I also interviewed four dozen people inside and outside the company about its culture, his performance, and his decision-making. I found Zuckerberg straining, not always coherently, to grasp problems for which he was plainly unprepared. These are not technical puzzles to be cracked in the middle of the night but some of the subtlest aspects of human affairs, including the meaning of truth, the limits of free speech, and the origins of violence. Zuckerberg is now at the center of a full-fledged debate about the moral character of Silicon Valley and the conscience of its leaders.
And now everyone says, Is this a trick? And the question Mark Zuckerberg is dealing with is: Should my company be the arbiter of truth and decency for two billion people? Nobody in the history of technology has dealt with that. The campus is a self-contained universe, with the full range of free Silicon Valley perks: dry cleaning, haircuts, music lessons, and food by the acre, including barbecue, biryani, and salad bars.
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The campus, which was designed with the help of consultants from Disney, is arranged as an ersatz town that encircles a central plaza, with shops and restaurants and offices along a main street. Executives offer fulsome praise. Before I visited Zuckerberg for the first time, in June, members of his staff offered the kind of advice usually reserved for approaching a skittish bird: proceed gingerly, build a connection, avoid surprises. The contrast between the public and the private Zuckerberg reminded me of Hillary Clinton. In both cases, friends complain that the popular image is divorced from the casual, funny, generous person they know.
Yet neither Zuckerberg nor Clinton has found a way to publicly express a more genuine persona. I asked Zuckerberg about his aversion to opening up. And maybe my persona, or at least how I felt comfortable acting publicly, would shift. He has tried, at times, to puncture his own bubble. He would talk for, like, five, and just ask questions. But the exercise came off as stilted and tone-deaf. Zuckerberg travelled with a professional photographer, who documented him feeding a calf in Wisconsin, ordering barbecue, and working on an assembly line at a Ford plant in Michigan.
Online, people joked that the photos made him look like an extraterrestrial exploring the human race for the first time. Zuckerberg has spent nearly half his life inside a company of his own making, handpicking his lieutenants, and sculpting his environment to suit him. He is red-green color-blind, and he chose blue because he sees it most vividly.
Long before it seemed inevitable or even plausible, Mark Elliot Zuckerberg had an outsized sense of his own potential. They married and had four children. Mark, the only boy, was the second-oldest. His mother, who had become a psychiatrist, eventually gave up her career to take care of the kids and manage the dental office, which was connected to the family home. So he always had not just a system for drilling teeth but, like, the laser system for drilling teeth that was controlled by the computer. In the nineteen-eighties and nineties, Ed bought early personal computers—the Atari , the I.
XT—and Mark learned to code. He was thinking about things that other people were not. When Zuckerberg was a junior in high school, he transferred to Phillips Exeter Academy, where he spent most of his time coding, fencing, and studying Latin. I think Augustus is one of the most fascinating. Basically, through a really harsh approach, he established two hundred years of world peace. He also eliminated political opponents, banished his daughter for promiscuity, and was suspected of arranging the execution of his grandson.
Two hundred years feels unattainable. All the photos were different sculptures of Augustus.
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In , Zuckerberg went to Harvard , where he embraced the hacker mystique, which celebrates brilliance in pursuit of disruption. In , as a sophomore, he embarked on the project whose origin story is now well known: the founding of Thefacebook.
Her parents, who traced their roots to China, had grown up in Vietnam and arrived in the U. Priscilla was the eldest of three daughters, and the first member of her family to go to college. In , she stopped seeing patients to be the day-to-day head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. When I asked Chan about how Zuckerberg had responded at home to the criticism of the past two years, she talked to me about Sitzfleisch , the German term for sitting and working for long periods of time.
After his sophomore year, Zuckerberg moved to Palo Alto and never left. Zuckerberg carried two sets of business cards.
Facebook was fortunate to launch when it did: Silicon Valley was recovering from the dot-com bust and was entering a period of near-messianic ambitions. The Internet was no longer so new that users were scarce, but still new enough that it was largely unregulated; first movers could amass vast followings and consolidate power, and the coming rise of inexpensive smartphones would bring millions of new people online. Most important, Facebook capitalized on a resource that most people hardly knew existed: the willingness of users to subsidize the company by handing over colossal amounts of personal information, for free.
In Facebook, Zuckerberg had found the instrument to achieve his conception of greatness. Other social networks had maxed out at around that level, and Facebook employees wondered if they had hit a hidden limit. Zuckerberg created a special Growth Team, which had broad latitude to find ways of boosting the numbers.
Among other fixes, they discovered that, by offering the site in more languages, they could open huge markets. Alex Schultz, a founding member of the Growth Team, said that he and his colleagues were fanatical in their pursuit of expansion. Facebook left no opportunity untapped. In , the company asked the Federal Election Commission for an exemption to rules requiring the source of funding for political ads to be disclosed. The company had opened its trove of data to programmers who wanted to build Facebook games, personality tests, and other apps.
After a few months at Facebook, Parakilas was put in charge of a team responsible for making sure that outsiders were not misusing the data, and he was unnerved by what he found. In one case, he said, a developer was harvesting user information, including that of children, to create unauthorized profiles on its own Web site. Facebook had given away data before it had a system to check for abuse.
Parakilas suggested that there be an audit to uncover the scale of the problem.
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Meanwhile, you looked at the Growth Team and they had engineers coming out of their ears. All the smartest minds are focussed on doing whatever they can possibly do to get those growth numbers up. Facebook engineers became a new breed of behaviorists, tweaking levers of vanity and passion and susceptibility. The real-world effects were striking. In , when Chan was in medical school, she and Zuckerberg discussed a critical shortage of organs for transplant, inspiring Zuckerberg to add a small, powerful nudge on Facebook: if people indicated that they were organ donors, it triggered a notification to friends, and, in turn, a cascade of social pressure.
Researchers later found that, on the first day the feature appeared, it increased official organ-donor enrollment more than twentyfold nationwide. The technique boosted turnout by three hundred and forty thousand people—more than four times the number of votes separating Trump and Clinton in key states in the race. These powers of social engineering could be put to dubious purposes. In , Facebook data scientists used nearly seven hundred thousand people as guinea pigs, feeding them happy or sad posts to test whether emotion is contagious on social media.
They concluded that it is. When the findings were published, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , they caused an uproar among users, many of whom were horrified that their emotions may have been surreptitiously manipulated.
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But Facebook and Snapchat, in their design features, are persuading a teen-ager to wake up and see photo after photo after photo of their friends having fun without them, even if it makes them feel worse. As Facebook grew, Zuckerberg and his executives adopted a core belief: even if people criticized your decisions, they would eventually come around.
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In one of the first demonstrations of that idea, in , Facebook introduced the News Feed, a feature that suddenly alerted friends whenever a user changed profile pictures, joined groups, or altered a relationship status. Users revolted. There was a street protest at the headquarters, and hundreds of thousands of people joined a Facebook group opposing the change.