It was early September, 2006 when a prominent reporter for The New York Times asked me a question I didn't know how to answer. It concerned one of my classmates from Harvard College, a person I probably would have forgotten about completely had he not left me baffled when he started a company based on my work and then proceeded to exclude me from having anything to do with it.
"Do you think he's a sociopath?" the reporter asked.
I didn't know what to say. Despite having run into people with a wide range of conditions through dealing with my sibling's autism, I had never met a sociopath before, yet I knew that people did not use the word lightly. Once I had seen one depicted on television: an innocent-looking boy of ten or eleven who was accused of killing his friend in cold blood. It seemed hard to believe, almost preposterous -- and then in the last minute, it was abundantly clear what had happened, the boy revealing a sinister grin to the camera when the jury let him off the hook.
"I don't think so," I answered. "I really doubt it."
Yet I couldn't reconcile the events that had taken place, either. In late 2003 I created an on-line, opt-in web site referred to as "the facebook" exclusively for Harvard students, and was promptly pilloried in The Harvard Crimson for hypothetical privacy violations that never took place. I worked non-stop to assure that sensitive data would be kept safe and private, and even offered to show the source code to Harvard administrators so that they could verify my claims. Instead, those same administrators threatened me, and then friends of mine who had nothing to do with the site, with disciplinary action. Shortly thereafter, another student in the class below mine made a name for himself by downloading Harvard ID photographs without permission so that they could be ranked against each other in terms of attractiveness. The same reporters at The Harvard Crimson lauded this massive violation of privacy as a heroic achievement. A few months later, the same student began using the facebook I had created morning, noon and night, sometimes as early as 6:00 A.M. We had dinner and exchanged some thoughts. Then, on February 4, 2004, he launched his own. Alienated by the administration and computer science department, I opted to graduate early. The other student dropped out. At graduation, former Harvard University president Larry Summers cited him as a model to aspire to.
Since then, a wealth of new information has come to light, much of it stemming from the myriad lawsuits surrounding Facebook's origins. It has been reported that shortly after the site launched, this student began using the data he collected to break into the e-mail accounts of Crimson reporters, which if true would constitute a blatant violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 (18 USC 1030), making the action a federal crime. On the topic of the Winklevoss brothers, the students who wanted to build a dating site for Harvard, it's been reported that Facebook's founder intended to "fuck them...probably in the ear" from the start, in his words, and inexplicably said as much in writing to his friend Adam D'Angelo, who became Facebook's CTO. Even more recently, a conversation has surfaced in which Facebook's founder called his fellow Harvard students "dumb fucks" for trusting him with their personal information.
As with the great scandal that Bernard Madoff perpetrated on his investors, the only surprising aspect of this story is that it took so long for people to realize what was actually happening. It was clear to me from the moment I met this particular student over dinner that something was strange. Aside from his coy nature, I was mostly perplexed by his face. Despite being incredibly laid back, technically savvy, and at least superficially friendly, his face didn't seem to show any emotion--ever. Having a conversation with him felt extremely strange.
I have re-hashed the details of Facebook's founding time and again, hoping to solve the puzzle myself, and hoping to warn the public about the danger posed by my classmate's absurd vision of absolute openness. I wrote a book--which despite earning respectable reviews from readers, no one would publish until I did myself. I wrote articles on the topic--almost all of which were dismissed as being borne of jealousy and greed at one point or another, though they always had substantive messages. I filed legal actions that had no possible monetary up-side--which eventually settled since the facts of each case were irrefutable. I organized and posted documents on-line--which were largely ignored, even when sent directly to the media.
That is, until now. In light of Facebook's apparent quest to eliminate any notion of personal privacy once and for all, the many critics I've earned certainly haven't come knocking at my door with apologies in hand. Nor have the editors at the nation's major publishing houses recanted for their errors. But they haven't needed to. I have long believed that beginning with the Crimson, the media created Facebook, and for just as long I have believed that the media would ultimately destroy it. With the recent rash of anti-Facebook articles in the press, I believe that is happening now, for at its core, Facebook is nothing more than a shocking amount of hype and wasted investment dollars surrounding a shallow thinker's flimsy ideology. In other words, as my friend Joseph Perla put it, Facebook is a Ponzi scheme -- not of dollars and cents, but of people and sense.
A few days after that reporter asked me if Facebook, Inc.'s CEO was a sociopath, I wrote a letter in which I recommended that he sell the company to Yahoo! for $900 million, the rumored value of the company at the time. It's old news that he didn't follow my advice, and he certainly didn't respond. Perhaps that was the right move, as some say Facebook is now worth more than $20 billion.
Or perhaps not. We all know what happened to the NASDAQ, which peaked at 5,000 just over ten years ago. We all know how it ended for Bernie Madoff and his billions, which ended up being imaginary. Facebook, Inc. claims to have 400,000,000 users today. I'd argue that a more accurate number is probably closer to 399,999,999. One of those "active" Facebook accounts is mine, and as has been the case since I signed up on day one--save for my contact information, which is after all, what I built the facebook to facilitate--my profile is completely blank.
I haven't signed in for a while, but something tells me that after the past few weeks of news coverage, maybe my profile isn't the only one.
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