Mark Zuckerberg may be Facebook friends with the guys whose company he just bought for $19 billion. But by all indications, Jan Koum, WhatsApp’s CEO and Facebook’s newest board member, just doesn't like Facebook very much.
Koum’s Facebook profile is sparse by comparison with most, with airtight privacy settings that keep strangers from viewing his friends, his photos and his interests. His Facebook profile picture is as blank as they come: It’s a plain, white square.
When asked in a 2012 interview with The Recapp to name his favorite apps other than WhatsApp, Koum listed just three: “On my iPhone 3GS, I use Instagram, Twitter and Touch,” he said.
Facebook, the company that just made Koum a billionaire several times over, is notably absent from that list.
The portrait of Koum that emerges from his interviews and social media posts over the past several years is that of a company founder who jealously guards his privacy and staunchly rejects both data collection and mobile advertising -- values that clash with the core principles on which Facebook is built.
WhatsApp was created around the premise that it should collect as little information about the people using its service as possible. This commitment grew out of Koum’s personal experience with intrusive government surveillance during his childhood in the Ukraine, where he saw friends and dissidents punished for private speech. Though Facebook is certainly no totalitarian regime, the company does track each message that passes through its servers. Koum emphasized how different this model is from WhatsApp's in an interview with Wired just before the acquisition.
“I grew up in a society where everything you did was eavesdropped on, recorded, snitched on," Koum said. "People need to differentiate us from companies like Yahoo! and Facebook that collect your data and have it sitting on their servers. We want to know as little about our users as possible. We don't know your name, your gender… We designed our system to be as anonymous as possible."
Koum has stressed in previous interviews that he seeks to keep his personal life and his business affairs private, while Facebook prefers to have us make our lives an open book. Koum’s Facebook profile could almost pass for a spam account, though it’s the only “Jan Koum” who is friends with WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, and the account is an administrator of the WhatsApp Facebook group. Koum did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Koum has also been an outspoken critic of online advertising, arguing that it intrudes on what he considers the intimate space of a smartphone and is quickly forgotten. Facebook, of course, draws most of its revenue from brands that pay to reach its more than 1 billion members.
“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need,” Koum tweeted in 2011, quoting a line from the movie Fight Club.
Koum and Acton have said publicly that they oppose data tracking, another favorite practice of Facebook that undergirds its core business.
"Everything is tied to our rejection of advertising," Koum told El Pais in 2012. “We worked for a long time at Yahoo! and when we left we decided to create something that would have nothing to do with this model where the user is the product -- something that would be a more conscious, private experience."
The difference between the values of Koum and those of Facebook is hardly bad news for the company. If anything, it may be to Facebook’s advantage -- and its members’ -- to have a strong advocate for privacy and anonymity in the upper echelons of the social network. And the timing is especially fortuitous for Facebook, which faces growing competition from apps like Snapchat that lets users, and their messages, disappear.
Whether Koum's principles will be made to disappear within Facebook, however, is another matter entirely.