. Take a bow, Steven Levy.

Suhit Kelkar is a freelance Journalist. He is the author of the poetry chapbook named The Centaur Chronicles.

Suhit Kelkar is a freelance Journalist. He is the author of the poetry chapbook named The Centaur Chronicles.
first published: Apr 29, 2020 05:47 pm