Comments: 625 • Responses: 61  • Date: 

giscuit421 karma

Do you think Facebook has become a damaging piece of social infrastructure in ways you didn't anticipate in its early years? What do you think will be its eventual undoing and when do you see that happening?

thinkcomp833 karma

I think Mark's Facebook has become damaging to a lot of people in a number of ways, some of which I actually did anticipate. Others, not so much.

  • I was initially quite afraid that without a cautious person at the helm, all kinds of privacy issues would quickly snowball and harm a lot of people. Mark took the opposite approach, encouraging students to post their sexual orientation and dating status right from the start. Arguably, this is a large part of what made the site interesting to other students, but it also of course presents a real potential for danger.
  • I was also afraid from the outset of what government actors might do with such a database, if anyone was able to compile it. This turned out to be a reasonable fear. Facebook is implicated in all kinds of government work now, from the NSA Prism scandal to DEA investigations to local law enforcement campaigns.
  • I didn't know that people would find Facebook so addictive, and it's not likely that Mark knew it would be either. The addiction aspect I find problematic because it causes people to waste huge amounts of time engaging in what is essentially a fake world, leading to depression and anxiety for many. This leads me to think that Facebook may actually be as dangerous as cigarettes in some ways; it's certainly been designed to addict users at this point, much as cigarettes were designed to deliver the maximum nicotine kick by tobacco companies.
  • There's a lot of fraud that takes place via Facebook, both in terms of advertising fraud and fake users trying to defraud other users. That's something that could have been avoided had Mark chosen to focus more on keeping the network safe rather than on growing it larger.

I don't know what Facebook's ultimate undoing will be, but I think the press had a large role in hyping it up with virtually no skepticism. I hope that the press does its job by starting to ask questions about the company's leadership, business practices, and especially its financials, which I find suspect. It's possible that Mark's raw ambition (to be President) will lead to the company's downfall to some extent, but it's too early to tell.

georgeflies22 karma

Sometime back I heard that you had come up with a new social network. What is it and how's it coming?

thinkcomp220 karma

In 2006 I tried to create a version 2.0 of houseSYSTEM called CommonRoom. It didn't work very well. There was just no way to compete with the media attention around Facebook, and my attempts to raise venture capital basically got me laughed out of the room because I wasn't Mark and claimed to be involved with Facebook. (Keep in mind, the settlement didn't happen until three years after that, and the Times article wasn't published until late 2007. No one believed me.)

Since then I've turned my attention to what I think are bigger problems: finance, law, and medicine.

Maybe one day I'll tackle communication again. But it's pretty expensive to get something off the ground.

georgeflies38 karma

I see. Thanks for the input. Do you know what the Winklewoss brothers do now or keep tabs on them?

thinkcomp73 karma

We've never met. I think they tried to get a Bitcoin ETF registered with the SEC, without much success. I haven't bothered keeping tabs on their other venture capital endeavors.

DOGECOlN17 karma

Since you said you are focusing on finance partly and you mentioned the Winkl twins and Bitcoin, does cryptocurrencies interest you at all? Are you looking at anything in that field? They are really hot right now.

thinkcomp14 karma

Cryptocurrencies interest me from an academic and financial regulatory perspective, but I've never been interested in investing in them, nor have I ever thought that I could just get rich off of Bitcoin (like a certain pair of twins whose last name starts with W).

In 2013, I provided written testimony to Congress on some of the issues surrounding Bitcoin and the money transmission framework in the United States. You can find it in the Congressional Record but somehow they scanned it really poorly so I'll have to post it on my personal site one of these days. A similar document is already up at http://www.thinkcomputer.com/20140214.cfpbcomment.pdf. Just be forewarned: if you're a huge Bitcoin fan, we might not agree on everything!

You can also read my thoughts at http://www.aarongreenspan.com/writing/20131201/fools-gold-20/.

FALLENV3GAS301 karma

How much do you hate him...?

thinkcomp1030 karma

I think hate is the wrong word. We reached a settlement (as the links above indicate) in 2009.

I do have serious concerns about Mark's recent claims that he wants to help promote democracy. I think his behavior indicates that he has no interest in democracy whatsoever. He runs Facebook effectively as a dictator (which I say based on his manipulation of the publicly traded stock share types, which permit him to retain control basically no matter what). Dictators tend to be incompatible with democracy.

IamBosco2274 karma

Where do you think the endpoint will be for the current facebook? BTW your utterly elegant answers to all questions are a joy to read!

thinkcomp237 karma

Thanks. As I think I said somewhere else on here, I'm not sure there is a specific endpoint or where Facebook will end up, but it could end up looking a lot like AOL or Yahoo!.

RulerOfSlides171 karma

What's your personal feelings on Zuckerberg running for President in 2020? Think it'll happen, think it's highly unlikely, I wanna know it all.

thinkcomp695 karma

I think Mark would be an extremely dangerous President. Aside from having referred to his users as "dumb fucks," he's also stated in writing, "You can be unethical and still be legal that's the way I live my life haha." That alone should be disqualifying for someone to be CEO of a publicly traded corporation, let alone President.

I worry that Mark's money might co-opt the Democratic Party and "convince" the old guard (Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, etc.) that there's really no better choice. But there are a lot of better choices out there. Sally Yates seems like she would be a fantastic candidate. Even Steven Colbert is more appealing if we have to pick someone famous. But I would much more prefer to see qualified candidates with real ideas as opposed to the usual smattering of wealthy celebrities. This obsession with celebrity is extremely dangerous, as recently pointed out by Frank Bruni. (See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/18/opinion/the-shameful-embrace-of-sean-spicer-at-the-emmys.html .)

RulerOfSlides158 karma

Hopefully I'm not overstaying my curiosity - are you worried about Facebook being used as a propaganda tool for his campaign, seeing as so many people already get their news from there?

thinkcomp343 karma

Extremely worried. It's a huge problem.

