Home / Tech News / I was one of the first people on Facebook. I shouldn't have trusted Mark Zuckerberg

I was one of the first people on Facebook. I shouldn't have trusted Mark Zuckerberg



Fourteen years, two months, and eight days ago, I made a mistake. Like a lot of mistakes made at the age of 20 inside a college dorm room, it involved trusting a man I shouldn’t have, and it still affects me to this day.

No, Mark Zuckerberg didn’t give me herpes. But in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, I have been thinking back to my decision to sign up for thefacebook.com on the site’s fifth day in existence, and I am struck by the parallels between Zuckerberg’s creation and a pesky (if generally benign) virus. Facebook isn’t going to kill me, but it has wormed its way into all of my relationships, caused me to infect other people, and I will never, ever be fully rid of it.

Last week, Zuckerberg was called to answer for himself. Over the course of two days of questioning before Congress, Zuckerberg sought to assure the public that we, not he, are in “complete control” of our relationships with Facebook. He repeated this guarantee dozens of times, returning again and again to the idea that users can control their Facebook data.

But the Zuckerberg of 2018 sounds suspiciously like the “Mark E Zuckerberg ’06” who was interviewed by the Harvard Crimson on 9 February 2004 about his brand new website. It was this article that prompted my roommates and I to start entrusting a stranger behind a computer screen with the keys to our identities: names, birthdates, photographs, email addresses, and more.





Here’s what the original website for ‘The Facebook’ used to look like back in 2004.



Here’s what the original website for ‘The Facebook’ used to look like back in 2004. Photograph: web.archive.org

“There are pretty intensive privacy options,” he told the paper. “People have very good control over who can see their information.”

“On Facebook, everything that you share there you have control over,” he told Senator Dean Heller just moments after failing to give a straight answer on whether Facebook has ever collected the contents of its users phone calls. “You can say I don’t want this information to be there. You have full access to understand all, every piece of information that Facebook might know about you, and you can get rid of all of it.”

Zuckerberg was lying then and he’s lying now. We do not have “complete control” and we never have, as evidenced by the fact that even people who never signed up for Facebook have “shadow profiles” created without their consent. He has been getting away with this same spin for 14 years, two months, and eight days. Watching him dissemble in front of Congress, I couldn’t help but see him as one of those fresh-faced boys at Harvard who transitioned seamlessly from their New England prep schools to the Ivy League, and excelled at maintaining steady eye contact with the professor while they opined about books they hadn’t read.

I can still remember our excitement and curiosity for the new website that promised to enhance and replace the physical facebooks that Harvard passed out to first-year students. Those thin, hardcover volumes were a frequent source of useful information and prurient entertainment. We used to pore over the book, trying to figure out the name of this guy from class, or that girl from Saturday night, judging the looks of other students and generally indulging in a kind of pre-cyber cyber-stalking: it was a way to learn things about other people without having to ask them directly.

Zuckerberg’s website broke the facebook out of its bindings. During those first weeks and months, we bore witness to Facebook’s power to reorient social interactions. With Facebook, you were friends, or not friends; in a relationship, single, or “it’s complicated”; popularity was easily quantifiable; those who chose not to sign up for Facebook were defining themselves as abstainers, whether they wanted to or not. All of the beautiful and painful mess of human interactions was reducible to a data point in the social graph.

We embraced this recalibration of social relations without thinking about who or what was behind them. Judging strangers based on their facebook photo transitioned seamlessly into judging people based on their Facebook profile and Facebook habits. It’s embarrassing to remember now my own decision, born of a hefty sense of my own too-coolness, that I would only ever respond to other people’s friend requests, and not send any myself, as if this were a meaningful form of self-definition.

I’d like to think that I spared a thought for the motivations of the man behind the computer screen, but I’m sure I didn’t. Even if I had thought to assign a word, let alone a value, to the idea that I should maintain control over the pieces of information by which others would come to know and judge me – “privacy”, I think we call this – I probably would have been taken in by Zuckerberg’s assurances in that first Crimson article that his website was perfectly safe.





Mark Zuckerberg in 2010. ‘The truth is that Facebook’s great value has come from making the rest of us lose control.’



Mark Zuckerberg in 2010. ‘The truth is that Facebook’s great value has come from making the rest of us lose control.’ Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The truth is that Facebook’s great value has come from making the rest of us lose control. Yes, we can decide what photos and status updates and biographical details we plug into Facebook’s gaping maw. But the most valuable insights have been gleaned from the things we didn’t even realize we were giving away.

Facebook knows what I read on the internet, where I want to go on vacation, how late I stay up at night, whose posts I scroll quickly by, and whose posts I pause to linger over. It knows that I took reporting trips to Montana and Seattle and San Diego, despite the fact that I have never allowed it to track me by GPS. It knows my father’s cell phone number, despite the fact that he has never signed up for its service, because I was stupid enough to share my contacts with it once, several years ago.

It knows all of these things that are, in my opinion, none of its goddamn business.

If I’ve learned one thing from Mark Zuckerberg it’s that the most valuable knowledge about another person comes from learning things about them that they wouldn’t tell you themselves.

So here’s what I know about Mark Zuckerberg. During those first few weeks of Facebook’s existence, while he was assuring his fellow college students that we could trust him with their identities, he had a private conversation on instant messenger with a friend. That conversation was subsequently leaked, and published by Silicon Valley Insider. It is as follows:

ZUCK: yea so if you ever need info about anyone at harvard

ZUCK: just ask

ZUCK: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns

FRIEND: what!? how’d you manage that one?

ZUCK: people just submitted it

ZUCK: i don’t know why

ZUCK: they “trust me”

ZUCK: dumb fucks



In the intervening years, I’ve learned that Zuckerberg values his own privacy so much that he has security guards watching his trash, that he bought four houses surrounding his own house to avoid having neighbors, that he sued hundreds of Hawaiians to sever their claim to tiny plots of land within his massive Kauai estate, and that he secretly built tools to prevent further private messages from coming back to haunt him.

What I haven’t learned, or seen any sign of, is that he has changed his opinion of the intelligence of his users. It’s Zuckerberg’s world, and we’re all just a bunch of dumb fucks living in it.



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