Winklevoss Talks Facebook Without Zuckerberg, ConnectU, and Julian Assange

In part two of our interview, Cameron Winklevoss discusses Julian Assange, Steve Jobs, America, and Mark Zuckerberg’s performance as CEO of Facebook.



Unless you somehow missed out on The Social Network, you’ll know that twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss invented Facebook. Or, rather, that Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook, with a big assist from the Winklevoss twins. Or, at the very least, that Sean Parker likes cocaine.

The true tale behind the founding of Facebook has yet to be told–and because of that, the “Winklevi” won’t give up until we all hear their side of the story. In part one of our two-part interview, Fast Company talked with Cameron Winklevoss about his legacy post-Facebook, parties at Harvard, and his interpretation of The Social Network.

Today, in the second half of our interview, Cameron Winklevoss imagines a world without Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg–where ConnectU, not Facebook, is the world’s largest social network. During our conversation we touch on Julian Assange, Steve Jobs, America, and Mark Zuckerberg’s performance as CEO of Facebook.


Fast Company: Let’s consider a world where this controversy with Mark Zuckerberg never happened, and where Facebook never existed. What would your site, HarvardConnection or ConnectU, look like today?

Cameron Winklevoss: The core aspect of the site would not be any different than what Facebook is today. Obviously there’s a lot of bells and whistles that have come about because of the evolution of the site. People get caught up in the idea that there were other social networks at the time. There was MySpace and Friendster. The only difference is that it was predicated on this idea of localized networks based on real networks: You only got one .edu email address. There was quality control. There was a level of authenticity that was not seen anywhere else.

I’m saying, specifically, if Facebook had never started, do you assume ConnectU would have millions or hundreds of millions of users instead?


I think it definitely had the potential for as many users as Facebook has today. We always planned to start on the college level and farm it out to other schools. We felt if this works at Harvard, then that was the logical next step. Even if you didn’t expand outside college students, just by virtue of people getting older, you’re growing the amount of users, because every year, the people that graduate would still be members.

But of course it’s a very logical progression to extend upwards and downwards, so I really don’t see how it would be any different.


In this parallel universe, where, say, Mark joined as a partner while at Harvard, do you just assume ConnectU would be valued in the billions of dollars now instead, and have 500 million users? Would it just be Facebook, but with a different name?

I don’t want to make too much of a conjecture. I do believe the potential for ConnectU was as big as Facebook’s, absolutely. I think you would have had to go out of your way and limit yourself for it not to extend to a large audience.

People have this incorrect notion–and it might come from the way The Social Network describes our interaction with Mark initially–it could appear that we really only intended it to be at Harvard. But that’s simply not the case. There’s a slew of evidence that we intended to expand outward, aside from me just simply saying it.


So, I believe they were identical, and that they would reach the same amount of users.

Continuing on this point, assuming Yahoo would have offered $1 billion for the site, would you have turned that down too?

Yes. When this thing took off, I think a lot of people look at Mark’s decision to turn down a billion dollars somewhat incredulously, like, ‘Oh my god, how can you turn down a billion dollars?’ But if you’re really in the driver’s seat, and you see what’s going on, and you see the viral nature of the site, which he of course was very privy to, then you’re seeing where this thing was going. A billion dollars was clearly cheap.


Obviously, that doesn’t take in to account the pride of the entrepreneur, and the desire to see it through. That in many ways is unquantifiable. For better or worse, a lot of people who build things don’t want to part ways. They don’t have the short exit plan that a lot of the investors have.

So, I really think it was a no-brainer to turn that offer down. It was straight-forward. This thing was clearly growing at this rapid rate. I don’t think it’s a hard decision to make.

Here’s what I’m driving at. Most questions you and your brother receive relate to whether it was the idea that made Facebook Facebook, or whether it was Mark Zuckerberg who made Facebook Facebook. Many peg Zuckerberg turning down the $1 billion offer from Yahoo or $15 billion from Microsoft as intelligent business decisions that led the company to success. Do you see any good decisions that Mark made that helped make Facebook what it is today?


I think what you’re getting at is the execution versus the idea–nature versus nurture argument. I think every business is definitely different. There are certain businesses where execution is everything.

In the case of Facebook, it’s not a situation where Mark Zuckerberg knocked on 500 million people’s doors and said, ‘Hey, will you upload your photos?’ The inherent growth properties of Facebook and the platform were so strong and so great, that it didn’t really matter who the CEO was in the growth stages. It’s a matter of not screwing it up. It’s a matter of keeping the electricity on–keep feeding its servers, keep watering the plants, and it will grow.