It's already a problem that average Jane politician already feels like she has to depend upon Facebook to wage an effective campaign; that means that Facebook already distorts the political process. But if one of its executives then decides to run for office, there's an obvious bias for which I'm not sure there's any legislative or regulatory fix.

spermaghetti123 karma

Do you have anything good to say about Mark Zuckerberg?

thinkcomp492 karma

Honestly, it's hard to think of much good to say about Mark, and especially right now. I think he played a vital role in bringing fascism, or perhaps "fascism lite," to the United States, and I don't think that's a coincidence.

For thirteen years I've warned people as much as possible--harming my own reputation in the process--that he's a danger to society. At first I was ridiculed and made fun of and called a lot of names for doing so. Now, it's looking a little bit more reasonable to others I think.

AxeOfWyndham32 karma

facebook is inherently structured in a way that is conducive to totalitarian pressure. I know the AMA is long over at this point, but I figured I'd mention how it puts everyone's eyes on everyone else and it encourages a lot of sycophantic behaviors. When I left, they still only had a like button.

Totalitarianism doesn't happen when there is some noisy lout at the helm, it happens when the community is turned against itself to enforce the rules for a cheap social incentive like a small step up the social ladder.

thinkcomp28 karma

Thanks for mentioning the Like button--I had meant to say something about that.

If you spend much time around Harvard Business School MBA students, you'll quickly notice that they have a tendency, on average, to only talk about good things in positive terms. This isn't entirely crazy in a sense: there have been scientific papers (which I haven't bothered to look up, but someone can) discussing how having a positive outlook increases life expectancy, improves one's life, etc. etc. etc. In my view, MBAs take this to an extreme and adamantly refuse to acknowledge any negative issues in life until they are absolutely forced to. It's a hugely destructive (and ironically negative) mindset that I think is really well described in Voltaire's Candide.

The Like button is the unholy stepchild of MBA culture and social networking: the intersection of Panglossian bullshit and modern technology. Nothing can be bad; everything is only potentially good. I actually have loved pressing buttons since I was a toddler because something always happened--there was a clear cause and effect. It's why I got into technology. What has more buttons than a computer keyboard? (Answer: space ships and airplanes, but I hate roller coasters, so those are out.) So I am a button fan. I am pro-button.

But what do you get when you press a Like button? NOTHING. It's just a meaningless and often false signal that plays into Facebook's advertising algorithms, further distorting a marketplace that maybe shouldn't be there in the first place.

In short, I'm not a fan of the Like button.

9104105107 karma

Do you think that there is any real "solution" to the social problems Facebook is causing, and if so, what is your solution?

thinkcomp457 karma

I think a lot of the problems Facebook is causing are the result of unchecked corporate power and greed generally. There are a lot of mechanisms that are supposed to prevent a Facebook-type company from existing: anti-trust laws; SEC disclosures; media scrutiny; cultural norms (such as expectations of honesty).

Anti-trust laws are a thing of the past. We're in an economic boom right now, and as with many past booms, there's been a surge of M&A activity. If you want that boom to continue, which many in government assuredly do, the last thing you want is to curb mergers. So the Sherman Anti-Trust Act goes out the window. This allows Facebook to do things like buy Instagram and WhatsApp, and it makes it harder for new startups to compete. After all, they might get bought by a Facebook competitor before they even have a chance, and technology companies are so big, what sensible undergraduate would want to take that risk anyway when they could just have a comfortably salary and life?

SEC disclosures don't really disclose anything half the time, and the SEC rarely prosecutes large corporations, let alone technology corporations. Even when it does, it can't bring criminal charges--that's the DOJ's job. You really have to be an Enron or a Worldcom before anything happens.

Speaking of which, what if Facebook actually is an Enron or a Worldcom given its fake accounts and non-functional advertising? We'd never know, because all the media has done for the past decade-plus is write puff pieces about how great the company and its founder is. Largely this is because of access journalism dynamics: if you want access to information, you have to be nice. The result is that voices like mine have been silenced. I was supposed to be interviewed on the 60 Minutes piece where Lesley Stahl fawned over Mark's ability to use a computer. Cancelled. I was supposed to be the focus of a GQ Magazine article. The reporter, Alex French, flew out to Palo Alto to interview me for a week. Cancelled; it turned into a profile on Mark's genius instead. I was supposed to be interviewed on Bloomberg TV; I drove to the Bloomberg studio in San Francisco, where they gave me a name badge and told me to leave. The interview was cancelled. As annoying as this was each time, when you think of the aggregate effect, it's that no one has said very much negative about Facebook in the mainstream media until awfully recently.

Lastly, we desperately need to wake up as a society and realize that some things are just not healthy, social media in its present form among them. In European societies, where the older generation has lived long enough to have experienced the KGB and its sister organizations (Stasi, Securitate, etc.) privacy is truly valued. Regulators take it seriously. In the United States, we don't.

Personally I think Facebook's financials deserve close examination, and I'm hoping that gets more attention soon. My sense is that the trust-your-friends-to-buy-stuff advertising model fundamentally does not work, and if I'm right, that means that much of Facebook's cash flow is simply fraudulent.

910410537 karma

So, there seems to be an innate difficulty in regulating a company that controls an ungodly percentage of people's lives. Is this something you agree or disagree with, and why?

thinkcomp128 karma

I don't know if I completely agree, since that's a pretty broad statement.

Anything can be regulated. The question is whether or not the regulation makes sense. Traffic lights are a form of regulation: they regulate the flow of traffic. If they worked by checking the sky above for clouds of a certain shape before turning green, then there would be tons of car accidents, and everyone would say "traffic lights are stupid and regulation is awful." Naturally, they work in a much more sensible way, and it's difficult to find anyone who thinks the roads should be completely free of traffic lights.

I find that I can live my life without Facebook, no problem. Google is a different story; I really do depend upon Google for search results.

A hypothetical regulation that required technology companies storing more than 100,000 personal profiles to be subject to random government audits of profile validity (not 100% accuracy, but does-this-person-even-exist validity) wouldn't be the worst idea in the world. This would focus on Know Your Customer (KYC) issues, as opposed to content issues. We already do things like this in the banking world because we know it matters there. Maybe it's time to start doing it for social networks, too.

