Bill Gates got me into Harvard.
I had never met the man even once in my life, and I had certainly never been the beneficiary of his unparalleled personal fortune in any direct sense. I had, of course, used his company's software, and throughout high school had even become something of an expert on its staggeringly pervasive glitches. This collection of arcane computer knowledge, not to mention a general obsession with technology, led to my starting a business called Think Computer that I incorporated as a high school freshman.
Starting a company at a young age is to say the least, unusual, and so fitting the hobby I enjoyed so much into the form of a college application essay without sounding overzealous or pretentious initially proved difficult. My high school guidance counselor suggested that my essay reveal something about myself through a short anecdote. After stopping mid-way through my first draft, I took her advice. I decided to focus on a story involving Amber, my tennis camp counselor who, after recognizing me from a magazine article, labeled me with a nickname that simultaneously flattered and deeply upset me. Amber took to calling me "Bill Gates."
I could not deny that it seemed appropriate in a narrow sense. From the time I was 10, I grew up consuming a steady diet of written materials about the founder of Microsoft, reading countless magazines, books, newspaper articles, and essentially anything I could get my hands on that explained his company's success. I even attempted to apply to Microsoft as an intern in seventh grade (and was saddened upon receiving my rejection letter by e-mail). Gates's unfathomable wealth had earned him enormous fame to the extent that even my childhood friends who had no interest in computers knew who he was, but I was determined to dig deeper than the most basic of facts: that he was very rich. I wanted to know about the man behind the legend, because no matter how many times I read it, the legend seemed like it was missing something.
The first indication that the simple Gates-as-genius story was amiss was the swirling schoolyard rumor that Windows had been stolen from Apple's Steve Jobs--another man with a legend all his own. As third-graders whose parents tended to own Apple IIGS or Intel 386 Windows-based systems, but rarely both, we children would staunchly defend whichever company manufactured our respective home computers' operating system software in an endless ritual debate. Years later, when I was 13, I read StartUp: A Silicon Valley Adventure, which outlined in painstaking detail how venture capital and then Gates himself had destroyed Jerry Kaplan's fledgling company, Go Corporation, which invented the handheld pen computer. (My request to intern for Kaplan in eighth grade was also sadly rejected.)
With this newfound knowledge I faced a real moral dilemma: I could continue to aspire toward building a company with Microsoft's success as a model, or knowing what that prosperity had actually cost Gates--namely, any sort of moral credibility--I could simply aspire to build the most successful company possible without intentionally destroying anyone else's work. Unfamiliar with all of the complexities of the world, the latter seemed an easy choice, and I henceforth devoted a significant portion of my teenage cynicism to Mr. Gates, leading up to that awkward moment when Amber decided to use his name to describe me.
For some reason that I will probably never learn, the Harvard College admissions office found my application, in which I attempted to explain this situation, compelling. For another reason that probably related to Microsoft's constant need for talented engineers, Bill Gates came to speak to computer science students at his alma mater on February 26, 2004, a little more than thirty years after he left, leading our paths to cross for the first time.
I first caught sight of the man I had studied all of those years--the multi-billionaire, the irreverent student, the dropout, the fierce competitor, the cruel, amoral conqueror--walking down the main staircase of the computer science building he had donated years before. It was the first time he had ever seen the building, and he was surrounded on all sides by security. All I could do was stop in my tracks and stare as he walked by, a thousand thoughts ranging from shock to inquisitiveness to anger all rushing though my mind.
The following day, he gave a talk in Lowell Lecture Hall, one of the many buildings on Harvard's campus where I had more than once hunched over in a tiny chair with a tiny desk to complete a midterm exam. His talk, like most of his talks, was read from concealed tele-prompters and delivered in that somewhat annoying, tinny manner of his that both advertised Microsoft more than necessary and slightly exaggerated his own accomplishments. At the end, the moderator, a respected computer science professor, selected students from the audience to ask questions. What Bill Gates didn't know was that one year before, that same moderator had agreed to advise my formal application to study what was effectively the economic aftermath of Microsoft Corporation--which meant that despite the proposal's ultimate rejection by a committee of uninterested professors, I got to ask a question.