If you look at the history of the company, for example, in the entire summer after Facebook launched in February of 2004, Mark and his co-founders moved out to Palo Alto, and spent the summer building a file-sharing add-on to the site called Wirehog.


I mean, here they are sitting on the next biggest social network. They see the growth going through the charts, and they say, We’re going to take a left turn here, and build a file-sharing add-on–just totally disregarding the legal liability. Here you’ve got this network, and you’re going to add this liability? During that period, the recording industry was going after everybody under the sun! They were going after college students. It was incredibly dangerous territory to play on. And it made no sense, from a business standpoint because there was no revenue. How do you monetize file-sharing in a legal way? The person who did it was Steve Jobs with iTunes. That wasn’t the business model of Wirehog. Wirehog was basically just facilitating piracy. So it was an incredibly dangerous and wasteful excursion on their part.

And that’s how they spent three months. They didn’t do updates on the site. Then they basically–excuse my French–pulled their heads out of their asses in early fall, and said, Maybe we should start expanding to a couple more schools.

That’s one example of what I see as a lack of vision on Zuckerberg’s part. Some construe that as, Oh, well, he’s willing to take risk and go out on a limb. As far as I’m concerned, he didn’t even see the network for what it was in the first six months. He just thought it was something that was cool. He didn’t even realize the potential there.


Going forward, you have Beacon: a total disaster. A class-action lawsuit for $10 million. Then you have a constant privacy debate that has dogged the company for years. Facebook Places is a Foursquare knock-off. Facebook Questions is an attempt to knock-off Quora. The status update has evolved as a sort of knock-off of Twitter.

So there’s not a ton of innovation aside from the initial platform here. You have a company that’s chasing in different directions the next best thing. They’re certainly not coming up with the next best thing.

That’s not to say Facebook is not a great company, and that it’s not a great product. But this idea of some visionary person on top of this company, driving it forward, is flawed. It’s a desire to simplify and attribute and personify the large-scale growth and meteoric rise of a viral concept to one person.


Look back at 2006, the Time Person of the Year was not YouTube, it was you. The triumph of the Web 2.0 was the users. If you’ve ever accepted a friend request on Facebook, if you’ve ever uploaded a photo on Facebook, you’ve built that network along with 500 million other people.

It’s interesting how far it’s come from this collective, collaborative effort–from recognizing this whole army of people out there in the world who are populating entries on Wikipedia. It’s not Jimmy Wales. Nobody is turning to Jimmy Wales, and saying, You’re a genius. No, they recognize his contribution to the platform–they recognize his vision–but after that point, it’s the users who are feeding this machine.

You might not want to credit one person with the idea of Facebook, but don’t you want to credit two people? Do you and your brother feel you should have been on the cover of Time magazine this year?


Whether I was the head of Facebook or not, the person who is running Facebook should not be the Time Person of the Year, based on the criteria of that award. It is the biggest news-maker and the person who has had the largest impact. That’s not Mark Zuckerberg, and that’s not Facebook this year.

Whether you agree with Julian Assange or what he’s doing, there’s no question of the impact and scale of WikiLeaks. It’s a whole different level. There were world leaders losing sleep over WikiLeaks. There’s not world leaders losing sleep over someone’s Facebook status updates or tweets.


Regardless of where it came from, the idea took on a life of its own. Does it matter whether that was serendipitous for Mark, or skill on his part, or simply bad luck for you and your brother?

It’s amazing how some people create this narrative–a lot of it is Facebook trying to smooth out the narrative. You’ll never get Facebook to admit to you when Mark Zuckerberg first started a line of code for Facebook. Because in reality he started some time in the middle of when he was working with us for three months. And keep in mind: This is not just any project. This is a $50 billion company. I’m not sure if you have kids, but you probably know when their birthdays are. These guys will not tell you when Facebook started a line of code. It’s odd. It’s really weird. It all just kind of blurred together, and somehow FaceMash has become this logical extension of Facebook.

Wait, FaceMash is a two-dimensional cruel webpage to humiliate and insult people. This is not a product of a visionary. It’s a product of a punk. And this guy could all of a sudden turn that around and come out with Facebook two months later?

History points to innovations and large inventions as being collaborative efforts involving more than one person. It’s just a lot more likely to believe that Facebook is a result of several people, and not just one individual, as much as Facebook would like to push that line. Facebook would’ve grown yesterday without Mark Zuckerberg. It’ll grow tomorrow with or without Mark. He’s virtually insignificant to the engine of Facebook’s growth, and always will be compared to the hundreds of millions of users who are really responsible for the growth.