910410521 karma

Okay, that's fair. Do you think that regulation is a realistic goal in the US?

thinkcomp108 karma

With this Congress and White House, no.

justmememe5596 karma

What question are you hoping someone will ask you, and what's the answer to it?

thinkcomp232 karma

Frankly, I'm hoping someone in the media will see this and do the first in-depth, magazine-length article ever on Facebook's founding (which, by definition, would have to include my side of the story) and the messed up media coverage that led us to this scary place.

To be clear, I'd prefer not to be known for this. But it's clearly an important set of facts to get out there at this juncture in our country's history.

this_is_the_war_room36 karma

Have you considered reaching out to The Intercept?

thinkcomp100 karma

I have a few times (not always on this issue). Crickets.

eggplantkiller19 karma

Facebook is the #1 referrer for many media outlets, so I can't imagine they'd compromise that to expose this story.

thinkcomp9 karma

Exactly. By running my viewpoint, I'm asking the media to commit suicide, as they see it.

I recently wrote an op-ed after getting in touch with The New York Times opinion editor in advance. They turned it down. So did Buzzfeed. Maybe it was a bad piece, but my guess is that there are just too many business and legal ramifications.

hamletthehound17 karma

I’m a journalist, DM me.

thinkcomp6 karma

Who do you write for?

iambrohan82 karma

What would be different about Facebook if you were running it?

thinkcomp301 karma

In late 2004 or early 2005 (it was a while ago), Mark and I got into a small fight over security. I was concerned that lists of friends were being exported by users on his server, and they were sitting on the server's hard drive as text files that could be accessible by anyone. Since some Harvard students had thousands of friends, and the lists contained cell phone numbers and birth dates, this seemed dangerous. I asked Mark to clean it up and he shrugged it off, arguing that because Dustin Moskowitz wrote the code it basically wasn't his problem. Of course, he was still calling himself CEO, and the site still said "A Mark Zuckerberg production" on every page. So--were I in charge, there would have been more of a focus on security and privacy from the beginning.

The Facebook I made started out closer to Harvard's Facebooks, which were more like a phone book with pictures. Relative to Harvard's, my version added privacy controls, AIM screennames (since AIM was popular at the time), color photos (wow!), a message board, and a favorite quote--the beginnings of a more detailed profile. I was concerned that the culture at the time was much more focused on privacy, so had I run the company or run it jointly with Mark, I would have advocated for quality over quantity (growth). Mark has exclusively focused on growth, but predictably, the quality of the content on the site has suffered tremendously, to the point where we are now worried about how Russia used it to influence the presidential election. That's a pretty serious quality problem.

I should also say: it would be much, much smaller and you probably never would have heard of it. But would that be such a bad thing?

Jossyboy581353 karma

What do you think of the Social Network?

thinkcomp207 karma

Well, I filed a lawsuit over it, so that should pretty much sum up my feelings...


Overall, the movie was entertaining, but not accurate.

making_mischief51 karma

What do you think Facebook will evolve into? Do you think it'll still be quite dominant for some time to come? Or wane in dominance the way Microsoft did when Apple came into its own?

thinkcomp167 karma

At this scale, Facebook has already evolved into essentially the internet itself. This is a huge problem in my view, because the internet was not designed to be managed by an oligopoly of large technology companies. A key advantage of a decentralized system such as ARPANET, conceived during the Cold War, was the ability to survive a nuclear strike, but alongside that benefit came the advantage of not having speech managed by any one person or organization.

Some of Facebook's corporate policies are reasonable, but some are clearly not. The issue is that when unreasonable policies are applied at such a large scale, especially with such a myopic, uncurious leader in charge, people are bound to get hurt. Speech is a powerful tool.

Facebook may very well end up going the way of AOL or Yahoo! (never forget the exclamation mark) one day. If our current stock market boom ever ends, or if there is more government regulation and/or oversight of its activity, its share price could fall significantly, placing pressure on the board of directors to make changes. Eventually, Mark may also want to be thought of in a more positive light the way that Bill Gates did just before he started the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and wind up spending all of his time on philanthropy. It wouldn't surprise me if in thirty years, Facebook ends up as a minor division of some other company as part of an acquisition deal.

making_mischief32 karma

the internet was not designed to be managed by an oligopoly of large technology companies.

How do you think this will affect the issue of net neutrality?

thinkcomp108 karma

The technology giants are generally in favor of net neutrality as far as I can tell. It's the telecoms and the FCC, now run by their former lobbyists, who are the real problem (e.g. Comcast, AT&T).

The United States generally has a big problem with poor to non-existent anti-trust enforcement right now, and the net neutrality "debate" (really, this is one of those issues where there actually isn't much debate because it's pretty black and white) is just one symptom of that problem.

anto019245 karma

I think that Facebook, has a serious problem. It's not an instrument to discuss about serious topics that require a lot of posts, but unexpectedly it has turned on into that. Some of these discussions don't go anywhere and at the end, users start to scream virtually to each other. I think that the platform should support a sort of "discussion mode" and discourage users to start a complex conversation in "normal mode". Another part of this problem is that users don't perceive the others as real person but only as avatars, allowing them to insult people more easily. What do you think about it?

Anyway "The Facebook" is a fantastic invention, thank you very much for your work on it and make it possible.

Thanks for your attention!

thinkcomp99 karma

This is a great point. Mark likes to talk about "building community," but when you look at on-line communities (not just Facebook), there are some obvious problems. People feel protected by their relative anonymity and/or remoteness and often behave in ways that they wouldn't in person. When this happens enough, you end up with negative feedback loops of trolling that are anything but the kind of supportive community that people want.

rimjeilly45 karma

What do you think is next for social media - or have we seen the pinnacle of what we know as 'social media' (fb, twitter etc)?

also, i despise fb and everything it stands for and says it stands for

thinkcomp181 karma

There has got to be a happy medium somewhere between 140 characters (Twitter), which turns professional adults into middle schoolers, and unlimited garbage (Facebook), which turns middle schoolers into zombies and the former director of the KGB into Republicans' favorite political figure.

