A Time Capsule of Mark Zuckerberg From 2005

Sometimes you have to admit that winners can see the future far before the rest of us. They might zig or zag on the way, but they have a clear idea of who they are, what they’re doing, and where they want to head. Mark Zuckerberg is like that, despite what you may see in “The Social Network” or assume from his young age.

Where were you in October 2005? Most of you probably weren’t Facebook members. Mark Zuckerberg was in Palo Alto, Calif., a year and a half after starting what would eventually become one of the biggest and most influential websites in the world. One day, the 21-year-old sat for an interview with his lead investor, Jim Breyer, as part of a Stanford series on entrepreneurship. This was before obsessive attention to every new tech startup, before Facebook hired a PR professional, and before Zuckerberg was widely recognized for what he was creating. After all, the site was only available to college students and high schools, mostly in the U.S.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at 21

I randomly came across an MP3 and video clips of that interview this week, and was fascinated to hear Zuckerberg speak freely about Facebook’s user numbers, revenue and product vision. The conversation took place a week after Facebook Photos had launched (it was only available in 30 percent of schools as part of a staggered rollout), and shortly after Facebook’s 5 million user party. According to Zuckerberg, Facebook was already making more than $1 million per month on advertising.

In the present day, the news just came out that Facebook has passed Google (s GOOG) in time spent by U.S. Internet users for the first time. But back in 2005, Facebook was already just a few weeks away from passing Google’s U.S. page views. (This is according to Zuckerberg, but I called comScore, and it said the timing for Facebook passing Google is reasonable even if its data doesn’t go back that far.)

The other thing that’s striking about the interview is how much Zuckerberg of 2005 sounds like Zuckerberg of 2010. Given that many of his youthful transgressions — late night coding, blogging and drinking sessions; cast-off collaborators, etc — have become public knowledge, there’s a sense that at some point the man-child grew up. At least as far as his ideas go, that maturation had happened by October 2005. Still, though, Zuckerberg tells the Stanford audience about some Facebook staff pranks that seem, well… questionable by today’s ethical standards.

Facebook by the numbers, Oct. 26, 2005:

  • 5 million users
  • 5.5 billion page views in the month of September 2005
  • The three stats Zuckerberg said he cared about: 70 percent of users come back daily, 85 percent come back weekly, 93 percent monthly
  • Over 20,000 joining per day and accelerating
  • 230 million page views per day (“We’re going to pass Google in page views a few weeks from now,” said Zuckerberg. “I was pretty surprised when I heard that.”)
  • “We have well more than $1 million a month in revenue and that way covers our expenses — and we’re not even doing anything cool yet.”
  • Almost 800,000 Facebook members at that time were no longer in college. (They’d graduated in the class of 2004.)

Product philosophy:

While only about 10 percent of Facebook users were uploading photos, a week after launch, more than 40 percent of users on participating networks had been tagged in photos, Zuckerberg said. “When we’re designing stuff we look not necessarily at just what any given user is going to experience, but what’s going to be better for the whole community and the whole product.”

Building a company culture:

“I can’t force people to hang out outside of work, but I can make it so people are more comfortable with each other and communicate freely.”

Zuckerberg said some of his best hires had no programming experience. One of the employees who wrote Facebook Photos was an electrical engineer by training. “If you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get Photos out you’re probably more valuable than a career software engineer.”

Channeling himself:

Zuckerberg was careful to describe Facebook as “an online directory” and ” a social utility” rather than a social network. He noted that sites like Friendster and MySpace had struggled with technical infrastructure, and said Facebook was trying to avoid that fate by adding hardware. His early thoughts on privacy sound surprisingly similar to the present day:

We’re enabling a freer flow of information. We’re not asking anyone to put anything out there they don’t want to have out there. We’re not forcing anyone to publicize any information about themselves. We give people pretty good control over their privacy — you can make it so nobody can see your profile unless you’re their friend — and I think we encourage people to use that stuff… I think just by putting people in control of what they put out there we are putting it in their hands.

A couple of ethically questionable anecdotes:

Early on, many Facebook users tried to create profiles for fake people, like Keggy the Keg, the unofficial Dartmouth mascot. Zuckerberg said the company developed a tool to “calculate the percentage of realness a person is.” Then he and his friends used the tool to joke around about “what percentage of realness people are” and make jabs like “Oh, you’re only 75% real?!”

Zuckerberg also talked about how he recently realized Facebook needed to make tools to aggregate and filter all the information their friends were posting (this was before the company launched its news feed feature). He said the company was experimenting with “figur[ing] out the strength of those relationships and what actually matters on a granular level.” As part of that system, he and his colleagues started trying to predict whether two people’s activity on Facebook signaled their romantic involvement with each other. “We had over a third chance of predicting whether two people would be in a relationship a week from now,” he said.

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my bio.

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