Review: The Facebook Effect

I tend to write about Facebook quite often on this blog. Part of the reason is that you can’t avoid mentioning Facebook in one way or another these days given its ubiquity. Another part of the reason is that, honestly, I’m a big fan of Facebook and what it’s been able to accomplish.

I thought I should disclose the latter before my review of David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect, which was released earlier this year and touted as the “official” book on Facebook (Kirkpatrick had direct access to many involved in Facebook’s early history, while 2009 book The Accidental Billionaires was written without Facebook cooperation and is now the basis for the much maligned upcoming movie, The Social Network).

The first thing I’ll say about the book is that I agree with many of the criticisms NYT columnist David Pogue made in his review of the book a couple of months ago. Namely, although Kirkpatrick attempts to portray Facebook’s story as objectively as possible, his pro-Facebook bias is sometimes really (too) obvious. For example, Kirkpatrick makes barely any mention of thelawsuit filed against Zuckerberg by the Winklevoss twins, accusing him of stealing from them ideas that would become Facebook. Though the suit was eventually settled, it seems strange that such news that received widespread attention at the time is but a footnote in what is supposed to be Facebook’s definitive history.

As another example, Kirkpatrick’s characterization of the Winklevoss twins as “athletic blond über-WASPs” (true or not) seems rather unnecessary. Pogue also observes (rightly so) that Kirkpatrick can’t seem to help but insert himself into the story – mentioning, for example, how he alone would be invited to meet with or interview Zuckerberg. In fact, it gets really annoying sometimes.

These flaws aside, there were a couple of reasons why I enjoyed reading the book.

First, the book is as much a story about the evolution of Mark Zuckerberg as a CEO as it is about Facebook itself. VentureBeat wrote a really good piece on Zuckerberg’s evolution last year, but Kirkpatrick goes into much more detail and digs much deeper. Requisite to his ability to tell this story, Kirkpatrick also seems to have developed a keen insight into the mind of Zuckerberg.

I should settle any qualms here that this is a contradiction to what I just said above about Kirkpatrick’s questionable objectivity. My issue with Kirkpatrick’s objectivity is more about specific and obvious omissions or biases, but what seems genuine and sincere is his understanding of how Zuckerberg thinks.

This understanding is really important to have if you’re analyzing some of the many challenges Facebook faced in its early years. Its opening up beyond colleges; the introduction of News Feed and Facebook Beacon; its poorly received privacy settings; all of these and other major events in Facebook’s history can be explained by the decisions and rationale that stemmed in large part from how Zuckerberg thought (and thinks) about Facebook.

Which leads me to the second reason I liked the book: how Zuckerberg thinks about Facebook, for better or worse, is going to continue to define the company’s strategy moving forward. To understand his vision is to understand the vision for Facebook, since for at least the foreseeable future, Zuckerberg will have full control over his company.

One theme that pervades the latter half of The Facebook Effect is exactly what might comprise this vision. Kirkpatrick makes it pretty clear that Facebook, and Zuckerberg, thought very early on that Facebook could (and should) be a platform. The social graph that it had begun to build out through the process of “friending” could be used to build out even richer connections – first, through photos, but eventually consisting of everything from games to the web and now toPlaces. And it’s this vision of Facebook as a platform for continuing to connect people and opening up our world that seems to continue to drive its growth.

In my honest opinion, this book probably isn’t for everyone. But if you’re interested in learning more about Facebook, Zuckerberg, what it was like to start one of the most revolutionary modern companies in the world, or where that company might be headed – definitely read this book.

P.S. I realize that my criticisms of Kirkpatrick’s flawed objectivity might seem hypocritical – so please do let me know if some of my own pro-Facebook bias shines through in this review!

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