There's not one "thing" that's next, but I think these next few months will be instrumental in worrying technology executives to the point where some significant changes will need to be made in the future. Watch what's happening to Uber as its initial organizational configuration completely falls apart. That's what is in store for the rest of the industry as these abuses continue to be uncovered.

Additional thought: part of what constitutes "social media" has nothing to do with technology. It's largely a change in cultural norms that has led us to put out in public what used to be sent in a physical letter, or over e-mail. Maybe those old norms weren't so bad after all and not every thought needs to be public all the time!

spasticseagul97840 karma

Do you think there will be any Facebook related repercussions for this AMA? Do you think this will bother Mark? Do you think he would silence you if he could?

thinkcomp117 karma

I very much doubt that Facebook will comment on this or that Mark will become aware of it. I also doubt they'll contact me, mostly because they know that I am perfectly free to state my opinion about a public figure, but also because I've spent time at Stanford Law School (as a CodeX Fellow) since we signed our agreement.

Facebook already has tried to silence me, successfully. See http://ttabvue.uspto.gov/ttabvue/ttabvue-91198355-OPP-39.pdf.

tegu530939 karma

What do you think of his "I'll give you all of he info on the Russia ads purchased during the election" without a peep about what he's doing with the money he pocketed from the sale of those ads?

thinkcomp163 karma

I think the $100,000 (or whatever number it will be tomorrow) is really besides the point. The questions I'd want to know were I a member of a Congressional committee are:

  • Two days after the election, on November 10, 2016, Mark stated, "I think the idea that fake news on Facebook--of which it's a very small amount of the content--influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea." When did Mark become aware of the fact that Facebook had directly sold advertising to Russian intelligence proxies? Was it before or after this statement? If after, how long after? What steps did he take to alert or avoid alerting authorities? Obviously, his story now is much different than it was previously.
  • How many other advertisements to non-Russian entities portrayed "fake news" during the election?
  • Which states did those advertisements run in? Who did they target? How much user engagement was there?
  • How much of Facebook's total advertising revenue was election related? Of that, how much is suspect?
  • Were shareholders misled by any of Facebook's SEC filings regarding its advertising business?
  • Given his history of abject lying, is Mark fit to run the company?

spasticseagul97838 karma

On what basis did you know Mark? Could you give a basic timeline of your interactions? I assume you are no longer in contact?

thinkcomp156 karma

See http://www.thinkpress.com/authoritas/timeline.pdf for a detailed timeline.

The last time I saw Mark was probably when we both lived in College Terrace in Palo Alto, a block away from each other. It was a bit awkward to say the least. I get the sense that he's afraid of me. I suppose that based on what I have to say, he should be.

mrscioscia32 karma

Did Mark seem to hang around with alot of Russian friends?

thinkcomp107 karma

Russians (in conjunction with Goldman Sachs) invested $200 million in Facebook in May, 2009--among them, Alisher Usmanov. See http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/27/technology/internet/27facebook.html and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alisher_Usmanov. This has been largely overlooked, or perhaps forgotten, by the media.

ooblaitstoast31 karma

I've never had Facebook and never will. I never knew about you and your "part" in Facebook! only about Zuckerberg. Doesn't it make you irritated that you could be where he is/have his net worth?

thinkcomp120 karma

I have a disabled brother whose care is extremely difficult generally and also expensive to maintain. My biggest regret is that by not having more money sooner, my family members and I have been negatively impacted by the toll his condition takes on us all.

That being said, I've been fortunate in many ways, and as I've stated elsewhere, I don't think anyone deserves super-massive wealth. Essentially, I think Mark's fortune is derived from cheating, and I've never been jealous of that despite what some have assumed.

coryrenton28 karma

What weird detail(s) from the Fincher movie were you surprised to see them go to needless lengths to be accurate?

thinkcomp107 karma

None. There was really not so much in the movie that was accurate aside from the fact that there were some twins involved in a lawsuit.

I actually ended up suing the author of the book the movie was based on in part because Sony Pictures was so reckless with the facts. The Sony hack revealed that they decided to pay Eduardo Saverin's girlfriend $1 million before she even got around to suing them because her character was so obviously defamatory and inaccurate.

coryrenton38 karma

Apparently Zuckerberg felt the same way but noticed they'd meticulously reconstructed the actual hoodies he owned. I was wondering if there were other trivial aspects that were creepily done.

thinkcomp81 karma

As I recall they actually filmed at Johns Hopkins, and made some efforts to reconstruct his desktop in the "hacking" scene based on his blog, but I never got the feeling like I was really re-living my memory. Obviously the fact that I was totally missing had something to do with that. But just generally everything was off, as though it had been filmed in some parallel universe where different people had the same names as people I knew.

coryrenton16 karma

are there any aspects you thought were not just inaccurate, but less cinematic or narratively interesting than what actually happened?

thinkcomp139 karma

The movie completely missed one of the main points of my book, which was the whole privacy debate at Harvard in the fall of 2003. I was falsely accused of stealing student passwords and nearly got kicked out of school for not doing anything wrong; Mark actually stole student passwords for his own profit and ended up a billionaire and generally respected person. A much different movie!

Prof_Boni25 karma

Are you one of the hot twins from the movie?

thinkcomp94 karma

Nope, sorry to disappoint! I was left out of the movie, even though the book it was based on cited the book that I wrote. (And the book it was based on initially called me by the wrong name repeatedly.)

Prof_Boni15 karma

Just kidding!

On a more serious note, what's the name of your book? Were you satisfied with the settlement? And what have you been up to since?

thinkcomp79 karma

My book is called Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era. You can find it on Amazon. It's a bit old now since I wrote it in 2007 and published it in 2008. At some point maybe there will be a second edition.

The settlement was helpful but unfortunately it didn't really accomplish the goal of restoring my reputation because of the movie that came out the following year, The Social Network.

