Most people know the story by now of how 19-year-old Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook in his college dorm room.
The site, which essentially began as an online student directory, went live on Feb. 4, 2004. Thefacebook, as it was then called, became popular almost instantly. Within four days, more than 650 students had registered. After one month, the number had reached 10,000. And now, more than six years later, close to 500 million people worldwide actively use the site.
Author David Kirkpatrick spent a considerable amount of time with Zuckerberg while writing his new book The Facebook Effect. Zuckerberg, Kirkpatrick tells NPR's Deborah Amos, is adamant in his belief that the world is becoming more open.
"He sees the world as moving very rapidly toward transparency and very rapid sharing of data between individuals in all sorts of ways, on and off Facebook," Kirkpatrick says. "And from the day he first created his system, he had this ethos of sharing that he strongly believed in."
For Zuckerberg, that ethos means sharing everything. He disagrees with the notion that people have different identities. To him, the idea that someone is different at work than at home, than at a rock concert, is dishonest. Says Kirkpatrick, "He believes that he will live a better life personally, and all of us will be more honest, and ultimately it will be better for the world if we dispense with that belief."
Sharing everything, though, can get users into trouble. At least 30 percent of employers have rejected applicants because of things they've found on Facebook and other social networks, Kirkpatrick says. He gives examples of people who have made some big Facebook mistakes, like jurors who post information about the trials they're involved in, or a prison guard who "friends" prisoners.
There's also the problem of what's known as "peer-to-peer" privacy violations. While users may not be posting information about themselves, their friends and family are — and many times, it's information that people might not want out there. Shortly after the new head of the British intelligence service was named, it came to light that his wife had been using Facebook to post pictures of their children and details that could reveal his home address.
It's understandable, then, that people are concerned about privacy and security. Not surprisingly, Facebook has encountered a lot of pushback about its privacy policies. Some of that has come from individual users. But it's also coming from governments, such as the Pakistani government, which considered shutting down Facebook entirely after some users formed a group called "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day." Facebook ended up removing the group, even though it didn't violate the terms of service.
"When you have a genuinely global system like this and all the different value systems that it encounters in being global," Kirkpatrick says, "it's quite amazing all the challenges it's going to face from government. There's no way that Facebook is going to avoid substantial regulatory pushback in many ways."