I should tell you that I am not a member of Facebook.

That makes you maybe one, if not the only journalist out there, who is not on some level beholden to Facebook–though you might still be beholden to Facebook. Presumably when you write an article on Fast Company, people will share that on Facebook. Or, if you guys have a tech conference, and you want Facebook to attend, you might be beholden to the company.

The reason I digress is simply because journalism, especially in the tech world, has certainly gone in an arc, and it’s kind of embarrassing how there are certain individuals out there who are really doing their best to not alienate the company, for less than ethical reasons.

Let’s talk about the lawsuit, since you and your brother are appealing. Imagine that the original settlement was for $1 billion, instead of $65 million. Would you still go through with this appeal now?

I can’t speak directly to that. But I will say that the damage has most certainly increased. People love to focus on the dollar amount. We can’t change the fact that this idea is as successful as it is. We’re not going to sit around here and apologize for that. We’re talking about large numbers because there’s a large value here.

We’ve shown to be reasonable people. We’ve shown to be people willing to resolve the situation. People like to report that we’re going for more money. We are appealing because we didn’t get what we agreed to.
The way that Facebook was valuing itself internally to themselves, to their employees, and to the government was one-fourth of how much they were pricing equity to us. They did not disclose that to us. That is the basis of our appeal.

We’re not saying, We got this settlement, and then going for more on top of that. We’re saying, We only got one-fourth of what we agreed to. We’re realistic people. We certainly started out in a situation with Mark where we were all equal partners. He totally cut us out, but we’ve shown a willingness to resolve this. We’re not stubborn. I don’t think we’re unrealistic, but we’re certainly not going to sit back and be idle when a guy defrauds us. The key here is that we had an agreement that we were all happy with, but he just short-changed us.

It would be very clear if this was a frivolous lawsuit. I hope that people come away from The Social Network and from whatever they read, and conclude that not only what Mark did is wrong, but what we’re doing is a necessity. I believe to the core of my being that if you don’t act, you are being in some way complicit with fraudulent behavior. You’re not setting up the right frameworks and lessons to discourage that behavior in the future.
If my children or grandchildren ever get defrauded, and I didn’t step up to the plate when I could have, then that’s on me. I’m going to blame myself.

When I talk to people, they’re like, Are you going to go to the Olympics again? Yes, I’m thinking about it, I say. And they’re like, You have to go. You got to go the distance. You can do it–go for the gold. But when it comes to the lawsuit, there are some people who say, How far are you going to go? Where do you stop?

Well, I’m not going to stop until we get justice. Why would I?

Oh, he took your idea, why not just let bygones be bygones? No. That’s not how this works. This is America.

We don’t operate that way. It’s not a lawless society.

Let’s talk about David Kirkpatrick’s book, The Facebook Effect.

Nobody buys The Facebook Effect because it’s not a true story–there’s nothing there. For all David Kirkpatrick’s flailing and thrashing around, trying to create a revisionist history of the company, the idea of the solitary genius, who invents something great in a vacuum, has statistically and historically been shown to be a ridiculous conceit.

Our version of the story–that a group of individuals collaborated to create what is now Facebook–is a much likelier story than Mark’s. I don’t know if Kirkpatrick is naïve or can’t quite connect the dots, but all two people who have read it–

… is that you and your brother?

No, that doesn’t even include both of us! Despite assuring everyone that he informed himself and reviewed a lot of the documents related to the litigation, he only spent two paragraphs on the lawsuit–I think that’s why he only spent two paragraphs on the lawsuit.

Of course, he describes Mark’s relationship with us as rude. To which I say, well, fraud is rude.

But get this! He spelled our name wrong in the entire book. It’s E-L instead of L-E. The funny thing is it wasn’t a manuscript, like an early manuscript. It actually worked in to the print book. Like, are you serious?

Look, this is a bizarre David versus Goliath world, and we’re definitely not the Goliath here. We are the David going up against a multi-billion dollar company and a guy who has unlimited resources, who has proven to be incredibly stubborn.

I think if you polled anyone in the Valley, I think they’d say, ‘Wait a second, why hasn’t Zuckerberg made this go away? Why didn’t he get rid of this six years ago? Why did he let steam build to the point where there was a book? And to the point where there was a movie? Why the heck would anyone do that?’

It’s so clearly an emotional thing for him. It’s personal.

[Image: Getty Images]

About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.