How Facebook's Singular Approach to Data Reshaped Social Connections and Changed the Political Landscape Forever

In The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America, Margaret O'Mara explores how Silicon Valley came to be at the epicenter of technology in America. O'Mara, a historian at the University of Washington, worked in the Clinton White House in the early days of the internet. She shows how the explosive growth of social media, when paired with data from the sites users visited online, increased engagement—and how it flourished in an environment free from government oversight. The following excerpt describes how Facebook came of age at a time when society was seeking greater human connection—and in turn reshaped the political landscape in the hands of a social media master named Barack Obama.

Three billion smartphones. Two billion social media users. Two trillion-dollar companies. San Francisco's tallest skyscraper, Seattle's biggest employer, the four most expensive corporate campuses on the planet. The richest people in the history of humanity.

The benchmarks attained by America's largest technology companies in the twilight years of the 21st century's second decade boggle the imagination. Added together, the valuations of tech's so-called Big Five—Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google/Alphabet and Microsoft—total more than the entire economy of the United Kingdom. Yet, few people had heard of "Silicon Valley" and the electronics firms that clustered there when a trade-paper journalist decided to give it that snappy nickname in early 1971. Even 10 years later, when personal computers mushroomed on office desks and boy-wonder entrepreneurs with last names like Jobs and Gates seized the public imagination, the Valley itself remained off to the side of the main action.

However, the Valley and its sister technopolis of Seattle soared to staggering heights in the dot-com 1990s—"the largest single legal creation of wealth we've witnessed on the planet," quipped venture capitalist John Doerr—only to plummet to earth as the new millennium dawned with a massive, NASDAQ-pummeling pop, leaving the carcasses of once-shining internet companies strewn across the landscape. The rocketing rise of Amazon felt like a fever dream, Apple had run out of product ideas, Microsoft had been ordered to split itself in two, and Google was a garage operation whose leaders seemed more interested in going to Burning Man than turning a profit.

How quickly things change.

Fast-forward to the present, and Silicon Valley is no longer merely a place in Northern California. It is a global network, a business sensibility, a cultural shorthand, a political hack. Hundreds of places around the world have rebranded themselves Silicon Deserts, Forests, Roundabouts, Steppes and Wadis as they seek to capture some of the original's magic.

Enter Facebook

Facebook was a little more than five years old when it moved into a building on the fringe of the Stanford Research Park that once had housed part of Hewlett-Packard. The platform's growth had left all its competitors and predecessors in the dust. An expansionist, earnest, set-the-defaults-to-public spirit reverberated through the campus. By connecting the world through software, and doing so at massive scale, the company was accomplishing something the Valley had been trying to do for generations. Posters emblazoned with the company's de facto motto adorned the walls surrounding Facebook's expansive open-plan bullpen: "Move fast and break things."

In 2007, Facebook opened up its network to third-party apps, bringing in games and quizzes and other content to its newsfeed, and allowing developers to tap into the treasure trove of knowledge about users' connections and likes that Facebook called the "social graph." In 2010, Facebook announced "Open Graph," which connected a user's profile and network to the other places she traveled online. It wasn't just a social network atop the Web anymore. Facebook had remade the Web itself into something, as Mark Zuckerberg put it, "more social, more personalized and more semantically aware." The company allowed academic researchers to tap into its troves of information as well, underscoring its belief that freer and more transparent flows of information served the greater good.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg David Ramos/Getty

Zuckerberg had a deepening sense of his place in Valley history as the company's wealth and influence grew. In the new digs, he adopted Steve Jobs' famous habit of holding "walk and talk" meetings behind Facebook's building to a sweeping view of the birthplace of so many of the Valley's iconic names: Shockley and Fairchild, Intel and Apple, Netscape and Google. He would point out these sites, then turn to his companion to make his pitch. Facebook "would eventually be bigger than all of the companies" he had just mentioned, one prospective employee later recounted him saying. "If I joined the company, I could be part of it all." Time agreed that the young CEO was making history, making him Person of the Year for 2010.

Sign of the Times

Like generations of tech companies before it, Facebook owed its success not only to the talents of its creators but also to the historical moment in which it grew. The long-brewing distrust of government, dislike of traditional gatekeepers and decentralization of American mass media accelerated rapidly in the post-9/11 era, aided by the internet. Added into the already frantic spin of cable TV came the cacophony of online outlets and the you-may-also-like curation of RSS feeds and Google News. The age of terror and grinding war in the Middle East caused a longing for familiar realms of family and community, and it increased suspicion of foreigners and religious minorities, the "them" versus "us." When real life felt terrifying, social media was a welcome retreat.

But Facebook and other social networks also filled a cultural void created by a half century of political liberation and economic dislocation, the vanishing of bowling leagues and church picnics and union meetings that had glued together mid-century America in conformity and community. Social media became a more cosmopolitan town square, one that crossed national borders, launched new voices and created moments of connection that could morph into real-life friendships. It turned everyone into a diarist, a philosopher, an activist—even if that activism was merely clicking a "like" button.

Both Facebook and Twitter, a social platform originally designed for 140-character "microblog" status updates, became powerful mechanisms for political organizing and communication during the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements of 2011. Twitter swiftly gained a disproportionate number of African American users and "Black Twitter" became a powerful platform for both civic activism and cultural exchange; the most powerful racial justice movement of the century's second decade, Black Lives Matter, began as a Twitter hashtag. And in the 2008 and 2012 presidential races, candidates used social networking as a powerful tool to reach sharply targeted groups of likely voters, as well as providing the ultimate free-media platform for unfiltered campaign messaging.

