Sunday, October 3, 2010

Mark Zuckerberg and The Social Network

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on................................"

Implications for Us, and for Everybody Else
I saw The Social Network, or the Mark Zuckerberg story, last night -  the movie about the creation and rise of Facebook.  It's a very good movie, with another excellent script from Aaron Sorkin, arguably the best of the screenwriters in today's cinema. 

I'm sure many people will find Zuckerberg an unsympathetic person - a privileged, nerdy computer genius with lousy social skills (borderline Asberger's) who basically screwed his friends and others, and he's arguably painted as such. I think such a conclusion is a little unfair for any number of reasons including the fact of how young he was when he thought up Facebook. And if the movie is at all accurate, it seems clear to me Facebook is his creation and really nobody else’s.  He has an entrepreneur's will and single mindedness, and the requiste (though hardly admirable) business killer instinct.

What is impressive (to me) about Zuckerberg (from a variety of admittedly limited sources – he is press shy) is not his computer genius skills, which he obviously laid legitimate claim to, but his intuitive observation about what was important and why it was important to the success of something like a Facebook. Perhaps the initial idea wasn't even his, but the final product was, and so was the strategy to make it successful - and frankly were it not for his insights as to how to make it successful, I can easily see that it may not have gottn off the ground.  Early on he understood the role two important elements - exclusivity and sex - play in the launch of new technological media delivery systems (and everything that we mean by technology today from the computer to the internet to Facebook to Twitter are basically delivery systems for sharing and accessing stuff – for communicating with each other). He made sure early on that he maximized his chances of acceptance of something very simple, but ultimately a radical departure in communication, by making it exclusive to exactly the right target niche of taste makers and trend setters within the small universe he was operating at the time – Harvard University and ultimately colleges everywhere.    Exclusivity has long been the handmaiden of "cool" - and "cool" is essential to expanding any new idea, concept or thing - especially to a younger cohort. That original exclusivity ultimately made it easier to sell to other Ivy League student bodies, and then to the wider American University system. He knew that to spread, to be accepted, it had to be cool.

He also knew that with a younger audience, nothing is more important than sex or the hunt for sex. Something the advertising and entertainment industries have known for a long time. And with the launch of the Harvard Facebook he knew that making it easier for students to identify and approach those they found attractive was key to making it work. 

What also impresses me about Zuckerberg is that he stuck to what he knew was necessary for the launch and the build, focusing more on that than short term money. Is he guilty of not being the best friend anyone could have? Yes. Arguably, he didn’t really have any friends. Is he guilty of being a bit or a jerk, or as described in the movie on at least two occasions as an “asshole” – probably for sure. Who really isn’t on some level?  But what he created and where it might lead are now far more important considerations than his people skills.

Another thing I believe from what I have read is that he also early on recognized the long term implications and importance of amassing data and information. The first incarnation of Facebook allowed him an unprecedented storehouse of personal data on almost the entire Harvard Student Body – and he got access to that information because the Harvard Facebook clients literally gave it to him. He never really exploited this little gold mine, and the data mining / aggregation is a card he has yet to play fully on the current Facebook, which now has 500 million users – more than google. If Facebook gets to one billion users or some15 percent of the planet’s population over the age of five – that will be the single largest delivery system of information and communication that has ever existed. And the data then available will boggle the mind, and can be used in all sorts of ways - for good, for profit, for evil.  If Zuckerberg’s intuition is right, Facebook will become the tool people on the planet use to shop, to inform each other, and and make decisions -- about everything from what to buy and when, what to do for fun, to health decisions, to financial decisions to even political choices – and they will do that by expanding word of mouth from one Facebook page to another – all at the speed of light.

I have no doubt Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg will be at the center of the firestorm that is surely coming over privacy, data use - or misuse, how people communicate in the future and a host of other very high priority societal issues to emerge over the next two decades or so. He is now a "force" in the world, and you can't say that about many people.  I think there is a good chance his naivety and still youthful perspectives, his intuition and savvy, coupled with his very strong will and virtual obsession with seeing how far this whole concept will play out, will continue to make Facebook more than just a social, intellectual, conceptual, practical, experiment, but rather even more of a phenomenon that is going to have very serious implications for the whole world, and most certainly for our little part of that world in everything from how art is created, shared, accessed, presented, funded, marketed, distributed, sold, reviewed, archived, and regarded.  I am certainly no expert on social networking or any of the other new technologies for communication, nor on the vanguard in information delivery systems, or the implications of any of that to us or to the world, but I am smart enought to know that we would be wise to consider the implications of Facebook and the social networking phenomenon - and beyond just the surface levels of how it might help us in audience development or some such area.  It has the potential to be a game changer for everything - in ways we probably don't yet have a firm grasp on.

It’s a good movie. See it.  Frankly, I am not one who resents, hates or otherwise wants to vilify Mark Zuckerberg. I find him and what he is doing fascinating, even if I remain one of the holdouts to being on Facebook. And for those that just want to hate him, don’t worry. He is likely to become one of the richest and most powerful people to have ever lived, and that is always accompanied by a very high price to pay. I doubt sincerely that anyone ever in that line has escaped a certain degree of loneliness and profound lack of joy.  As Don Henley penned in The Sad Cafe: "I don't know why fortune smiles on some, and let's the rest go free."  Mark Zuckerberg will likely never be free of fortune's "outrageous slings and arrows", so don't be so hard on him.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit
Barry

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