Since then, I've worked on a number of software projects through my company, Think Computer Corporation.

orangejulius15 karma

what are some of the software projects you're most enthusiastic about right now?

thinkcomp42 karma

I'm interested in tags. I was granted a patent on some new ways of using them. I'm not a big believer in software patents, but at least this way it's incontrovertible that I came up with something and wrote it down on a certain date. It doesn't necessarily mean it's new (though in this case I'd argue that it largely is), and it doesn't mean it's necessarily a good idea. But it's out there for everyone to see.


this_is_the_war_room25 karma

Can you talk about the Facebook you created? How and why did you set out to create the application? What tech stack did you use back then? How did Zuckerberg get involved with your application and what led up to him making his own version?

thinkcomp107 karma

My Facebook was a response to the problem that in 2003, there was actually no electronic campus-wide student directory. Everything was split up by residential house (dorm), and so if you met someone you wanted to talk to who didn't live in your house, there wasn't any way to find their phone number or e-mail address. This seemed ridiculous to me.

I had a lot of ideas for features to build, but as I rolled out the project for students to use, there was a huge uproar about privacy. One student in particular started accusing me of stealing student passwords--something I had never done or even intended to do--because I made a web-based e-mail system that allowed students to check their Harvard e-mail using a web browser. Up until then, students could only use POP, IMAP, and pine through SSH. Harvard had a very Unix-focused culture thanks to its IT infrastructure at the time, which ran on now-obsolete Digital Alpha machines (and the occasional Sun Ray in the Science Center).

In response to the privacy crisis (see http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2003/8/8/student-site-stirs-controversy-a-sharp/), I decided to avoid or postpone building some of what I wanted to, such as the ability to see the students who were in a class you were taking. But I still built an enhanced version of Harvard's paper Facebook that applied to the whole school, and was integrated with the rest of my student portal. So, for example, you could set up a calendar event for the school and then other students could RSVP on-line to say they were coming. You could list textbooks that you had for sale, or find others to buy. And on the Facebook itself you could upload a color photo (Harvard's Facebooks were black and white), list your Harvard phone number, cell phone number, AIM screenname, concentration (major), favorite quote, and where you lived. I was also working on a photo album feature and a groups feature for organizations.

Doing all of that almost got me kicked out of school. The Harvard administration was extremely upset that I was encouraging students to share so much (by today's standards, barely any) information, and accused me of copyright infringement. This eventually led me to write a book describing the whole fiasco, which really illustrated how different the culture around privacy was at Harvard in 2003 versus what it turned into by late 2004.

I met Mark for dinner on January 8, 2004, three days before he registered thefacebook.com, because I'd read about him in The Crimson. There weren't a lot of tech-savvy business-minded students on campus, and I ran the entrepreneurship club at the time, so I wanted to get to know anyone who seemed interesting. I wanted Mark to help with my program, and he wanted me to help him with...something. He wouldn't say what, except for the fact that it would involve graph theory. Meanwhile, we agreed to keep in touch, and we did.

Mark ended up using my Facebook for inspiration for his own, and also as a sort of surveillance tool to figure out if I was working with the Winklevoss twins, who unbeknownst to me were working on their own dating site, which later became ConnectU. I had never heard of them, largely because they lived pretty far away. But their programmer, Victor Gao, was signed up for my site, houseSYSTEM.

Mark may have wanted to make his own Facebook because the administration was taking so long and the Crimson indirectly encouraged it. From my perspective, the problem arose when he became aware that I had beat him to it, and in how he handled our interactions after that point, which is to say, dishonestly.

this_is_the_war_room20 karma

Thanks for your answer!

What kind of long term or endgame plans did you have for your project? How long had houseSYSTEM been active, and how many users did it have before Mark launched his own version? Was there a battle for users or user conversions? How did that play out? Would you do anything differently?

thinkcomp60 karma

My thinking at the time was that I could sell the software either to Harvard (which didn't want it), or to other universities. Mark's insight, that he could just target the end users--meaning students--directly, let him spread to other schools right away. Of course, he didn't get paid by the schools; his model depended on advertising revenue.

I had definitely given this some thought, even going so far as to sign up two advertisers for houseSYSTEM: my family's promotional products business in Boston, and a local restaurant/pub in Cambridge that a lot of Harvard students went to. The problem was that I didn't think that advertising would actually make all that much money unless I violated everyone's privacy in a million different ways, which I was unwilling to do.

houseSYSTEM went on-line in early August 2003, and by the end of October 2004 I had decided to shut it down since I was graduating and no one appeared to want to take it over. It had 1,897 members, which amounted to about a third of the student population at Harvard College (about 6,400 undergraduates). On February 3, 2004, the day before Mark's Facebook launched, it had 1,314 members.

There was a poster battle: after my term as president was over, the team for the entrepreneurship club made posters that went up around campus advertising our Facebook, but apparently someone decided to use screenshots of Mark's Facebook on them without asking me if that was a good idea. Mark got upset and insisted that we take down the posters. Of course, I told the people who put them up to stop doing that, but the irony was that his product was effectively a copy in the first place.

Mark's Facebook had social networking features that mine didn't, precisely because I was afraid of the threatened administrative action, which was very serious at the time. Consequently, everyone's e-mail started erupting with messages from "Facebook," which was, as it very presumptuously stated at the bottom of every page, "A Mark Zuckerberg production." This led to something of an obsession with it in The Crimson, which was helped by the fact that Chris Hughes, one of Mark's roommates who had agreed to help, had a French A conversation partner who was a Crimson reporter. In contrast, my roommates thought of my work on houseSYSTEM as cool, but a bizarre curiosity, and not something that they'd ever want to get involved with.

At one point I just walked into the Crimson's offices because I thought they were ignoring my work, but they didn't seem to care even then.

In retrospect, I would have taken a much firmer stance with Mark on the intellectual property and unfair competition issues his behavior presented. I believed him when he said he wan't going to start a company and that he was my friend--clearly neither of those statements was true. I also would have built an internal messaging system instead of depending upon Harvard's FAS e-mail to make a webmail system, as novel and important as that was at the time. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say.

spasticseagul97819 karma

Are you mad at Mark? Do you feel cheated? Do you feel as though you deserve the wealth and success he has? What feeling motivated you to do this AMA?

thinkcomp125 karma

It's hard to stay angry for so long, besides which, I was more bewildered at first.

