Fast Company

The Heady Days of Facebook's Formation: Hacking Competitors and Smack-Talk Over IM

Business Insider posted a trio of articles today purporting to show the earliest days of Facebook, when it was still run out of Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard dorm room. Turns out, its history isn't exactly spotless--not that you can expect a 19-year-old to be ethically unimpeachable--and the info that's surfaced, including what appear to be old IMs between Zuckerberg and pals, show some early turmoil with competitors.

The first article, "How Facebook Was Founded," is actually less a story of the original conception of the social networking site and more an examination of Zuckerberg's relationship with a group of students who had a similar idea. HarvardConnections, which would later be redubbed ConnectU, was a proposed social site for Harvard students conceived by the Winklevoss brothers and their friend Divya Narenda. They hired Zuckerberg to create a dating site component to HarvardConnections, at around the same time Zuckerberg was beginning work on Facebook (then called TheFacebook). What follows is a story stitched together from IMs, reports from those involved, and emails. It's not entirely clear how Business Insider secured any of this stuff, so take the report with a grain of salt.

Essentially, Zuckerberg began to focus more on his own creation, and realized that HarvardConnections's launch would take attention away from Facebook's launch--so he stalled the other site, stringing the HarvardConnections crew along until Facebook was near launch, at which point he explained that he was too busy with other projects to work on HarvardConnections. A few weeks later, he launched Facebook to immediate, massive success. This little excerpt from a supposed IM conversation shows Zuckerberg's attitude toward the two sites:

Zuck: So you know how I'm making that dating site

Zuck: I wonder how similar that is to the Facebook thing

Zuck: Because they're probably going to be released around the same time

Zuck: Unless I fuck the dating site people over and quit on them right before I told them I'd have it done.

HarvardConnection eventually became ConnectU, and then folded, but ConnectU won a $65 million settlement from Facebook for breach of contact and theft of their idea. The story makes that seem pretty flimsy, however; yes, Zuckerberg manipulated HarvardConnection a little bit, but it's not clear that any theft occurred at all. Zuckerberg's prior projects had all involved social networking, so the idea isn't out of the blue for him, and Facebook is certainly not a dating site, like the one he was asked to create for HarvardConnection. Even further, there was never any formal contract between Zuckerberg and HarvardConnection--not surprising, since these were just college kids, but one would think the absence of a contract would make proving breach of contract sort of tricky. Anyway, it's an interesting read if only for the sneaky tabloid guilty pleasure of reading the behind-the-scenes machinations of Facebook's early days. They've come a long way--now they're featured in multi-billion-dollar spoofs.

The other two stories published are a little more accusatorial--they outline how Mark Zuckerberg supposedly "hacked" both the Harvard Crimson and ConnectU. In the former case, Zuckerberg is accused of having used failed login information from Facebook to gain access to Crimson (the Harvard newspaper) reporters' email accounts, which he in turn used to read emails in which a possible article about his relationship with HarvardConnections was discussed. As far as ConnectU, Zuckerberg supposedly created a fake account for one of the Winklevoss brothers (including such zingers as "Hair color: Aryan blond") and made some 20 users' profiles invisible, to reduce the usability (or perception of usability) of the site.

Again, there's not much sourcing of any of this, so it may just be unfounded rumors. Facebook of the modern day replied to all requests for comment with this:

"We’re not going to debate the disgruntled litigants and anonymous sources who seek to rewrite Facebook’s early history or embarrass Mark Zuckerberg with dated allegations. The unquestioned fact is that since leaving Harvard for Silicon Valley nearly six years ago, Mark has led Facebook's growth from a college website to a global service playing an important role in the lives of over 400 million people."

The hacking of user info could be made to relate to the ongoing concern over Facebook's privacy controls, but that's a little too pat and reductive. The fact here is, even if all of this stuff is 100% accurate (and that's a big if), it was still the result of behavior from smart, ambitious college kids. Facebook is now a massive worldwide company--its early history is interesting, but drawing conclusions from the instant messages of a 19-year-old kid is, at the least, a bit of a stretch.

[Via Business Insider]

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