Q&A: Kevin Feeney, who wrote the first profile of Facebook as a college freshman

Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moscovitz, co-founders of Facebook, in 2004. Photo: Justine Hunt/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

It’s a lucky journalist who is present at the embryonic stage of a company’s evolution—particularly if that company eventually takes over the world.

Such is the case for Kevin Feeney, Harvard class of ‘08. As a freshman, in 2005, he wrote a profile for the Harvard Crimson of a startup called TheFacebook, which had been founded by a Harvard students and was attracting attention—and money.

The story, titled “Business, Casual.,” is extraordinary. A year into TheFacebook’s existence, Feeney spent time with co-founders Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, and Dustin Moskovitz, among others. He wrote about the company’s growth—it had 1.5 million users—their dealings with venture capitalists, the Winklevoss lawsuit, and what lay ahead for the company.

“I am quite certain nothing this comprehensive or detailed had run anywhere prior to this,” says David Kirkpatrick, author of 2010’s The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World. At the time of the Crimson story, he said, Facebook was beginning to attract wider notice, but “it was still perceived as a niche product for college students and thus not that important.” (The New York Times, for example, wouldn’t mention Zuckerberg for another three months.)

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Kevin Feeney

After graduation, Feeney earned a Masters in City Planning from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and now works for a boutique real estate advisory firm in the Bay Area. As it happens, the social media behemoth is a major economic development force in San Francisco, which dovetails with his own work. “So,” Feeney says, “I’ve still not escaped Facebook entirely.”

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Amid Facebook’s Congressional hearings and the company’s assorted scandals, Feeney agreed to discuss his Crimson story for the first time. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

 

How did this story come about?

The idea came from Elizabeth Green, who has continued on as a journalist and founded a website called Chalkbeat, which covers education issues throughout the country. She was the editor of a weekly feature section for the Crimson. She was friends with Chris Hughes, the press secretary of Facebook. He was able to broker an interview with Zuckerberg in California. I’m from California, so it wasn’t like anyone had to pay to fly me out there. I just conducted the interviews over my winter break.

 

Were you interested in Facebook or was it just an assignment?

Everyone on the Harvard campus had already signed up for Facebook. I mean, I knew some of the story, but as a freshman I didn’t really have as much of a backstory. As soon as I got down to writing and interviewing people, it captivated me.

When I went out there, Zuckerberg had already made the decision to drop out of school along with several others. But social media, at that point, was still kind of emerging. It wasn’t really clear what it was gonna end up being, and so the question I was trying to answer was, Is he really done with school for good? How big does he think this is gonna get? What’s his exit strategy?

 

Did you have a sense that Facebook would be a big deal?

The point of reference for me was Friendster, and I visited their offices. Friendster, at that time, had 30 million users. Facebook had 1.5 million. That was the benchmark that I used, and my expectations were that Facebook could end up being something close to Friendster. And now no one even remembers what that is.

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You did a lot of reporting for this story. Had you done any journalism?

I did have a writing background. When I was in high school in San Francisco, I attended 826 Valencia, a writing program here founded by Dave Eggers. I went into college with the intention of doing more writing, and I ended up founding the Boston chapter of 826 while I was there.

During high school, I founded a literary magazine. No one really understood that I was 15 years old, and I got submissions from all over the world, and distributed the magazine to local bookstores here.

 

You seemed to talk to everyone.

I was interviewing Zuckerberg right when all these decisions were about to take place, and pieces were moving. I also interviewed the Winklevoss twins and others at Harvard who were still trying to make sense of their relationship to Zuckerberg and where [TheFacebook] could be going next. And that included, for example, Eduardo Saverin, Chris Hughes, and some of the early players. It was an exciting time, and it just kind of snowballed from there.

 

Did anyone decline to talk?

No one comes to mind. I guess the only missing player, at that point, was Sean Parker. I didn’t really grasp how deeply involved he was, so I never made the attempt to reach out to him. And Peter Thiel, who was also mentioned in the article—again, mainly because I didn’t understand how critical he was going to be, so I didn’t reach out.

 

It helps, I think, that you were writing for a college paper. People like to help young, burgeoning journalists.

Oh, sure. On top of that, there’s less of a threat, and I think it comes across in Zuckerberg’s responses. He saw [the profile] as a vehicle that communicated what his brand and his company was about to his primary user base, without a lot of risk involved.

 

Was there any hesitation among Zuckerberg or the rest to be profiled?

There was no hesitation. I don’t know if Zuckerberg grasped how involved of an article it would be. I mean, he certainly was willing to open up. I visited his house to do the interview, [and] a photographer came a separate day. So I think he got a sense of what he was up against.

I think it just speaks to the fact that a lot of those responses from Zuckerberg and others were actually pretty honest, but no one at that time was thinking that the end game was an IPO and a multi-billion dollar valuation.

 

How much time did you spend with Zuckerberg and the rest?

I was only at Zuckerberg’s place an hour and a half, [maybe] two hours. And then everyone else was just a standard hour, hour and a half long interview. It was probably 10 or 15 interviews altogether.

 

That they had a million and a half users seems almost quaint. That’s, like, a rounding error now.

