[Note: This review originally ran in Advertising Age on December 28, 2011, and is reposted here by kind permission]
First and foremost, The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick is a valuable document, chronicling how Facebook started, grew, stumbled and then transformed into whatever you think it is now. This is all the more impressive because the story Mr. Kirkpatrick endeavors to tell goes in two directions at once.
The first direction is toward Silicon Valley, where all things tech wind up eventually and where Facebook eventually makes its way from the dorms of Harvard. This part of the story itself has two parts – one about the culture that has created Google, Yahoo! and everything else wise and wonderful in our age, and the other about how this handful of teenagers functioned in and out of that culture, sometimes doing the dance, other times not
The second direction of the story – both the one Mr. Kirkpatrick writes and the one Facebook is living – is toward human beings. The Facebook Effect is also the story of how people connect. How they interact. How they function, both online and off. Not only has that changed over the handful of years that Facebook has been in existence, but Facebook itself has changed it. And it still is . That means Mr. Kirkpatrick is forced to write about things that are still evolving, even as he writes them. Building the airplane as he – and Facebook – are flying it.
Not only are these two directions intriguing, but charting how they overlap and at times echo each other adds another compelling element to this well-written and well-researched work.
Perhaps with so much on his plate, therefore, one can forgive Mr. Kirkpatrick some shortcomings. For example, there is an element of inevitability to The Facebook Effect. We know how it turns out. We know Mark Zuckerberg will succeed even as the naysayers say “nay.” Even the most luddite among us knows – and one wishes Mr. Kirkpatrick had kept a keener eye toward reminding us of – the improbability of the entire enterprise he was chronicling.
Also, there is a bit of deification of Mr. Zuckerberg himself. He comes off as something of a Zen master, always in control of his emotions, always three steps ahead of everyone else he encounters. Part of this may, perhaps, be chalked up to sources. While Mr. Kirkpatrick is quite generous, and it would seem, forthright about what he considered exceptional access during his writing of the book, it feels nevertheless as if we have been shielded from what one would expect to be the typical idiotic behavior from even the most serene human. This complaint has less to do with my own prurient interests than it does with wishing to get a sense of Mr. Zuckerberg as something more than an alien life form.
And while I am more than willing to concede that Mr. Zuckerberg must be a person of unique qualities to accomplish what he did, the resulting portrait that emerges is ill-defined and unreal. Hardly a person at all, really. More like some sort of otherworldly oracle. A prophet. A seer. A visionary. A genius? Perhaps, but a human being? Not so much.
If Mr. Zuckerberg is a genius, however – and I am certainly not the person to pass judgment on that – at least as far as The Facebook Effect is concerned, it is not for inventing Facebook. Mr. Kirkpatrick makes it clear that the idea had been floating around in some form or another before Mr. Zuckerberg took up residence in Cambridge, Mass. – and hints that a variant would have surfaced without him.
Instead, Mr. Kirkpatrick makes the case that Mr. Zuckerberg is a genius for understanding what Facebook really meant – or could mean – and he is a genius for somehow understanding how to negotiate his company and his vision through the two directions I discussed earlier, simultaneously. One would appreciate more insight into how he accomplished these incredible feats, but one cannot fault this admirable book for that.
The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That is Connecting the World by David Kirkpatrick was published by Simon and Schuster on 06/08/2010– order it from Amazon here, or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).