Facebook turned 12 today. It's been part of everyday life for long enough that an infinite number of articles have been published about its phenomenal success and the vision of its inventor and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. (I wrote about him myself recently.)
But somebody out there had to write the very first profile of Mark Zuckerberg. And as far as I know, that person was Michael Grynbaum, a reporter for the Harvard Crimson. His article "Mark E. Zuckerberg '06: The Whiz Behind the FaceBook.com" appeared on June 10, 2004, when his fellow Harvard student's social network was slightly over four months old.
The Crimson had already covered TheFacebook.com's meteoric rise—a mind-bending 650 user signups in just a few days—and, before that, the trouble Zuckerberg had gotten himself into with his hot-or-not site Facemash. It had even written about Synapse, the playlist-creating software that Zuckerberg and his pal Adam D'Angelo had created in high school. But Grynbaum's 1,800-word article was the first thing it published that felt like a Zuckerberg profile rather than a news story.
Almost a dozen years later, it remains among one of the most interesting articles about Facebook ever written. It offers an opportunity to meet the service's founder at a point when it was already clear that he had come up with something that might be important and valuable, but before it was entirely clear what the implications were. And while today's Zuckerberg—despite the gray T-shirt and eternally boyish demeanor—often comes off like he sees himself as a statesman of sorts, Grynbaum got him in unhomogenized form.
Grynbaum interviewed Zuckerberg in his dorm room in Harvard's Kirkland House, as TheFacebook.com's creator was boxing up his possessions at the end of the semester. "Even at that point, it was clear Facebook was a phenomenon," the former student reporter and current city hall bureau chief for the New York Times told me. "It was ubiquitous on campus within about 72 hours of launching. I can't say we knew just how huge it would become, but there was a lot of interest in Mark."
Okay, enough talk about this article. Let's just quote a few choice chunks—though the whole thing is very much worth your time.
Today, we may measure Facebook history in years, but at Harvard in 2004, they measured it in semesters—and it hadn't quite completed its first one:
. . . Nearly a semester after creating thefacebook.com, a social networking website launched on Feb. 4, Mark E. Zuckerberg ’06 doesn’t seem to have let things go to his head.
Wearing a yellow T-shirt, blue jeans, and open-toe Adidas sandals, Zuckerberg sits on a ragged couch in the middle of a messy Kirkland House common room, surrounded by strewn clothes and half-closed boxes.
Amidst this squalor, he smiles.
"I’m just like a little kid. I get bored easily and computers excite me. Those are the two driving factors here."
Zuckerberg, as he still does, said that Facebook was about creating something useful, not chasing after cash. But he comes off as a tad more willing to brag than he does in more recent interviews:
"I do stuff like this all the time," Zuckerberg says in his relaxed tone. "The Facebook literally took me a week to make."
Coming from anyone else, the words may come across as arrogant. With Zuckerberg, they’re only a part of the demeanor he maintains when discussing what in today’s Internet-saturated world qualifies as a phenomenal success.
He’s full of ideas: "Half the things I do I don’t release," he explains. "I spent five hours programming last night, and came up with something that was kind of cool, showed it to a bunch of my friends, and the rest of campus will never know about it."
He’s not in it for the cash: "I just like making it and knowing that it works and having it be wildly successful is cool, I guess, but I mean, I dunno, that’s not the goal."
Here's a quote that still neatly encapsulates Facebook's approach to product development, though there are now more than 10,000 people working on the project, not just one college student:
"I don’t really know what the next big thing is, because I don’t spend my time making big things," he says. "I spend time making small things, and then when the time comes, I put them together."
Apparently there's some alternate universe where Zuckerberg lost interest in Facebook before finishing it:
When he buried himself in his room to work on thefacebook.com late last January, his roommates almost forgot he was there.
But all the work was nearly for naught.
"If I hadn’t launched it that day, I was about to just can it and go on to the next thing I was about to do," he says.
Trivia tidbit: Zuckerberg got his start as a coder via a Dummies book:
C++ For Dummies was his first introduction to formal programming, but Zuckerberg says he learned most of what he knows from talking with friends.
The story talks at length about his Synapse high-school project and his unwillingness to sell it (for millions!), which turned it to be the prototype for his reluctance to sell Facebook (for billions!):
Some companies offered us right off the bat up to 1 million, and then we got another offer that was like 2 million," he says.
He and D’Angelo at first decided not to sell.
"I don’t really like putting a price-tag on the stuff I do. That’s just like not the point," Zuckerberg says.
But after the two had matriculated to college, they decided to accept an offer—only to find the company was no longer interested.
Zuckerberg bêtes noires the Winkelvoss twins and Divya Narendra get a mention—and I'll bet nobody but nobody guessed at the time that the dispute referenced in the following two paragraphs would eventually form the narrative backbone of a major motion picture:
Last month, Zuckerberg faced allegations that he stole the idea for an online Harvard social directory. Three Pforzheimer seniors asked Zuckerberg to help program ConnectU, a site similar to thefacebook.com that launched last month. Zuckerberg briefly worked for the site but soon left—after which the facebook debuted.
Zuckerberg denies the allegations of intellectual property theft, saying the ConnectU creators’ claims are baseless.
The story sounds a little skeptical about Zuckerberg's fanciful desire to do his own thing on his own schedule, especially since he hadn't yet figured out how to make money doing so:
"My goal is to not have a job," he says matter-of-factly. "Making cool things is just something I love doing, and not having someone tell me what to do or a timeframe in which to do it is the luxury I am looking for in my life."
Who will be funding this leisurely lifestyle?
"I assume eventually I’ll make something that is profitable," he allows.
The story's kicker:
"There are a couple ads on the facebook because [the site] costs money and servers don’t grow on trees," Zuckerberg says.
But will the facebook ever be auctioned off to the highest bidder?
"Maybe when I’m bored with it, then we’ll work something out," he says. "But I don’t see that happening anytime in the near future."
Zuckerberg pauses for a moment.
"And ‘near future’ being like anytime in the next seven or eight days."
Zuckerberg was presumably being playful about the seven or eight days part. But you know what? If he'd said that he planned to make TheFacebook.com his life's work, Crimson readers—even the ones already addicted to his invention—might not have believed him. Maybe, as a self-described person prone to boredom, it hadn't yet occurred even to him that he'd created the infinite tapestry that Facebook turned out to be.