"Will there be another Microsoft, and if not, will the reason be Microsoft?" was what I nervously asked as a Microsoft cameraman turned toward me. The candor of Gates's reply, in stark contrast to the rest of his canned speech, actually did impress me. He admitted that there probably would one day be another overwhelmingly successful technology company, and at the end of an article a few days later, The New York Times noted my question. It would take four years for that talk at Harvard to re-appear in the media, and another two for it to appear on the silver screen. When it did, it wasn't because of anything I said, but due to the presence of one of my fellow students by the name of Mark Zuckerberg.
The Wizard of Oz was originally released in 1939, twelve years before the transistor was invented, and almost two decades before my parents were born. Based on L. Frank Baum's book from 1900, it illustrated in sparkling Technicolor the duplicity of legend, for in the end the Wizard was as mundane a man as one could hope to find anywhere in Kansas (or any other humdrum state for that matter). Of course, for Dorothy everything worked out, but as it so happens, reality often departs from the movie script.
We don't often think about it, but the number of Wizards who grace the front pages of newspapers on a daily basis is actually fairly staggering. Lawrence Summers, Economic Wizard, was supposed to save Harvard University from its sprawling, disorganized self when he started as its President in 2001, and no more than five years later he was gone, having left behind as his legacy a debate over gender and a financial time bomb that would ultimately cost the University roughly $14 billion of its $36 billion endowment. Today, having alienated at least two of the nation's top economists with what many might describe behind closed doors as unmitigated bombastic arrogance--a particularly effective curtain--he manages the entire U.S. economy for President Obama instead using an array of policy levers and dials at his disposal. Tiger Woods, Golf Wizard, was supposed to be the ultimate icon of calm, consistency, and reliability, to the point where it was virtually impossible to travel through an airport without seeing his image on one advertisement or another--until his extreme marital infidelity exploded into a media firestorm of intense shame and volatility. The curtain he used turned out to be manufactured by a public relations firm, and though it held up durably for many years, its strength made the ultimate failure that much more spectacular. Lance Armstrong, indestructible biking hero and Cycling Wizard, is presently being accused of defrauding the United States Postal Service, his team's sponsor, by using performance enhancing drugs. Marc Hauser, Science Wizard, was regarded as a top evolutionary biologist (coincidentally also at Harvard) until it became apparent that he had fabricated the experimental data used in his research. Bernie Madoff, Finance Wizard, whose name has come to represent almost everything wrong with high finance, should need no further explanation. This list, by no means complete, is just a representative sample of headlines from the past couple of years.
With so many highly publicized disappointments in rapid succession, one would expect the public to learn that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is--and yet here we are, fully one hundred and ten years post-Oz, and for one public figure after another, the Emerald City glimmers as brightly as ever.
It's not Mark Zuckerberg's fault that he was a little bit lucky. Back at Harvard, he happened to live right across the sidewalk from the president of The Harvard Crimson, which he later credited with giving him the idea to start a universal face book for all of Harvard's students.
Of course, as is the case with any legend, it takes a bit of scraping below the surface to get to the real story, and with newsroom budgets as tight as they are in today's letter-at-the-end-of-the-alphabet-shaped economic environment, that just doesn't happen as often as it used to. Mark may very well have read The Crimson on December 11, 2003, the day its editorial board lamented the lack of a campus-wide face book, but whether or not he did is largely irrelevant. In the thirty days between the publication of the Crimson editorial and the registration of the domain name thefacebook.com, Mark did a lot more than simply sit in his dorm room and create a brilliant product. His motivation was far more direct: he found out that The Crimson had incomplete information. Someone had already beat him to it, and that someone was me.
It was on January 4, 2004 that Mark first signed into The Universal Face Book, part of an integrated student portal I had engineered called houseSYSTEM. My hope was to bring the university closer together by connecting the previously-isolated residential houses, where students lived, on Harvard's campus. Before houseSYSTEM, I couldn't sign into the on-line Winthrop House Face Book because I didn't live there, and if I wanted to learn more about the people living right next to me in Lowell House, the best I could hope for was a black-and-white photograph, an e-mail address and a five-digit phone number corresponding to Harvard's internal phone system, which many students ignored given the advent of cell phones. There was a clear need for a better solution.