I do feel cheated because I was, not just according to me, but according to the federal government. (Through his company, Mark registered for trademarks on "Facebook" despite knowing that both I and Harvard had used the term before him, and that it was a generic term.) He cheated me as a friend (irony alert), he cheated me as a classmate, and he cheated me out of the future career and earnings that I was entitled to without a massive amount of baggage weighing me down.

No one "deserves" any amount of money denominated in the billions of dollars. It doesn't even make rational sense that individual people can accumulate so much money. It's just a fluke of our capitalist system. I also don't view him as successful per se, any more that Bernie Madoff was a "successful" (albeit certainly wealthy and respected) hedge fund manager the day before he was caught.

I've been increasingly disturbed about the narrative around Facebook in the media now that it has begun to dovetail with our political system in extremely significant ways. There's a lot of conjecture, and not a lot of people who actually know Mark willing or legally able to speak out. I may in fact be the only one.

scottley16 karma

Do you think there is a way to "fix" Facebook? Most of your answers relate to Zuckerberg being bad, to which I agree, but what would you do if he were arrested and the board turned to you to save the company?

thinkcomp44 karma

It depends on one's perspective. Two days after election day, Mark and presumably his employees thought Facebook worked just fine.

In my opinion, a few things need to change right away.

  1. Facebook is big enough already and plenty dangerous at its current scale. The emphasis on constant growth needs to transform into an emphasis on quality control. This would have wide-reaching implications for the company. (a) Agreements with foreign governments, e.g. Vietnam and China, to obey foreign law, should be rescinded, even if it means Facebook cannot launch in those countries. The Vietnamese and Chinese governments are hostile to human rights and have a demonstrable track record of using the internet to harm their own citizens. The New York Times reported on an example from Vietnam just a few days ago (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/17/technology/facebook-government-regulations.html); Mark has had his eyes set on launching in China for years, to the point where he was willing to go on a run in smog-filled Beijing (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/19/world/asia/mark-zuckerberg-jogging-beijing-smog.html), regardless of the signal it sent to the rest of the world: that destroying the environment is okay; that fatal levels of air pollution don't matter; that he supports the Chinese Communist Party; and that he's even willing to risk his own health just to get Facebook to grow more. (b) Facebook employs a lot of engineers, some of them assuredly talented. The shift in focus to quality control would free up a lot of time currently being spent on growth to try to actually make the site safe for people to use.

  2. I would be more transparent with the public about inquiries that Facebook receives from the intelligence community, which would very likely upset the intelligence community, but the fact is that Facebook is the CIA/NSA/FBI's dream come true. We should know more about how it's used by government, especially given Facebook's miserable track record of working with governments foreign and domestic, often in secret.

  3. I'd open stores dedicated to customer service or would partner with some retail establishment to allow people to verify that their Facebook profiles are owned by real people. Any profile not provably owned by a real person gets deleted after 60 days from the launch of this effort.

  4. I would add an algorithm to crack down on anyone trying to solicit money over Facebook. This happens to disabled people and elderly people all the time, and I find it extremely disturbing.

  5. I would conduct a thorough review of how Facebook's advertising works. If it fundamentally doesn't work, which I think is possible, I'd consider telling people why and shutting down the company. I don't think the internet needs a Facebook as big as the entire world to function well, and I don't have much interest in working on a tool that helps people be less happy and productive in their daily lives. The Facebook I set out to make was a tool for a specific community or potentially a set of communities. Calling the entire world, or even a third of it (nominally) a "community" is ridiculous corporate propaganda that no one should take seriously. In communities, people actually know each other. And technology should advance human knowledge, not turn people into jealous zombies.

But don't worry! Facebook's board won't be turning to me anytime soon.

coryrenton15 karma

Who were the brightest or most potential-filled of your classmates that you feel ended up in professions where their talents are not being used to their utmost?

thinkcomp94 karma

A lot of my classmates in Economics 1010a, a big economics course at Harvard, ended up at Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs in 2006, running things like the "Mortgage-Backed Securities Division." They blew up the world.

They probably could have put their talents to better use.

coryrenton5 karma

Of those, do you feel any of them could have been a world-class talent in something great (like won a Fields Medal) had they not been brain-drained by GS?

thinkcomp17 karma

I think anyone with that level of talent would probably focus on their core interest, even after a couple of years at Goldman Sachs. So, probably not.

maahhkus13 karma

Are you related to the lizard-like creature who helped destroy the economy?

thinkcomp18 karma

I am not related to Alan Greenspan. A lot of people have asked me if I am over the years, so my freshman year of college I sent a letter to the Federal Reserve inquiring. Apparently, Alan Greenspan's ancestors are from Romania, but his parents got divorced when he was young so he doesn't know much of his family history. My ancestors aren't from Romania, so I think it's safe to say that we just share a name and nothing more.

I agree that he does deserve a large amount of blame for the 2008 financial crisis. (His phrase "irrational exuberance" does have a nice ring to it, though...) I worry that the current Federal Reserve hasn't learned from his mistakes.

coryrenton13 karma

what was the economic/social class situation like at harvard when you were there (apparently a lot of the poorer harvard students end up cleaning dorms in something called Dorm Crew during the summer)? What were the non-obvious class signifiers while you were there?

thinkcomp24 karma

All kinds of people do Dorm Crew, not just poor students.

The biggest social class differentiator I was aware of was Final Club membership, but the university appears to be cracking down on that now. It didn't bother me very much as I never really had any desire to join one.

odinwp11 karma

What games do you play?

thinkcomp57 karma

Not a lot of time for video games anymore, but I am partial to Age of Empires II. Some of the classic board games can also be fun: Monopoly, Risk, Settlers of Catan...

TheRandomRGU10 karma

Who do you think Facebook is truly working in the interest of? We know they collect disturbingly large amounts of information and we know they're willing to sell it.

Forgive my dystopian paranoia but this information collected can be used for some very good blackmail. Is Facebook interested in helping the US government and it's surveillance services or interested in surpassing it?

thinkcomp13 karma

Facebook, Inc. exists for the benefit of Mark Zuckerberg above and beyond any other entity or organization.

