It's the stuff of dotcom legend. Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg and a few friends hack into the university's photo ID database and create a site for students to rate and/or berate their classmates' pictures. Since Facebook's launch in 2004, it's become a cultural phenomenon that's outgrown its Ivy League origins, into middle America and started to expand into countries around the world. NEWSWEEK's Dan Lyons spoke with Zuckerberg about Facebook's rapid growth, how it's reshaped how we think about privacy and whether the site can get too big for its own good. Excerpts: (Article continued below...)
In just five years, Facebook has attracted 250 million members and become a huge cultural phenomenon. Could you ever have imagined this when you were starting out in your dorm room at Harvard?
Well, no. It was a really interesting time. Like a lot of college kids, we spent a lot of time talking about abstract things that interested us and how things in world would play out, about trends in technology. We were looking at all this over late-night pizza, while we were hanging out. We thought that during our lifetimes the way people negotiated their identity and their privacy would be changed. There would be a lot more information, and a lot more transparency. That was really interesting to us. At the same time we had no idea that we would build a business that would shape that in any way. I was just building something that would let me and the people around me stay in touch. But then it just kind of grew and grew. The cool irony is that now we are able to have an impact on some of those lofty things we used to discuss in our college dorm room.
Has Facebook changed our ideas about privacy?
I think social norms have evolved a bit. When we were just getting started five years ago, people were not sure whether they wanted to put anything about themselves on the Internet at all. It was more about control. People want to feel that they can put something up and can control who sees it and if they want to take it down, they can do that. By giving people that control, we enable them to share more stuff. The debate about privacy is really a debate about control. The system we're building is one that strives to give people more control over their information.
What will Facebook look like five years from now?
Facebook will be less about Facebook.com and more about this underlying system and platform that we're building. What we're trying to do is be more about letting people use their information on any site or platform they want. We launched Facebook Connect last year, and we now have more than 15,000 sites using it, and that's just a start. Within five years we hope to have hundreds of millions of [more] people using Facebook. But it's more about using the system to make other sites more social.
How big can Facebook get? Is there a limit on the number of members you can support? Will you reach 1 billion members?
It's always hard to say what is the ultimate size that things can get to, but this is a pretty universal application. An application that lets people stay connected is something that a lot of people can use. But it's very hard to predict.
As you add more users you need to keep expanding your data center, too. How can you get revenues to catch up with the growing cost of operating the site?
We've gone from 25 million users at about this time in 2007 to 250 million users just more than two years later. That's been pretty crazy. We have 15 billion photos on the site, and we add a billion new photos every month. For a while we've had a strategy of just expanding and getting lots of people on the site. The primary value of the site is having other people on the site. A lot of people were critical of us, saying we were not focused enough on revenue and wouldn't be able to sustain ourselves. But in reality, more users means more revenue. As we grow, we will become increasingly profitable.
What have been the biggest decisions you've made in the past few years?
One thing was making a site that was translated to most of the languages that people speak in the world. We built a system where users could contribute different translations and vote on the translations. The result is we've been able to translate into all these languages and dialects and variants. We now support languages that are spoken by 97 percent of the world.
What exactly is Facebook? How do you think of it?
I think Facebook is who people really are. We use this term the social graph, and the verb we use is mapping it out. We think the social graph exists in the world. We try to give people the ability to map out as much of their real identity as possible. We're far from the real result. But we have a start.
What do you worry about the most?
Right now is a time when we are growing well in a lot of different ways. Our user base is expanding quickly. Our revenue is growing well. We're doing well in recruiting, and adding some awesome people to our company. The question is how do we maintain this? How do we keep on growing? How do we have the full impact that we want to have.
One of your investors is buying shares from employees—letting them cash out early. I've heard you were not crazy about this. Is that true?
No, I'm really happy that people have a chance to do this. Back in the early days I had the chance during one of our funding rounds to get a bit of liquidity. It meant that in making decisions about Facebook I didn't have to worry about the short term. I could just work on making Facebook as good as possible, and optimize it for 10 to 20 years out. To the extent that other people have the chance to do that now, it would be a healthy thing.
You really think in terms of 10 to 20 years out?
Yes, I think this is a long-term thing. There is still a lot of growth. In all these dimensions—users, advertisers—the peak is not for a long time. A lot of that is our willingness to align incentives of everyone at the company for the long term.