Though the student government, the Undergraduate Council, had recognized this need roughly by the time The Crimson started talking about it, I had already begun my own dialog with administrators as early as August, 2003. That's when I decided to launch houseSYSTEM, only to learn six days later that various deans in University Hall wanted it shut down, and my head on a proverbial pike. A particularly loud and uninformed physics student in Lowell House with whom I had never spoken in person voiced concerns about computer security on a student mailing list, and without doing any sort of investigation into the technical merits of his claim, the administration decided that I had to be breaking the rules. While I was supposed to be on vacation with my family at the beach, I instead spent days negotiating with Harvard over a dial-up connection about whether or not I should be formally disciplined. Eventually, sensing that University Hall was both entrenched in its position and completely unwilling to understand my entirely constructive objectives, I engaged three pro bono lawyers to help plead my case. Somewhat magically, the administration backed down. A couple of weeks later, one dean hinted at the reason why: administrators were monitoring my e-mail, and the phrase "anti-competitive behavior" didn't sound very good alongside "veritas."
houseSYSTEM's Universal Face Book went live on September 19, 2003. By that point, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes were already houseSYSTEM members, and Eduardo Saverin eventually joined, too. So did Victor Gao, who programmed the infamous ConnectU web site. (Cameron Winklevoss signed up later on.) The Harvard Crimson was aware of houseSYSTEM--it had published first one and then another damning article about the imaginary security concerns in Lowell House--but if houseSYSTEM was the scandal of the summer, then Facemash was the scandal of the year. Originally intending to compare the looks of Harvard students to farm animals, Mark settled on designing Facemash to compare students to each other, and by the time the debacle spurred the editorial in December, The Crimson's editors neglected to remember that houseSYSTEM included exactly the kind of face book that they were advocating for.
By January 6, 2004, the day Mark Zuckerberg signed up for houseSYSTEM so that he could use its Universal Face Book, roughly 100 other students had opted-in as well. (At that point more than 1,200 had signed up for houseSYSTEM.) Mark spent hours poring over the site; every one of his requests was recorded by the server's log. Two days later we met for dinner to discuss our respective experiences with the administration. While he had been formally disciplined by the College's Administrative Board for abusing the official face books with Facemash, I had emerged with a clean record, and without so much as even a hearing.
That dinner was a pivotal point. I asked Mark, one of the only technology-savvy students on campus who I thought I could trust, for his assistance with houseSYSTEM. (The one other talented student I knew who might have been able to help had paid his way through college by sending e-mail spam using Harvard's phone network. Horrified, I stayed as far away from his business ventures as I could.) Mark asked me for assistance with his project, but refused to describe it in much detail. He did, however, call my work "too useful." In turn, I declined his request for help, unaware of the Catch-22 in which I had just become enmeshed. Mark had already started working on his project, using mine as a template. By declining, I relinquished any formal claim to ownership of his source code. Yet had I accepted the offer, I would have been sued in federal court only a few months later by a set of identical twins and their friend who I had never even met for assisting Mark with another theft I didn't even know he'd committed.
We stayed in touch, both because we had agreed to, and because we spent the next several months in the same ten-person computer science independent study course, which was labeled Computer Science 91r or Applied Math 91r, depending on where you were trying to apply course credit. Mark's job was to write code for mathematical functions called Fast Fourier Transforms. I wrote the code that managed everyone else's code. Mark's contributions were frequently broken, late, or non-existent, and in the end our final project didn't function largely thanks to him. Nonetheless, he would ask me technical and business questions on a regular basis. I answered them owing to my role as the leader of the College's only entrepreneurship club, a position that I had fought hard to win.
Of course, to Mark none of that mattered. He launched his latest side-project on February 4, 2004 after buying the domain thefacebook.com behind my back and logging into the houseSYSTEM Face Book for weeks on end.
In the summer of 2004, I decided that instead of writing an economics thesis of questionable value, I would graduate early and write a book capturing my views on education instead. As I wrote, Mark's site grew in popularity at a fantastic pace, and it began replicating all of the "too useful" features I had created months earlier, one by one. I decided to make my story culminate with the creation and unintentional transfer of this powerful idea, demonstrating what I viewed as the catastrophic sum of compounded errors in the educational system: society had picked the wrong guy to be its wizard. As I saw it then, we were on the yellow brick road to nowhere.
