Real hero of the Facebook story isn’t Zuckerberg

My take on the Facebook story — from yesterday’s Observer.

The number to watch is not the putative $100bn valuation but the 845 million users that Facebook now claims to have. The observation that if Facebook were a country then it would be the third most populous on the planet has become a cliche, but underpinning it is an intriguing question: how did an idea cooked up in a Harvard dorm become so powerful?

Thanks to a compelling movie, The Social Network, we think we know the story. A ferociously gifted Harvard sophomore named Zuckerberg has difficulties with women and vents his frustration by creating an offensive web application that invites users to compare pairs of female students and indicate which is “hottest”. He puts this up on the Harvard network where it gets him into trouble with the authorities. Then he lifts an idea from a pair of nice-but-dim Wasp contemporaries who need a programmer and, in a frenzied burst of inspired hacking, implements the idea in computer code, thereby creating an online version of the printed “facebooks” common to elite US universities. This he then launches on an unsuspecting world. The Wasps sue him but lose (though get a settlement). Zuckerberg goes on to become Master of the Universe. Cue music, fade to black.

It’s all true, sort of, but the dramatic imperatives of the narrative obscure the really significant bit of the story. So let’s rewind…