I went to see The Social Network this evening.
The movie starts out with Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, in a bar with his girlfriend from Boston University, Erica Albright. This struck an off note for me because the typical Harvard undergrad needs a passport to leave Cambridge. The idea that an introverted computer programmer at Harvard would have a girlfriend at BU, other than perhaps someone he had known from high school (the dialog makes it clear that they did not meet in high school), is almost absurdly unlikely.
The next scene in the movie has Zuckerberg bringing down the entire Harvard University network by building facemash.com, a site that let users rate undergrads’ appearance. The site got 22,000 page views within four hours (or perhaps it was 22,000 photo views), each page view consisting of some text and a couple of photos, and this supposedly brought down Harvard’s 2003 network, capable of transferring physics data sets and streaming video. (For comparison, in 1999 America Online’s Web servers were responding to 28,000 file requests… every second.)
[It was possible in the olden days to slow a network down with user activity. I personally slowed down a corporate network by developing a popular multi-player SpaceWar game that required peer-to-peer synchronization, but that was in 1983 and the network was a single coax cable running old-school Ethernet (10Base5!) among about 100 Symbolics Lisp Machines. The game was banned by company executives.]
The portrayal of Harvard students and Facebook programmers as persistently drunk seemed hard to reconcile with the dreary realities of keeping a bunch of MySQL servers running and indeed the movie’s initial focus on technology shifts to a focus on interpersonal dynamics. We don’t learn much about what it felt like to build the company or add features to the service.
Former students often ask me what I think of Facebook. Many of them are just a little older than Zuckerberg and they say “Philip: you built all of those features in the 1990s. You taught a whole course on how to build online communities. How does it feel to see this guy make billions of dollars without having to do anything innovative?” My response is that I didn’t envision every element of Facebook. I imagined only three levels of publication: private (email), public (Web site), and community (on a Web site accessible only to other registered users of a site such as photo.net). I never had the idea of limiting information based on a network (though on photo.net we did have a “friends” feature starting in 2000 where contributions to the overall community by particular users marked as interesting would be highlighted to the person who’d selected those “friends” and that information would be displayed in reverse chronological order).
Zuckerberg seems to have done everything that the early Internet nerds suggested doing, e.g., starting with a relational database management system, watching user behavior carefully and refining the site’s feature set, providing mechanisms for users to connect and discuss. It was our generation’s job to show his generation how to do stuff, so we did our job and he did his.
My favorite part of the movie experience was a character who says that his girlfriend is “jealous, crazy, and frightening”. I nudged my companion and said “Wow, she’s just like you!” Seconds later the girlfriend says “How come your Facebook page says that you’re single?” My companion had in fact uttered these very words back in 2007 and in much the same tone of suspicion and indignation. I explained that I had set it up back several years ago after being invited by some students and didn’t use Facebook except to acknowledge friend requests. If it made her unhappy I would change the status to “married” and did so. This led to a flurry of congratulatory emails from surprised friends. To each one I had to respond that I had only changed the relationship status in order to quell criticism and there had not been any wedding. That’s when I realized that Facebook was more than simply a diversion for college undergraduates.