In the six years since that I have had to reflect on what happened, I've reached the conclusion that I was more right than I knew about the foreboding significance of Mark's early transgressions with Facemash. Messages previously under seal that have now come to light indicate that Mark was, even after being disciplined by Harvard, totally remorseless. According to lawyers who know more than I do about the intricacies of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 (18 U.S.C. 1030), he broke the law by breaking into multiple Crimson reporters' e-mail accounts, even when the same newspaper was doing so much to help his career along. He appropriated for himself the intellectual property that he had been hired to create for ConnectU. And, most important to me personally, he grossly abused my trust--another way of saying that the world's authority on friends didn't know what the word actually meant when he started using it.
Combined, these facts amount to a preponderance of evidence that something is wrong with Mark Zuckerberg, or if not Mark Zuckerberg himself, then at least the set of assumptions he uses in making decisions. By strategically granting access to only specific reporters for specific interviews, his company's public relations department has painted a very nice picture of a person who has grown and changed, and at this point thousands of employees, investors, customers and partners--including major media outlets who rely on Facebook for advertising--depend on that image. Yet the fact remains that many years post-Harvard, he has utterly failed time (the news feed) and again (the now-defunct Beacon, the open API, confusing default settings, etc.) to appreciate the dangerous significance of his extremist ideas concerning personal privacy. He has also failed to demonstrate any kind of regret for the actions that almost ruined my career, which makes me think that not very much has changed at all, even if many disagree.
In discussions with programmers around Silicon Valley, it has become apparent that many find it easy to forgive Mark for his past, even if they disagree with Facebook's policies today. The argument usually goes something like "I did stuff like that in college, too," or "he was only twenty-something years old; give him a break," or "most college students are immature," or "maybe you're just too much of a stickler for the rules." These rationalizations should have no place in our society. Mark had already been disciplined by the Administrative Board when we had dinner, so whether or not he was once an immature college student, by that point he clearly knew better. Furthermore, at roughly the same age (one year older), I ran the same core product at the same time in the same place with the same name with the same people's personal information, and I managed not to ridicule and abuse my users, even as I was being attacked from every angle as though I already had. One of those people who provided personal information to me was Mark. I still have his password hash sitting in a database, as well as his cell phone number, but I do not plan to share them with anyone, nor have I ever. Suffice it to say that Mark's illicit behavior was not a foregone conclusion simply because he was young.
Today, whether or not it actually makes sense, Mark is a paper billionaire. For that reason, thousands of articles have been written about his story, as the media attempts to explain what makes Mark different from the rest of us (or as is more often the case, simply fawns over his wealth). The answer is actually quite simple, but sadly, unfit for print--and it would certainly never emanate from Facebook's official blog. Brushing aside such abstract residuals as timing and luck that apply to all of us in life to some degree, Mark is different because he is willing to take that horrific gamble that very few of us can, even though all of us could: the gamble for money over friendship. He can betray a friend and not care, because as it turns out, personal relationships are actually worth a lot in dollar terms. Neither of us had any idea how much the other's support was worth in 2004, but in retrospect, maintaining even a weak friendship with me would have cost Mark a few billion dollars in future paper earnings. After all, I would have demanded the one thing that Mark has proven reluctant to share: credit.
In a few weeks, Mark will take his place in that pantheon of American culture, The Internet Movie Database, when he, or rather, his character, appears in The Social Network, the movie that pretends to capture his story. At that point, his legend will be complete. Yet none of what you have just read here will be featured in the film, or even mentioned, because I refused to co-operate with another Harvard graduate who long ago sold his soul (and more recently, his manuscript to Sony Pictures), Ben Mezrich. Mr. Mezrich's book, The Accidental Billionaires, is possibly best described as non-non-fiction, for though it cites my non-fiction book as a source, a staggering amount of his writing is simply invented out of thin air. (Much like ignoring friendship, ignoring fact can also be quite profitable.) Mr. Mezrich did manage to obtain the co-operation of Eduardo Saverin, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, and Divya Narendra, though the last three have been rather silent about that fact. Out of the five Harvard classmates who ultimately filed legal action against Mark in one form or another, I am the only programmer, and apparently the only one who did not sign away the right to discuss what happened, which in the spirit of openness is especially important to me.
In other words, despite not appearing anywhere in The Social Network, and despite not being called a co-founder of Facebook, Inc., the facts are what they are (and are publicly available for all to see). With the exception of social networking features that I intentionally left out to avoid a second privacy firestorm, and hoping to create a far more productive tool than what eventually emerged, I created The Facebook. Mark's version is an adaptation, and an immensely popular one that certainly defies any precedent I know of, but it is hardly the original, and hardly the best version for us all as a society. It is simply the best one for him.
