Veteran best-selling tech journalist Steve Levy – author of Insanely Great – delves deeply into Facebook history and culture.
Tech journalist Steve Levy
Wired editor Steve Levy’s books include Hackers, In the Plex and Insanely Great. He’s spent his career chronicling tech and proves himself to be the perfect journalist to explore the question: How did Facebook evolve from a chummy website into a Goliath of tech and society? Levy gained unprecedented access to Facebook’s leaders. He explores how founder Mark Zuckerberg’s idealism entwines with his desire for “domination.” Levy traces the way – from 2016 to 2019 – Zuckerberg devolved in the public’s mind from an icon of ingenuity to a distrusted titan bulldozing anything in his way, including US democracy.
In other books on the subject, Brian Dumaine’s Bezonomics, about Jeff Bezos and Amazon, offers perhaps too much admiration, but thoroughly captures the scope of the web-driven retail world and its attendant billionaires. David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect draws on insider interviews to tell the firm’s history. Roger McNamee’s Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe tracks a tech mentor’s journey from cheerleading Facebook to fearing its effects. These perspectives offer a rich overview of the internet’s influence and Facebook in all its manifestations. Levy’s viewpoint, the most recent, is neither complimentary nor hostile, and thus seems the most objective.
At 12, Levy foreshadows, Zuckerberg made the board game, Risk – in which players conquer countries around the world – into a computer game. Flash forward to Harvard where, after launching the website “thefacebook,” Zuckerberg sought to conquer other schools where he faced online competitors.
Zuckerberg arrived at Harvard with no intention to curb his passion for pursuing computer projects.Steve Levy
Levy lays out the saga – now-familiar from the film The Social Network – of Zuckerberg leaving Harvard for California to work with Napster and Plaxo founder Sean Parker, whom Levy calls, “Silicon Valley’s dark prince in exile.” By late 2005, thefacebook’s value was $98 million. About 80% of users logged on daily.
Levy explains Facebook’s evolution. Prior to Open Registration, users went to their friends’ pages to see information about them. Facebook, Levy discovered, shared that data in its updates. Users protested, but they turned to the site more than ever. Levy believes this taught Zuckerberg the wrong lesson: that privacy was changing as more people shared more information.
The commitment to stay independent reflected Zuckerberg’s belief that Facebook was now on a mission – to connect the whole world.Steve Levy
Yahoo! offered $1 billion for Facebook, and Zuckerberg almost accepted it.
In 2007, Facebook launched Platform, a system that let developers access its data. Facebook had 20 million users, and 100,000 more joined daily. However, Platform led to what Levy characterizes as Facebook’s most damaging episode. Levy describes Zuckerberg’s thinking that giving data to developers was worth losing the trust of his users.
Zynga’s Farmville, a virtual farming game, drew 80 million players. Levy notes the astounding fact that when Facebook went public, Zynga accounted for 20% of its income. More apps meant more notification spam which overwhelmed users. Levy investigates how Zuckerberg – despite his pledges to the contrary – provided user data to companies that offered him ad revenues or useful data.
In 2007, Facebook helped advertisers target specific groups. In 2009, Sheryl Sandberg left Google to become Facebook’s COO and, according to Levy, to take over aspects of the company Zuckerberg didn’t care about.
The Like button was a gateway drug for Facebook’s data-gathering to extend beyond its borders.Steve Levy
Facebook also launched the “Like” button, expanding its feedback mechanism exponentially. That year, Facebook changed its Terms of Service to default to sharing information with “everyone.” To avoid this, users had to change their own privacy settings, and more than 80% did not. Again demonstrating the depth of his reporting and of internal conflict at Facebook, Levy quotes a new Facebook attorney asking if the Terms of Service betrayed the site’s 350 million users or was even legal.
In 2011, Facebook’s corporate revenue hit $4 billion – and a quarter of that was profit. Facebook acquired Instagram and WhatsApp. With some amusement, Levy breaks down how Instagram undercut Twitter by disabling users’ ability to post photos easily to both platforms.
Levy delves deeply into the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which provides a pivotal section of the book and manifests Levy’s concern regarding Facebook’s lack of responsibility or accountability. He provides a clear summary of the scandal. To support then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, right-wing activist Steve Bannon created the data analytics company Cambridge Analytica, which conservative hedge fund manager Robert Mercer underwrote.
Cambridge Analytica drew on the data of more than 50 million people from Facebook’s developer API in order to target political ads. Facebook, Levy discloses, asked Cambridge to delete the data, but it never verified whether Cambridge did. Even more damning, Levy reveals, Facebook failed to alert millions of users that Cambridge had co-opted their data and News Feeds. Facebook made millions in ad fees from Cambridge Analytica. Levy finds the entire incident shameful, hypocritical and profoundly worrisome regarding the United States’ electoral process.
Mobile ads in the News Feed were wildly successful, and would push Facebook’s annual revenue into the realms of tens of billions.Steve Levy
Levy states plainly that Russian intelligence created fake profiles to influence the 2016 US Presidential election. The Russian Internet Research Agency posted “80,000 pieces of content that reached 129 million Facebook users.” In 2019, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined Facebook $5 billion. Soon after, the company reported quarterly revenues of $17 billion. Levy uses this irony to underscore Facebook’s invulnerability.
Critics and journalists regard Levy’s work as a definitive history of Facebook. As the San Francisco Chronicle noted, his writing is “evenhanded and devastating.” Levy reveals the good and bad without seeming to take a side. His evenness makes his insights all the more powerful and trustworthy. His sly wit ensures that any self-important speakers skewer themselves on their own words – an entertaining sidebar to this fascinating history. Levy’s a skilled, deft writer with a high sense of irony and an eye for the small, telling fact that illuminates a larger dynamic. As his Insanely Great made clear, he revels in a company’s specific culture and how that reveals its true character. He likes to find, explain and exploit in-company jargon both for laughs and for deeper insight into confidential processes. His is easily the best of all the recent books about Facebook.