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Today, at least one out of every fourteen people in the world has a Facebook account. Zuckerberg, meanwhile, is becoming the boy king of Silicon Valley. If and when Facebook decides to go public, Zuckerberg will become one of the richest men on the planet, and one of the youngest billionaires. In the October issue of Vanity Fair, Zuckerberg is named No. 1 in the magazine’s power ranking of the New Establishment, just ahead of Steve Jobs, the leadership of Google, and Rupert Murdoch. The magazine declared him “our new Caesar.”
Despite his goal of global openness, however, Zuckerberg remains a wary and private person. He doesn’t like to speak to the press, and he does so rarely. He also doesn’t seem to enjoy the public appearances that are increasingly requested of him. Backstage at an event at the Computer History Museum, in Silicon Valley, this summer, one of his interlocutors turned to Zuckerberg, minutes before they were to appear onstage, and said, “You don’t like doing these kinds of events very much, do you?” Zuckerberg replied with a terse “No,” then took a sip from his water bottle and looked off into the distance.
This makes the current moment a particularly awkward one. Zuckerberg, or at least Hollywood’s unauthorized version of him, will soon be starring in a film titled “The Social Network,” directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin. The movie, which opens the New York Film Festival and will be released on October 1st, will be the introduction that much of the world gets to Zuckerberg. Facebook profiles are always something of a performance: you choose the details you want to share and you choose whom you want to share with. Now Zuckerberg, who met with me for several in-person interviews this summer, is confronting something of the opposite: a public exposition of details that he didn’t choose. He does not plan to see the film.
Zuckerberg’s ultimate goal is to create, and dominate, a different kind of Internet. Google and other search engines may index the Web, but, he says, “most of the information that we care about is things that are in our heads, right? And that’s not out there to be indexed, right?” Zuckerberg was in middle school when Google launched, and he seems to have a deep desire to build something that moves beyond it. “It’s like hardwired into us in a deeper way: you really want to know what’s going on with the people around you,” he said.
In 2007, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would become a “platform,” meaning that outside developers could start creating applications that would run inside the site. It worked. The social-game company Zynga—the maker of FarmVille and Mafia Wars—is expected to earn more than five hundred million dollars this year, most of it generated from people playing on Facebook. In 2008, Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook Connect, allowing users to sign onto other Web sites, gaming systems, and mobile devices with their Facebook account, which serves as a digital passport of sorts. This past spring, Facebook introduced what Zuckerberg called the Open Graph. Users reading articles on CNN.com, for example, can see which articles their Facebook friends have read, shared, and liked. Eventually, the company hopes that users will read articles, visit restaurants, and watch movies based on what their Facebook friends have recommended, not, say, based on a page that Google’s algorithm sends them to. Zuckerberg imagines Facebook as, eventually, a layer underneath almost every electronic device. You’ll turn on your TV, and you’ll see that fourteen of your Facebook friends are watching “Entourage,” and that your parents taped “60 Minutes” for you. You’ll buy a brand-new phone, and you’ll just enter your credentials. All your friends—and perhaps directions to all the places you and they have visited recently—will be right there.
For this plan to work optimally, people have to be willing to give up more and more personal information to Facebook and its partners. Perhaps to accelerate the process, in December, 2009, Facebook made changes to its privacy policies. Unless you wrestled with a set of complicated settings, vastly more of your information—possibly including your name, your gender, your photograph, your list of friends—would be made public by default. The following month, Zuckerberg declared that privacy was an evolving “social norm.”
The backlash came swiftly. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center cried foul. Users revolted, claiming that Facebook had violated the social compact upon which the company is based. What followed was a tug-of-war about what it means to be a private person with a public identity. In the spring, Zuckerberg announced a simplified version of the privacy settings.
I asked Zuckerberg about this during our walk in Palo Alto. Privacy, he told me, is the “third-rail issue” online. “A lot of people who are worried about privacy and those kinds of issues will take any minor misstep that we make and turn it into as big a deal as possible,” he said. He then excused himself as he typed on his iPhone 4, answering a text from his mother. “We realize that people will probably criticize us for this for a long time, but we just believe that this is the right thing to do.”