Facebook won because its culture was voyeuristic

John Backus
Nov 19, 2018 · 7 min read

The Social Network opens with Zuckerberg scorning his ex-girlfriend and building a Harvard hot-or-not app using photos of other students without their permission. Early Facebook employees had god-mode access to Facebook: look at anyone’s profile, regardless of whether they are friends, and get extra visibility into information like who viewed it and for how long.

Are these just random unfortunate details about the origin of Facebook? I don’t think so. The uncomfortable details about Facebook’s origin story are extremely helpful for understanding how they succeeded. By focusing on the taboo details, I think it’s clear that:

  • Zuckerberg’s indifference to user privacy became core to Facebook’s early culture and helped them build a more engaging products
  • FaceMash foreshadowed an important theme to Facebook: Voyeurism into other’s lives outweighs demands for personal privacy

Seeking taboo for the greater good

In the startup world, we’re constantly tuning our mental models:

  • What does the future hold?
  • Why are certain startups growing? Where are they heading?
  • For the wildly successful companies, what were the key insights and decisions?

Silicon Valley cherishes positivity and optimism. Negative details about startups are primarily shared in anti-tech news outlets and think pieces. Separately, Silicon Valley wants mainstream culture to see the huge positive impact technology provides. If Silicon Valley comes to be vilified like Wall Street was, many think that could kill off our best bet for continued GDP growth.

What happens when our mental models are built within a culture that wants to avoid negative details? Uncomfortable grey area is structurally rewritten out of Silicon Valley’s narratives. We reduce taboo details to factoids and then model the success without them. Founders don’t emphasize certain sensitive actions. Bloggers and other insiders may look at certain uncomfortable facts, think “this is fanfare,” and be less likely to consider these details as an important part of the mental model. High profile thought leaders may omit potentially vilifiable facts if they think it could hurt the image of Silicon Valley as a whole.

If taboo is a blindspot for our mental models, I want to dig in. In this post I’m not trying to build an all encompassing view of why Facebook succeeded. Instead, I want to specifically focus on uncomfortable details with the hope that we all walk away with a better understanding of Facebook’s success.

Doublethink at the core of social networks

Before Facebook, there was Facemash. If you’ve seen The Social Network, you know the story. Zuckerberg scraped student pictures at Harvard and created a “Hot or Not” game for rating the attractiveness of female students.

Fast forward to Facebook’s growth. Know where a lot of engagement on social networks comes from? Viewing the profiles and photos of female users. By a large margin.

“People just love to look at pictures,” says Piskorski. “That’s the killer app of all online social networks. Seventy percent of all actions are related to viewing pictures or viewing other people’s profiles.” … The biggest usage categories are men looking at women they don’t know, followed by men looking at women they do know. Women look at other women they know. Overall, women receive two-thirds of all page views.

Understanding Users of Social Networks from Harvard Business School (2009)

Even in the very early days of Facebook, employees had powerful internal tools that would make usage behavior like this clear. Katherine Losse wrote about her experience as an early employee at Facebook:

We even had an internal tool, called appropriately, Facebook Stalker, that showed who had looked at our profile, which revealed fascinating insights. For one, my female friends studied my profile more often and for longer periods of time than my male friends, which suggests a digital version of the old dictum that women dress for each other, not for men.

The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network (Chapter 1)

In 2006, Facebook was preparing to launch the now-famous news feed. Employees brought users in to their office to see how people would react.

Their initial reaction is clear. People are just like, “Holy shit, like, I shouldn’t be seeing this, like this doesn’t feel right,” because immediately you see this person changed their profile picture, this person did this, this person did that, and your first instinct is Oh my God! Everybody can see this about me! Everyone knows everything I’m doing on Facebook.

Sex, Beer, and Coding: Inside Facebook’s Wild Early Days from Wired

User research says people are going to freak out. Facebook employees are scared to release the product. How did Zuckerberg react?