It being the most obvious point of reference, Mark's legend has been crafted by the media, often at the behest of his own staff, in the image of the one legend I realized I could never fully emulate when Amber forced me to confront the issue at tennis camp. By overtly portraying Mark as a "genius" (a word one of the movie's trailers uses in all capital letters), and by replacing his awkward, stilted speech pattern with an unending stream of Aaron Sorkin's intellectual zingers, Mark's legend will benefit in a way that Bill Gates's never did. Accordingly, there is a substantial risk that audiences will emerge from the movie thinking quite highly of Mark precisely because of the same traits that people would loathe in any other situation. Facebook's doublespeak, redefining "friend" as "someone you barely know" and "utility" as "something that sucks up your free time" does not help matters. These linguistic gymnastics are non-trivial and should frighten us all given how significant they have become in the daily lives of many.
After all, we have, as the saying goes, seen this movie before. The longer the public--or more precisely, the impotent media--refuses to admit the true nature of one of these influential figures, the greater their legend grows, and the bigger the monster that is ultimately unleashed. It happened, and in some cases is still happening, with Larry Summers, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, and Marc Hauser. In those cases the number of people hurt was real, but small. Then Bernie Madoff came along, and the number was slightly larger, as was the damage.
Facebook, Inc. claims that 500 million people use its service. This is almost certainly overstated for a variety of reasons, but nonetheless the margin of error is probably relatively small in the grand scheme of things. Regardless of the actual number, at this point, were I magically given the responsibilities of the President of the United States (which I am thankful not to have in real life), the MySQL data cluster in Facebook's possession would be a national security issue. The last person I would let near it is Mark Zuckerberg, because the last thing I would want to do is endanger half a billion people.
I do not mean to imply that what Mark has done with my idea is unimpressive. On the contrary, it is hugely impressive to the point of being mind-boggling, in a similar way, I think, to what Stalin did for Russia in the mid-twentieth century was impressive. The problem is that I never asked Mark to do it, and he refuses to stop. The unilateral imposition of his arrogant, naïve and dangerous mantra of extreme "openness" on all of us--which he himself fails to live up to according to his own de facto historian, David Kirkpatrick, who notes in The Facebook Effect that "Today, Zuckerberg won't say much about houseSYSTEM"--is wrong, terribly risky, and distorting society for the worse.
It also would not have been possible without unprecedented levels of venture capital investment totaling three quarters of a billion dollars. It is likely that my settlement with Facebook, Inc. only arose due to the fact that my company's legal filings stood between it and another $200 million injection of capital from Russia. It's one thing, perhaps worthy of the term "genius," to build a billion-dollar enterprise with your bare hands based on an idea that originated from your own mind. What Mark has done is quite another.
Nonetheless, history will almost certainly repeat itself. It's more than likely that one day, Mark will donate computer science buildings to campuses across the country that bear his name. He will make agreeable speeches and vast contributions to good causes in order to excuse his trespasses, and he might even mellow out a bit in old age.
I'd like to think that there's still time for me to craft a legend of my own as someone who was able to build a useful, important and profitable company even despite major obstacles, but the truth is that the obstacles are real. Every time I try to build my business, I wonder if the person I'm speaking with believes an article like "Parasite: The Aaron Greenberg Story" (note: my last name is Greenspan) or Ben Mezrich's denigrating description of my work as "Aaron Grossman" (see previous note). There is such a thing as bad press, but being forced to pretend that you don't even exist, which is what The Social Network has forced me to do, is even worse.
If I fail, perhaps one day after seeing the movie, another thirteen-year-old will come along who independently realizes the folly of the Legend of Mark Zuckerberg--that behind the curtain of billions of dollars of SEC-special-exemption-granted Restricted Stock Units and glib one-liners, Mark stands not just a common man, but a representative of the worst of men, using the levers and dials at his disposal to selfishly manipulate others, even if it means their eventual destruction--and thus the cycle of change will be set in motion again.
What better to set that cycle moving than a motion picture?
Aaron Greenspan is President & CEO of Think Computer Corporation and the author of Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era. He is the creator of FaceCash, a mobile payment system.