Who Invented Facebook?

Credit to Rolling Stone's reporting on the Facebook genesis saga

A Credit to Rolling Stone for its unauthorized history of the popular social-networking site Facebook.

The driving question: Whose idea was it anyway? We don’t quite get an answer, but we do get a good story.

You may have heard about the lawsuit against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg by three of his former Harvard classmates who accuse the 24-year-old billionaire of stealing their ideas. A fourth student filed a petition with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, claiming he created an online facebook first.

Many reporters have followed these cases, but Rolling Stone’s Claire Hoffman distinguishes herself by looking deep into court documents and putting together a detailed and dramatic narrative. Equally important, Hoffman gives us insight into the process of invention, especially in the tech area. Instead of the old light-bulb-over-the-head model, she finds a smart, obsessively motivated person developing an idea that isn’t entirely his own.

In this case, Zuckerberg readily acknowledges that he wasn’t the first to come up with the idea for an online facebook:

The idea of a social-networking site, [Zuckerberg] told the Crimson, was in the air at Harvard. ‘There aren’t very many new ideas floating around,’ he said. ‘The facebook isn’t even a very novel idea. It’s taken from all these others….’

Zuckerberg has a good point: There isn’t all that much new under the sun. And, also in his favor, he did manage to take the facebook idea the furthest. That said, you probably won’t like Zuckerberg much by the end of the piece.

But Zuckerberg had no interest in giving [an adviser and fellow Harvard classmate Aaron] Greenspan any credit for creating Facebook, let alone a piece of the action. In December of 2004, when Greenspan decided to ‘admit defeat’ and ask Zuckerberg for a job at the rapidly expanding company, all those months of advice proved worthless. ‘We’re looking for someone with more engineering experience—like, 10 to 15 years,’ Zuckerberg told him. The guy who first created an online facebook for Harvard couldn’t even get a job at Facebook.

The problem with a collective invention process is that credit becomes hard to assign—especially with tempting piles of cash at stake.

And there’s a further complication. Given the gaps that exist between morality and legality, the article has two tangles to sort out: One, who actually came up with the idea for the site, and two, whose input the courts should acknowledge—which is to say remunerate.

In the end, it’s difficult to assess whether Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook constitutes a crime. Sometimes, great ideas seem to be everywhere at once. Newton and Leibniz independently developed the fundamentals of calculus, creating controversy at the turn of the 18th century; Darwin and Wallace rolled out the theory of evolution in separate papers in 1858.

In October 2003, when Mark Zuckerberg sat down in his dorm at Harvard, drunk and alone, the idea of using the Web to connect people seemed as pervasive as iPods on the campus quad. The school already had an online database known as the facebook. All Zuckerberg did was make it interactive. The fact that a couple of other students had the same idea at the same moment doesn’t mean he is a thief. And the fact that many consider Zuckerberg a grade-A asshole doesn’t mean he did anything illegal. ‘There are lots of things that an average person might consider reprehensible that aren’t against the law,’ says James Boyle, who co-founded the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School. ‘I’d warn against assuming that the “Ew, what a slimeball” reflex be equated with what is illegal.’

Boyle’s argument is all the more reason we need articles like this one. Courts are not necessarily going to tell us who is right—at least not as many people would construe the word. So establishing a historical record distinct from the legal record is important, even if that historical record offers no easy conclusions.

Other reporters have dipped their toes into this issue—notably The New Yorker in May 2006 and The New York Times in August and September.

But none have examined it so thoroughly, and so engagingly, as Rolling Stone.

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Elinore Longobardi is a Fellow and staff writer of The Audit, the business-press section of Columbia Journalism Review.