So in-house we have this idea that this isn’t going to go right: This is too jarring a change, it needs to be rolled out slowly, we need to warm people up to this — and Mark is just firmly committed. “We’re just going to do this. We’re just going to launch. It’s like ripping off a Band-Aid.” (Ibid)

People did freak out when Facebook launched the news feed.

There was such a violent reaction to it. We had people marching on the office. … The user base fought it every step of the way and would pound us, pound Customer Service, and say, “This is fucked up! This is terrible!” (Ibid)

Users were hooting and hollering about privacy, but Facebook employees soon realized that objecting users weren’t putting their money where their mouth was.

Even the same people who were telling us that this is terrible, we’d look at their user stream and be like: You’re fucking using it constantly! What are you talking about? (Ibid)

Zuckerberg’s darker personality traits helped Facebook succeed

What would Facebook have been like with different personalities at the helm? For example, imagine Facebook’s CEO was:

  • The average startup founder
  • A more experienced startup founder who also viewed user privacy as an important ethical tradeoff
  • A less arrogant version of Zuckerberg who would have viewed FaceMash as crossing the line

Now consider a few different defining product decisions. Reflect both on how each alternative CEO might have acted, as well as how difficult or trivial the decisions would be for them.

  • Should users know when someone views their profile or photos?
  • Should the default privacy settings allow friends-of-friends to view your photos? In other words, should men be able to view the photos of women they don’t know by default?
  • Should Facebook employees have full access to “Facebook Stalker”, the god mode internal tool that lets employees view anyone’s profile regardless of whether their friends, along with other privileged information like who viewed someone’s pictures and for how long? Should that tool exist at all?
  • Every user who previewed the news feed feature freaked out. “I shouldn’t be seeing this.” Should the team launch the product anyways? Should it be launched gradually or all at once?

If you wanted to optimize social networks for engagement like Facebook did, it seems like you had to balance a tricky set of trade offs:

  1. Feel private enough that users supply their real name, connect to real friends, and upload pictures of themselves
  2. Be powerful enough for the end user that they can indulge in voyeuristically peering in friends’ (and friends-of-friends’) lives without them knowing

Maybe the best way to model Facebook users is with some form of doublethink. Each user wants both…

  • Fine-grained control over their own privacy so they can manage their image and who sees it
  • The ability to peer into their friends lives and know a bit more than they would be comfortable admitting

Put another way: people say they want privacy but they actually want information asymmetry.

People have always wanted to know who is viewing their Facebook profile; hackers trick people into phishing themselves all the time by claiming their third party tool provides this superpower. Would the average startup founder have considered this or even implemented it? Zuckerberg had some experience with this doublethink: plenty of people condemned FaceMash as sexist after the fact, but it also went viral at Harvard.

Should Facebook’s default privacy settings have allowed people to view photos of people they didn’t know? A naive CEO might not realize default-public privacy settings will probably be a big win for engagement. A privacy conscious CEO might deny users of voyeuristic indulgences like this.

How should Facebook handle people freaking out at the news feed feature? A privacy conscious CEO may not have made it as powerful in the first place. A less arrogant Zuckerberg may have been hesitant to rip off the Band-Aid.

Privacy wasn’t just a thorny topic that social networks needed to keep in mind, it’s the business model: maximize perceived privacy while minimizing actual privacy in order to service user doublethink.

Early Zuckerberg’s personality is not exactly flattering: “They ‘trust me’ / Dumb fucks”, publicly joking that other Harvard students being uglier than farm animals, “I’m CEO, bitch”, etc. Did Facebook succeed in spite of these personality traits, or because of them? Quasi-philosophical privacy questions weren’t relevant to Zuckerberg. He bypassed “should we?”, went straight to “can we?”, and had great judgement of how people’s stated preferences differed from their revealed preferences. Indifference to user privacy probably helped! Facebook employees could view profiles others couldn’t and dig into information like who viewed their profile that wasn’t a public feature. If the “user doublethink” idea of user privacy is accurate, I can’t think of a better way to deeply embed that idea in the company culture than to give everyone the ability to indulge their own curiosities and freely explore how users actually behave when they think others aren’t watching.

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