The Face of Facebook

Written by David Kushner, Rolling Stone

Friday April 7th, 2006

Meet the boy wonder behind, the hottest Web site the Internet.

It’s an unseasonably warm afternoon in Palo Alto, California, as Silicon Valley’s hottest whiz kid hurries down the street. Mark Zuckerberg, slight and bushy-haired, strides quickly past the tree-lined shops and cafes. He’s late for a meeting with the venture capitalist who just gave him $12.7 million. And after another all-nighter plotting world domination, fending off investors and wooing execs from dot-com rivals, this Harvard dropout is feeling the heat. “Being a CEO at twenty-one is not normal,” he says wearily.

Zuckerberg is the face of Facebook, the most popular and controversial site to hit college campuses since Napster. What makes the site — with its candid photos, booty shots and cheeky profiles — unique from networks like Friendster and MySpace is that it’s exclusively for academia. Which is precisely how students like it, thanks. And with a whopping 7 million members from more than 2,100 universities and 22,000 high schools, Facebook is now the seventh-most-trafficked site on the Net, valued at over $1 billion. While other online communities are rife with poseurs, Facebook members use their “.edu” e-mail addresses; as a result, there’s inherent social pressure to be real.

Ostensibly, this gives the site academic potential, and plenty of people are using it for stuff like Chaucer study groups and car pools to ichthyology lab. But these are the children of the Real World nation, and Facebook is their chance to let it all hang out: cell-phone numbers, spring-break plans, topless photos. Surfing the site can feel like wandering through a giant dorm where every door is open and every kid is swilling Jack Daniel’s.

As Zuckerberg and his legions are discovering, though, openness has a price. With students posting their skin shots and class schedules, Facebook has been called a stalkers’ handbook. Employers are using the site to weed out applicants based on their profiles. Blogs have been buzzing about celebs and their spawn supposedly shown in flagrante: the son of NBC’s Tim Russert and a bevy of scantily clad beauties in a hot tub; Tony Danza’s daughter ripping bong hits; Lindsay Lohan acting naughty with her girlfriends. Twenty years from now, presidential candidates will have to answer to Facebook.

Zuckerberg grew up in tony Dobbs Ferry, New York, a gifted prodigy with a knack for computers. After creating a custom MP3 player for a school project, he was courted by Musicmatch and Microsoft but brashly turned down a $950,000 offer in order to go to Harvard. Once there, frustrated by the school’s delay in getting a campus-wide student directory online, he hacked together his own solution and launched in February 2004. Within weeks, the site exploded — but not without a few setbacks. A trio of Harvard classmates soon claimed he stole the idea and are suing Zuckerberg. Though he maintains his innocence and is countersuing for defamation of character, Zuckerberg figures if Harvard’s other beleaguered dropout Bill Gates is any indication, it’s par for the course. “This won’t be the last time I get sued,” he says coldly.

It’s 10 p.m., midday at Facebook HQ, the dormlike office that houses the company’s nearly 100 employees. Tonight the team is getting ready to launch the Pulse, which enables students to get weird stats on their school, such as the fact that sixty percent of Berkeley students prefer The Simpsons to Arrested Development. It’s the stuff of a direct-marketer’s dream, and another reason why this hub for the eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old demographic has been valued by industry insiders at more than $1 billion. Zuckerberg insists, however, “We’re not doing this to cash in. We’re doing this to build something cool.”

Cool, as he’s learning, is often controversial. Even though students can restrict access to their pages, some neglect to do so and are paying a price. North Carolina State and Northern Kentucky University have disciplined underage students shown drinking on their Facebook pages. In January, Michael Guinn, a student at John Brown University in Siloam Spring, Arkansas, was expelled when authorities at his Christian college discovered through his page that he is gay. And sometimes where there’s smoke, there’s fire: In January, Matthew Cloyd, a student at Alabama-Birmingham, posted, “It is time to reconvene the season of evil!” on his friend’s page. He was arrested in March, along with two other students, for setting fire to nine Alabama churches.

But it’s not just bad behavior that’s raising red flags. Cameron Walker, the twenty-year-old student-body president of Fisher College in Boston, and another student were expelled after starting a Facebook group to rally against an unpopular campus cop. First Amendment or not, John McLaughlin, Fisher College spokesman, says Walker’s conspiratorial language violated the campus code of conduct. “As a private institution, we have the ability to decide what discipline is appropriate,” he says. Sarah Wunsch, an attorney with the ACLU, is concerned that the reactionary uproar over Facebook is just that. “Colleges are supposed to be places where students can engage in heated debate,” she says.

Zuckerberg is doing his best to endure the growing pains. “I was just a shy kid and computer dork,” he says. “Being a CEO is as far from being a student as you can get.” But he’s learning: There are two versions of business cards in Zuckerberg’s wallet. One has the title CEO, the other I’M CEO . . . BITCH. He’s phasing out the latter. “Now I can look someone in the eye and say, ‘I want you to give me a half-million dollars,'” he says. “I can feel myself changing.”