I mean, it’s still a big number for a couple college kids, when you think about it. They did have very few employees at that point, and half the staff were still in school or doing this part-time while they were finishing with classes. So it’s kind of funny for those early users to think about all the privacy debates that are happening now. We were handing all of our personal information over to a couple of college dropouts with no furniture in their house.

Different stakes, of course, but it took a level of trust from the early users, too, to put their information up on a site that was so scrappy at that point.

 

Zuckerberg is delightfully quotable. His line “I need servers just as much as I need food” comes to mind. Without reading into it too much, it speaks to somebody who’s very ambitious.

Absolutely. For a project like that, you always have to be dedicated to it. And that comes across where, for him, that line between work and play just doesn’t even exist. I wrote about how, during his skiing trip to Vail, he gets a call from server storage company and there’s a problem. The website’s down and he has to rush down the slope and start coding from the ski chalet.

That’s dedication.

 

The website’s down and [Zuckerberg] has to rush down the slope and start coding from the ski chalet. That’s dedication.

 

I suppose you know your story gets cited every now and then. Is it weird to see something you wrote in college not only to be resonant, but, well, historically important?

I’m kind of peripherally aware that it’s been quoted in other places. But it’s funny, every couple of years, to have someone reach out about this article I wrote in college. Most of the time I’m busy with other stuff and I don’t actually get to connect with others. At one point it was a French documentarian who wanted to interview me about my experience there, which I never followed up on. But it has become sort of part of a historical record of that company.

Probably where it hit home the most was watching The Social Network, because so much of that origin history comes out of that period. And it’s interesting to compare my impressions versus how it was characterized in the movie.

 

Did it track with your impressions?

Well, it’s a movie, so of course it’s overblown in some places. But the movie made me think about the relationship between Zuckerberg and Saverin. It really was the crux of the movie for much of it. And it [the dilution of Saverin’s stake in Facebook] was certainly going on while I was doing those interviews, although I didn’t realize it at the time.

It just raises questions of how strong that conflict was when I was doing those interviews, and how good were the subjects at bluffing that there wasn’t some serious interpersonal conflict happening.

 

Do you remember conflict or was it something that, if they had any, they kept it hidden?

I mean, in hindsight maybe there was some suggestion. But there were no blunt interpersonal complaints. And why would you share that, anyway? No one spilled their guts in that sort of way.

 

How would you characterize your reporting style? Were you aggressive, or did you just nudge people?

I came at it from that perspective I mentioned earlier, about What are the next steps? It was easy to get people talking in that direction because, at that time, that’s what was on their minds. Despite this legend that Zuckerberg has become, he was just a college student who had made a pretty rash decision to drop out of school and you could’ve seen that going badly for a lot of other people. So I’m sure he was thinking about it and questioning it, even as he pressed forward. And I’m sure some of the other members of the team were thinking the same thing. I’m sure there was the question of, Am I making the right decision by staying?

Because the questions I was asking were aligned with what people were thinking, it was easy to get the conversation going.

 

How was the story greeted by your editor?

Oh, it went well. I owe a lot to Elizabeth Green. We spent two weekends reworking it and reshaping it because there was so much material. We cut it down the size, and she helped a lot in that regard. Just making sure that we captured the broader story and put all these players in their proper place. I had so much material from all these interviews that, although obviously Zuckerberg was the protagonist, it was a question of how these other people fit in, how much time to give their stories, including the Winklevoss twins.

 

The Winklevosses are really only mentioned in passing.

I saw the Winklevoss twins and their lawsuit as a potential, looming challenge. But they weren’t core to the future of the company or to the people who were deciding where it was headed. A lawsuit could prove otherwise, but at that point this was really a story about that start-up and all the different people involved, so the legal dispute was really left for another article.

 

You have a story about Zuckerberg meeting a businessman for dinner who gives him an Infiniti FX35. And then you write, “If TheFacebook’s registry passes 3 million users by the end of March, Zuckerberg and his team get to drive the man’s Ferrari for a week, according to a bet between them, Zuckerberg says.” Who was that guy?

I have no idea. My guess would be Peter Thiel.

 

It wasn’t somebody you had interviewed.

No, this was an anecdote that Zuckerberg passed on.

 

Looking back on it, what’s it like seeing the subject of your old story dominate the planet?

Well, the excitement kind of wore off after the first billion dollars in valuation. At a certain point, Facebook’s growth or fame stops surprising or influencing me in many ways. Certainly, by the time I was a senior in college, it was clear that Facebook was there to stay. At that point, it was kind of funny to think that I was tangentially involved in those early beginnings.

 

Did you save your tapes, your notes? Or was that property of the Crimson?

That’s a funny question, but they would be mine, and I have no idea where they are. I probably taped them over for thesis interview questions, or practicing for a Spanish exam or something like that. At the time, they weren’t consequential to me.

 

It doesn’t seem like you wrote much for the Crimson after this. Why did you stop writing? You were good at it.

Well, I kept writing fiction for a while after that, I did have a few more stories for the Crimson. And then I just got busy with classes and other stuff, and it just fell by the wayside.

Life takes over, I guess.

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Elon Green is a writer in Port Washington, New York. He's an editor at Longform. Find him on Twitter @ElonGreen.