THE TRUTH ABOUT FACEBOOK
Worth $7.3 billion at 26, Facebook’s founder lives in a rented house and drives an old Honda. He’s created a global network of friendships, but has trouble keeping his own. Now a movie chronicles the rise of Mark Zuckerberg from university geek to ruthless empire builder.
Big Brother. This is the age of Big Buddy, in the unlikely form of Mark Zuckerberg, the nerdish, socially dysfunctional genius who ironically created the world’s favourite social networking website.
An astonishing 550 million people in more than 200 countries – including nine million in Australia – now befriend one another on Facebook, the site he created seven years ago in his messy Harvard dorm, surrounded by the piles of dirty clothes, food scraps and other artefacts of a teenager’s varsity life.
At 26, Zuckerberg has been declared the youngest selfmade billionaire in history. According to more than one magazine, this son of a dentist father and psychologist mother from a middle-class New York suburb is also the most influential figure on the planet, not least because much of the personal information Facebook’s users reveal is passed to advertisers, who use it to target them. Since every message placed on Facebook is stored on the company’s vast computer mainframes, Zuckerberg has also been placed in a position of unimaginable power – the kind of power, incidentally, of which totalitarian tyrants could only dream.
His astonishing ascent is documented in an acclaimed new film, The Social Network, which opens this month. The big question is, should we trust a young man who has declared the age of privacy to be over – and who appears to be on some turbo-charged mission to redefine the concept of human friendship – to use this power responsibly? Observing him, and talking to those who know him, he seems harmless enough. Indeed, his life is remarkable only because it is so boringly ordinary.
Despite being worth a staggering $7.3 billion, he has no interest in mansions, fast cars, parties and model girlfriends, and is said to be only truly at ease when gazing into a computer screen.
Zuckerberg lives in a rented, sparsely furnished fourbedroom house in a quiet cul-de-sac in the US computer industry capital of Palo Alto, California. He has been there for about a year and, though it is an ordinary, middle-class street, by sheer coincidence, one of the inventors of YouTube lives in an equally modest home next door. Zuckerberg recently placed a note on the windscreen of another neighbour’s battered, 35-yearold BMW, asking whether it was for sale. His offer was rejected, so he continues to drive an ageing Honda.
According to one woman on the street, he is an “illmannered dork”, for she claims that when her 83-yearold mother bade him good morning, he ignored her. But others say he is friendly enough, and Andrea Barlas, a marriage guidance counsellor who lives next door but one, said she was hoping to match him up with her 17-year-old daughter Alie. She was joking, but in any case Zuckerberg is spoken for. His long-term girlfriend from Harvard University days, Priscilla Chan, a Chinese-American student paediatrician, moved in with him this month. Inevitably, this event was marked with a folksy message to his Facebook friends (he lists 879 of them): “Now we have 2x everything, so if you need any household appliances, dishes, glasses etc, please come by and take them before we give them away.”
Meeting him in person is an altogether trickier prospect. If Zuckerberg had bothered to record our encounter earlier this month on his Facebook page, I suspect this is what he might have written: “Another sunny day in Silicon Valley – so I walked the few blocks to the office. On the way, I met this guy who said he