Access As Distortion Field

Facebook author spins for the company in the Washington Post

Fortune’s David Kirkpatrick, author of a new book on Facebook, an excerpt of which I criticized a while back for its CEO-hero worship, takes to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post to smash five negative “myths” about Facebook while encouraging new positive ones.

Facebook’s flacks couldn’t have dreamed up better press—especially in the midst of a negative barrage from a new Aaron Sorkin movie and from the company’s own disastrous anti-privacy moves earlier this year.

Kirkpatrick, who got liberal access for his book, spins it for Facebook in each of his myth debunkers, including the ones about how Facebook consistently violates and encroaches on its users’ privacy.

The company’s critics presume that these changes reflect a profit motive — they note that exposing users’ data makes it easier for advertisers to target them. While it may, my many interviews with Zuckerberg suggest a different agenda. For one thing, he doesn’t seem to see ad revenue as an end in itself; he sees it as a way to pay the bills as he expands his service. (If his primary motivation were short-term financial success, he might have accepted Microsoft’s 2007 offer, which would have paid him, at age 23, more than $4 billion for his share of the company. He didn’t even consider it.)

Zuckerberg seems to see himself less as an entrepreneur than as a social revolutionary who is using his company as a lever to change the world. “Making the world more open and connected” is the company’s motto; for Zuckerberg, it is a mantra. He believes that Facebook offers people worldwide a broadcast platform, and he hopes they will use it to become more effective citizens.

Oh come on. Facebook’s flacks would be red-faced if they tossed off something like that. Talk about a myth. Kirkpatrick is creating them here.

This selfless young do-gooder out to change the world for the better is the same dude who wrote this to a pal when he was starting up his company:

ZUCK: yea so if you ever need info about anyone at harvard

ZUCK: just ask

ZUCK: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns

FRIEND: what!? how’d you manage that one?

ZUCK: people just submitted it

ZUCK: i don’t know why

ZUCK: they “trust me”

ZUCK: dumb fucks

And Silicon Alley Insider, which broke that story (which was recently confirmed by The New Yorker) also reported that Zuckerberg egregiously (and illegally) abused his users in the early days to hack into journalists’ email accounts.

Kirkpatrick even flacks for Facebook by denying that its users “are up in arms” about its privacy violations. He notes that user counts continue to grow, but doesn’t acknowledge the network effect has Facebook users right where the company wants them: over a barrel.

I haven’t read Kirkpatrick’s book and don’t plan to, but reviewers have criticized the book for veering toward hero worship. I have read the Fortune excerpt and now this WaPo op-ed and so Michael Arrington’s verdict sounds about right to me:

But if you’re looking for an objective and true history of Facebook, this isn’t it. Kirkpatrick really, really loves Facebook. So much so that I’m not sure he’s even close to capable of being objective about the company. He’s Bella staring at Edward, the vampire, with those puppy dog eyes full of deep, meaningful, painful adoration. Edward/Facebook is awesomeness in a bottle.

The result is a book that not only celebrates Facebook’s truly amazing accomplishments, but it’s also a book that makes excuses for, or denies, Facebook’s stumbles along the way. And that’s fine. But it isn’t really the truth. And what we need, eventually, is a book that tells the absolute, brutal truth about Facebook.

Facebook isn’t just a social network or a potentially huge business, says Kirkpatrick. It might also bring world peace. In the prologue he ponders: “Could [Facebook] become a factor in helping bring together a world filled with political and religious strife and in the midst of environmental and economic breakdown?” he adds later: “[Facebook] is altering the character of political activism, and in some countries it is starting to affect the process of democracy itself.”

The unprecedented access Zuckerberg and Facebook granted for this book was an opportunity but a problem, too. Read Audit Chief Dean Starkman on that.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.