Mark is a big fan of Greek and Roman history, and I suspect he thinks of himself as a modern-day Alexander the Great, conquering the world. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think it explains a lot.

Arsene_Lupin8 karma

for people in the middle East and especially during the Arab Spring, Facebook played a significant role in sharing news and information under totalitarian regimes. Do you think that was a good thing about platform?

thinkcomp15 karma

The Middle East has obviously had a long and complicated history, but you're right that Facebook played a role during the Arab Spring. To the extent that it helped promote freedom and democracy for people who didn't have it before, I think that's great.

There are a couple of caveats, though. The first is that I'm not sure that Facebook had any special (by which I mean unique) functionality that made it particularly useful as a tool relative to say, Twitter, or the rest of the internet. The fact that it's generally easy to use and allows for fast communication is probably what led people to make use of it, but I think that in a different world, perhaps some other site would have come along that could have done the exact same thing. So to describe Facebook as though it's some kind of magical freedom machine I think is extremely misleading. I think credit really should go to the internet and the world wide web (and the NSF decision to commercialize it with almost no restrictions in about 1993, see https://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=103050).

This is especially apparent when one considers that actual terrorist organizations, such as ISIS, have also made heavy use of social media platforms, including Facebook. Technology--and not just computer technology, but any kind of technology--is always a double-edged sword. It can be used for good or for evil, and sometimes both simultaneously. That's why it is important to have responsible, honest people running technology corporations.

Shazam638 karma

Are you still in contact with eduardo saverin?

thinkcomp13 karma

I never was in contact with Eduardo. Based on what I've read in the press, he renounced his U.S. citizenship for tax purposes and now lives in Singapore somewhere.

parishiIt0n8 karma

Are you still here? If so, what are your thoughts on bitcoin, blockchain and everything decentralized?

thinkcomp15 karma

I'm still here! Just had to sleep.

I wrote an essay about Bitcoin a while ago, which you can find on my personal web site:


BroSholok7 karma

Do you think Facebook is ever going to be replaced? If so, what type of social network will take its place?

thinkcomp41 karma

If you look at instant messaging services over the period 1997-2017, at least for people I know, it looks something like this:

ICQ -> AIM -> Google Talk -> Facebook / Skype / iMessage -> Signal

(See also https://xkcd.com/1810/.)

The field of communications is hardly static. Facebook will eventually give way to something else, and Mark, once a big AIM fan himself, is extremely sensitive to that fact--hence his interest in WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, and any other fast-growing potential threat to his company's market dominance.

What type of network takes its place depends on our values as a society and how they change over time. Today's 13-year-olds may find that they actually value their own privacy by the time they're 23. Today's 23-year-olds must already be exhausted from all of this constant sharing. But now that I'm 34 (and maybe not your average social networking user), I'm the wrong person to ask.

BaconLover_167 karma

How do you feel now that his platform is dying due to other social media networks, primarily Snapchat?

thinkcomp61 karma

I'm not sure I'd say that Facebook is dying as a company yet. It's worth a ridiculous amount of money, and cash is the lifeblood of capitalism. As far as the content, it started dying in 2007 when people started throwing sheep.

I don't pay any attention to Snapchat. For one thing, I'm too old. Also, I just can't bring myself to care.

chupacabrasaurus17 karma

If you were in control of Facebook or a competing social media platform, what changes would you want to implement to create a more positive impact on communities/society? Or even more simply, what changes straying from the initial concept would you have prevented if you had been able to remain part of the project?

thinkcomp36 karma

I would have limited membership to organizations where e-mail addresses can be authenticated (schools, corporations, non-profits, government).

nuevaorleans6 karma

Did you invest?

thinkcomp11 karma

No, I have never personally invested in Facebook, though as an S&P 500 component it's possible I've owned some index fund that has held Facebook shares.

As to why, see https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/71uva5/iama_classmate_of_mark_zuckerberg_who_created_the/dndzox0/.

JBEN526 karma

How is that proof?

charonpdx3 karma

Agree. Need to provide better proof before we settle on this, OP.

thinkcomp7 karma

I added a picture to the Tweet. You can compare it to my picture in the New York Times.

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[deleted]1 karma


orangejulius1 karma

OK then let us know how you want to proceed whenever you're ready.

thinkcomp6 karma

Uh, I still don't understand, but I added another photo with the date.

nuevaorleans6 karma

How do you feel about content creators leaving Facebook due to the Facebook rip-off pages?

For example, many YouTubers have had issues with their videos getting ripped off and getting millions more views than the original, then their copyright claims fall through. A large majority of the most viewed videos on Facebook are from YouTube. I think Facebook is pushing away creators and choosing easy, cheap clicks over creating a home for originality and creativity, and this will be its downfall.

thinkcomp10 karma

I didn't know that, but it sounds like what I've been saying. Thanks to Mark, Facebook always goes for quantity over quality, and that decision has real and meaningful ramifications.

south2-25 karma

Thank you for your time and courage and certainly ambition. Despite all the negativity and potential harm towards users that may arise , that doesn't change the FACT that you helped inspire connecting millions of people.

For that I am grateful and thankful. I know too many people that lost touch with loved ones and acquaintances all from the power or "passing time" and not having "easy access to communicate" . You help create a better World in a sense, please don't forget that.

The hardest part of the journey in life, is giving out trust. Once your exposed to being taken advantage of, it opens the doors to more scenarios.

That takes me to my question....

At which point did you first begin to sense or doubt Mark's friendship? What was the first indication, did you just wake up and see his program? Did no conversation or negotiations about being partners? & What was your first thought of action?

I am sorry for Fart Fuckerberg . He's in it for the money and fame only. You seem genuine, and I am very honored to get to type to you, I wish we have seen more of your business personality.

