American technology journalist Levy, a veteran of half a dozen books and Editor-at-large for Wired, got unprecedented access to Zuckerberg.
This book is a product of unique circumstances. In 2016, Author Steven Levy started talking to people, including with Mark Zuckerberg, to write a book describing Facebook’s rise.
The fractured F logo on the cover of this book is the first indication that Facebook’s struggles after its rise, and not the rise itself, will define this book for the years to come.
After the 2016 elections, Facebook was squarely blamed for letting the Trump campaign misuse the platform for mass misinformation and Russian interference, among other things. Facebook continues fire fighting to date, and Levy simply continued reporting. I would hardly believe it, but as Levy himself says, at some point, it is like Facebook almost forgot that Levy was still working on this book, which had obviously acquired a different tone by then.
American technology journalist Levy, a veteran of half a dozen books and Editor-at-large for Wired, got unprecedented access to Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg and heaps of others to tell this story. Access journalism is always a slippery slope because it inevitably compromises the reporter’s independence about the subject. How do you strongly criticise the person you owe the story to?
Despite this, Levy manages to paint a vivid picture of a brazen Facebook. Even for people who have been tracking the social media giant’s rise - as users, observers or critics, the first half of the book, although familiar trajectory, is still compelling.
Early anecdotes of Mark’s coding prowess, interactions with family, his determination and self confidence serve well to paint a picture of Facebook, which has also been known as a Mark Zuckerberg Production for the immense control he asserts over it.
It also shows that Facebook did not become problematic overnight. Every single problem - privacy, gender bias, bro-culture, etc - is embedded in its origins. The problems were brushed under the carpet for years as Facebook prioritised growth at all costs. Zuckerberg the CEO, for many years, was just an extension of Zuckerberg - the hoodie-clad cult-leading coder. This is a recipe for disaster if you are running a $500 billion dollar corporation and the world’s most influential company.
Zuckerberg’s power equation with his acquired companies, with his leaders and with outsiders has made Facebook the cess-pool of misinformation and insecurity it is today. His power is aptly summed up when Levy talks about Mark traveling to various places extensively.
“No, Zuckerberg was not running for president, but was settling in for a social theorist with the rare power to affect the communications of 2 billion people. No country on Earth had a population as big as Facebook. The presidency would be a step down”
But, how much ever Zuck asserts authority, Facebook - its news feed, timeline, groups, advertising engine - were built by a host of other people. Levy does a great job of profiling these people.
The art of profiling is a tricky one: to be balanced yet give a clear picture, show a personality but not be too skewed. Levy has drawn intimate portraits of Zuckerberg, Sandberg, Chris Cox and Chamath Palihapitiya beyond the controversies.
Palihapitiya, now a renowned investor at Social Capital, is a particularly interesting example. From 2007-11, he launched and managed Facebook’s monetisation strategy, oversaw growth and even oversaw mobile - the real turning point - which made Facebook the money machine it is today. The book describes Palihapitiya’s personality, goes into manic fights and speeches and draws a picture of a short but definitive period in Facebook’s history.
At close to 600 pages, this is highly-detailed reporting and yet tight storytelling. How Facebook's Palo Alto office evolves through the years, including it's famous Aquarium conference room, what meetings happen there, what do rank and file employees think of the whole setting, all make for an important piece of the Facebook puzzle that Levy puts together.
The book hardly drags anywhere and any bits of technical jargon is counter-balanced by a good anecdote or description of a person or place
The last 30 percent of the book, however, is what truly defines the Facebook narrative as it jumped from crisis to crisis, testified in Congressional hearings and fell asleep at the wheel as its platform was used for genocide.
In this section, Levy could have been more critical of the company. That is not to say he doesn’t bring out what went wrong. But, some critical perspective seems missing. There is more direct reportage and less opinion, which is not a bad thing. Anyone who can connect the dots will see Facebook for what it is - an early success story which morphed into the privacy nightmare and became a parable for almost everything wrong with the internet.
Facebook has been the subject of many books and a much disputed feature film by Aaron Sorkin. Yet this book could be the definitive narrative in the years to come, because of the depth of details from start to finish and the time period in which it was written.Facebook: The Inside Story
Hard cover: 592 pages
Publisher: Penguin RandomhouseAvailable on Amazon.