June 23, 2010

Author: Zuckerberg has "Total Control" over Facebook

This morning at the Churchill Club in Mountain View, David Kirkpatrick, author of the Facebook Effect, which chronicles the ascension of the world's largest social network, based on significant access to the company's youthful, and often controversial, CEO, spoke with All Things Digital's Kara Swisher about the book, and his thoughts on the company. Kirkpatrick, who did not wear a hoodie, and did not break out in a sweat despite focused questioning from Swisher, said Facebook, despite its rapid growth, was focused on maintaining its company culture, and he hypothesized they might even look to delay going public to avoid "big company syndrome." Meanwhile, he said Zuckerberg doesn't "have to ask permission for anything", giving him "total control."

At times, Kirkpatrick seemed in deep awe of Zuckerberg and Facebook's mission, vigorously defending the company's march to create a platform based on genuine identity. He argued that most Facebook users "didn't care" about the network's privacy stumbles, and called for companies to integrate Facebook functionality in their own Web sites - even as he admitted that for his own account, he locks down his profile as much as possible, and even railed that others can tag photos of you without your initial approval, saying he was "offended" it could be distributed to friends without his go-ahead.

His infatuation with Zuckerberg began when he was a writer for Fortune, and reached a full-time obsession in fall of 2008 when he left the magazine to write the book. He now speaks of being immersed in the world of Facebook.

"From the very first lunch I had with him, I had a sense, it was a very different phenomenon," Kirkpatrick said of Zuckerberg. "Meeting him and seeing the way he talked about this thing like a lifetime project about changing the world struck me rather strongly."

Kirkpatrick sees Facebook as having succeeded through being a blank slate for its members, not limited to specific niches, and through being nimble, constantly making moves to stay ahead of competition, and often making strategic redirections that run contrary to the wishes of its own members. For this, unsurprisingly, he again credits Zuckerberg, and his ability to attract and almost cult-like acceptance of his message.

"It's still an aggressive, entrepreneurial, young, excited, committed culture," he said of Facebook. "Mark is a person of substantial vision, and for one way or another, he has succeeded in indoctrinating a very large number of people to feel the same way about the mission Facebook is on. Vexingly, it's not about the same things that most businesses are about."

If this line of being dissimilar to traditional businesses and being measured in a new light sounds familiar, it is because it should. It's not too dissimilar to that echoed by Google in the run-up to their IPO in 2004, and their messaging subsequently. But Kirkpatrick said the move to go public changed Google a lot, and he believes if Zuckerberg had his way, Facebook would never enter the public markets, despite the fact the company respects Google a great deal and has hired many people from Mountain View to join their team of more than 1,400. Strategic moves such as stopping the issue of stock options to new employees, in exchange for Restricted Stock Units (RSUs) and the sale of hundreds of millions of Facebook stock to Russia-based DST, have kept the number of primary stockholders low, and delayed what many think is the inevitable.

All this work to remain private, and to remain a tight culture, is yes, about control, Kirkpatrick made clear. He criticized those who would try and question Zuckerberg's methods and motives for starting Facebook, including whether or not he may have famously stolen ideas from the Winkelvoss Brothers in his time at Harvard.

"In the United States, we have a hubristic desire to bring down the powerful, and Mark is the biggest target," Kirkpatrick said. "There is a rabid culture of gotcha journalism and blogging and punditry, particularly in tech. The bigger Facebook got, the more people wanted to think he stole the idea. I don't think it's entirely unjustified, but far more has been made of it than necessary."

Without setting himself up as a pundit, given his "poking" of the general tech press, Kirkpatrick did slam Facebook's handling of the privacy crisis and other changes, calling the communications "egregiously abysmal". But he said Facebook would be wrong to listen to its users, as it would have been bullied into rolling back core functionality, including some of its most popular features. He said, instead, that Facebook knows best, that it is both people-centric and data centric, and that the data is continuously studied. He predicted Zuckerberg plans to lead the company for the next decade, and that it will hit a billion users by the end of 2011 - an incredible number, with Mark in control.