Thank You

thinkcomp22 karma

My friendship with Mark was built on a rocky foundation right from the start. First, I was distrustful of him because I felt that Facemash was really just an awful thing to build, and I thought it said a lot about his character that he didn't seem to care. Second, literally within days of sitting down at dinner in Kirkland House to discuss my work, including my Facebook, he purchased thefacebook.com and began working on it without me. Now, he had a legal right to do that, but as a so-called friend, it's a totally baffling move. None of my real friends would have secretly began competing with me without letting me know every detail of what they were doing. Also, if you look through the IM conversations I had with Mark, you'll find that he was often keeping matters secret, while I struggled to figure out what his real goal was in speaking with me. He also appeared to be worried that I'd get upset with him for the very reasons that I ultimately did. So the whole time that we referred to each other as "friends," my guard was up. I continued to speak with him because I figured it was better to have information than not.

I probably should have confronted Mark more directly about why I was worried and upset, but I'm not sure there was a way for me to win. He had already made clear that he didn't think he was copying my work, and on the few occasions where I pushed him on this he immediately got extremely defensive. This leads me to think that no matter what I said to him, it wouldn't have changed his behavior, and it wouldn't have led to me having any kind of personal gain. Perhaps the one juncture where I could have made a big change in the course of history was the very first time he asked me to work with him, but that was before I knew anything about what he was working on (because he wouldn't tell me), and while I had ample cause not to trust him.

This is what sociopaths do. They use secrecy and lying and manipulation to get what they want out of people, and then they discard them. It's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to win, and the cleanup effort requires a thousand times more work than the work the sociopath puts in to creating the situation in the first place.

hummusfalafel4 karma

How would you propose ethics can replace greed as the dominant force that controls industries/countries/masses? Did you ever consider going on Joe Rogan's podcast? Seems to me like the perfect platform, he's a great host.

thinkcomp9 karma

Taming human nature is really hard. Acting "ethically," to the extent that there's even one definition of what that means, requires a combination of thinking ahead and sacrificing your own needs, or what you want right now. That's really hard to do for a lot of people.

This is why societies have laws. They're not a perfect solution, but they work pretty well when they are taken seriously and fairly enforced. I'd suggest that problems in our law enforcement system are even bigger than we realize, because in addition to incarcerating huge numbers of [mostly African-American] people, we incentivize the exact behaviors that the laws are supposedly there to discourage and prevent.

I'm not familiar with Joe Rogan's podcast, but if someone wants to interview me, that's something I'll certainly entertain doing.

theelvishkilljoy3 karma

Do you know why they left you out of the Social Network?

If Facebook were to go under tomorrow, how do you think that would affect the world at large?

What are you currently working on that we can possibly support?

thinkcomp10 karma

It's a long story, but here's the quick summary.

I got an e-mail from Ben Mezrich, author of The Accidential Billionaires, in July 2008. He wanted my help for his book, which he hadn't written yet. Since he had a reputation for making up sex scenes and combining characters, it was a scary e-mail to receive: essentially, did I want my name combined with some other people who might end up going on some sex rampage in a book about Facebook? I said no, but pointed him to my book, Authoritas, to use as a source.

Immediately afterward, still before it was written, Mezrich's book was optioned by Sony Pictures for a movie (which became The Social Network). Random House's Doubleday imprint had already agreed to pay him an advance of almost $2 million. Suddenly it made sense why he wanted my help: he had to write about events he knew nothing about for which he wasn't present.

Mezrich ended up relying instead on Eduardo Saverin, who talked to him until his lawyers said he couldn't anymore, while Mezrich was still writing. That left a big gap in his work, which he filled by A) making things up; and B) plagiarizing my book. For example, my book opens with a description of what happened when I went to speak with former Harvard president Larry Summers at office hours. Details and wording from that scene magically ended up in Mezrich's description of what happened when the Winklevoss twins went to speak with former Harvard president Larry Summers at office hours--a scene that ultimately appeared in the movie. There's no doubt that Mezrich relied on my book because he put it in his bibliography.

But, since I'd refused to cooperate with him--and who knows what Eduardo told him--he wrote me into the book as some kind of stupid idiot who built something no one cared about. He didn't mention that Mark cared about it, or that Mark had used it extensively. He didn't include our dinner conversation about graph theory or the potential privacy nightmare. And he called me, if I recall correctly, Aaron Grossman.

According to the 2014 Sony leak, by the time Aaron Sorkin started writing the script for The Social Network, Mezrich wasn't done with his book, and Scott Rudin was extremely upset. Sorkin started writing basically without it, using other sources such as court materials from the ConnectU case, and later finally got the book draft (I presume). I wasn't involved in the ConnectU case except for one deposition (http://www.thinkpress.com/authoritas/housesystem/20071129.deposition.pdf), which was buried among thousands of documents, and I was only in the book as an irrelevant idiot by the wrong name. That's not exactly how main characters get formed.

Random House did have the chance to publish my book under the same imprint, Doubleday, in 2007. They turned it down. It was probably a good business decision for them: Mezrich had an existing relationship with Sony thanks to "21," which was based on his (also controversial and largely made-up) book. So ultimately he got paid $2 million to write/invent the story I'd already written, instead of my getting paid anything at all for a book that was actually true.

This series of events was the subject of a lawsuit I filed, which you can find at https://www.plainsite.org/dockets/8l0iwprb/massachusetts-district-court/greenspan-v-random-house-inc-et-al/.

[deleted]1 karma


thinkcomp12 karma

I think he's a sociopath. We live in a society that worships celebrity and wealth, and especially wealthy celebrities. We also tend to mistake awkwardness for genius (something that also happened with Larry Summers, who was president of Harvard when Mark and I were there). These circumstances have helped Mark take advantage of almost everyone he's come into contact with, from Harvard administrators to his [some, would-be] co-founders to his users to the media.

CHWK1 karma


thinkcomp8 karma

I'm not. When Facebook launched on February 4, 2004, he didn't actually let me know that it was going on-line, even though he had used my Facebook for a while. It was part of a student portal I made at Harvard called houseSYSTEM, since students lived in the "residential house system". I found out about Mark's project when I got a friend request from my freshman roommate who had sent me a friend request, and then IMed Mark on AIM soon afterward asking about it.

When I signed up, my user ID was 82, though of course on my Facebook, it was 1. On my Facebook, Mark's user ID was 1234.