The Social Media President

Few did this earlier and better than Barack Obama. Like Zuckerberg, the onetime state senator from Illinois had been a virtual unknown in 2004, shooting into the international spotlight because of his remarkable charisma, singular vision and lucky timing. Silicon Valley power players had been searching for a new boy wonder in the wake of the success of Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, and they had found it in Zuckerberg. Similarly, Clinton-weary Democrats who opposed the Bush Administration's decision to go to war in Iraq (and 2008 frontrunner Hillary Clinton's vote for it) found in Obama a fresh face and compelling voice.

Just as Franklin Roosevelt had done with radio and John F. Kennedy with TV, Barack Obama leveraged social media more thoroughly and creatively than his political rivals, and he formed a close and convivial relationship with the Valley in the process. Google's Eric Schmidt became an early donor and advisor. Chris Hughes, a member of Zuckerberg's original Harvard team, took a sabbatical from Facebook to serve as Obama's new-media guru, helping the campaign deliver targeted messages as cool and crisply designed as Web 2.0 itself.

Traditional direct-mail operations couldn't hold a candle to inexpensive and viral Facebook pages; a well-turned tweet by the candidate reached more voters than any stump speech. Bill Clinton might have won the tech community's votes in the early 1990s, but the new generation's hearts and wallets were with Obama. As eager Stanford student volunteers swarmed the Palo Alto field office and tech executives lined up to give high-dollar donations, one reporter quipped that the Obama campaign had become "the hottest start-up in the Valley."

After entering office in 2009, the commander in chief became a familiar presence in town, holding town hall meetings at Facebook and LinkedIn, convening big-ticket fundraisers and enjoying private dinners with tech titans. One CEO gathering at John and Ann Doerr's Woodside home featured one of the most staggering assemblies of net worth in human history, with Zuckerberg, Schmidt and Jobs all joining Doerr and Obama around the table.

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President Obama understood how to leverage social media more effectively than his political rivals Kimberly White/Corbis/Getty

Back in Washington, the president pushed for wiring schools and reinventing bureaucracy with new software. He called on his tech allies and donors after the disastrous rollout of the enrollment website for his health care plan. Obama hired the nation's first chief technology officer, beefed up the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and staged science-fair photo ops to encourage kids to pursue engineering. He hosted a Reddit Ask Me Anything ("Hey everybody—this is barack," the president began), had millions of followers on Twitter and hired a mind-boggling number of people who had once worked at Google. Obama aides, in turn, often made their way to Silicon Valley after their stint in public service was up.

Toward the end of his time in office, in one final and important victory for the information-should-be-free crowd, Obama's FCC sided with the Valley (and against telecom companies) on the hot-button issue of "net neutrality," which prevented internet service providers from blocking or charging higher prices for certain content. But it was tech's great capitalists whom Obama seemed to admire and rely upon the most. He quietly conferred with Doerr, Schmidt and others as he began to mull his post-presidency life, and at one point floated the notion of becoming a venture capitalist himself.

America had become even more fractured and fractious over the course of Obama's presidency, yet he remained optimistic about social media's potential to bridge the divide. Even a rising swell of foreign hacks and online security breaches did not dim the president's hope that much could be overcome if tech and government were both at the table. "I'm absolutely confident that if we keep...working together in a spirit of collaboration, like all those innovators before us, our work will endure, like a great cathedral, for centuries to come," he exhorted an admiring Stanford crowd during a cybersecurity summit the White House held on campus in 2015. "And that cathedral will not just be about technology, it will be about the values that we've embedded in the architecture of this system. It will be about privacy, and it will be about community. And it will be about connection."

Mark Zuckerberg couldn't have said it better himself.

→ From THE CODE: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Margaret O'Mara.

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Margaret O'Mara: Author of "The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America" Jim Garner

Q&A: Margaret O'Mara
by Meredith Wolf Schizer

How did you come up with the idea for the book?
I've been studying the history of the tech industry for a long time, and people always kept asking me, "How did Silicon Valley do it?" and "How can we build another Silicon Valley?" I wrote the book to answer those questions.

I also set out to show how, despite all its disruptive, risk-embracing iconoclasm, the Valley has always been deeply connected to and shaped by other places and people: Wall Street, Washington D.C. and tech hubs like Boston and Seattle. We can't separate the story of these extraordinary companies and entrepreneurs from the broader history of modern American culture, politics and business enterprise—they've been intertwined all along.

What obstacles did you face when researching the book and how did you overcome them?
It's a really big story. From the Cold War to mainframes to PCs, the Internet, mobile and social media there's a lot to capture. Plus, technology moves fast. I was writing about the very recent past and the still-evolving history of the biggest players in today's tech. When I started this project six years ago, the media and political worlds were pretty optimistic about the power of Silicon Valley technologists to change the world for the better. Now the mood is much darker. The real story lies somewhere in between—a tale of technological marvels and critical blind spots, of entrepreneurial triumph and institutional failure, of human capability and fallibility.

What do you see as social media's benefits? Its drawbacks?
Social media has done remarkable things in its relatively short lifetime. It connects and reconnects far-flung friends and loved ones, it delivers moments of lightness and joy, and it can make people realize they are not alone in this world. But the same engineering that encourages these connections and conversations also can privilege the loudest and angriest voices in the room. The challenge now before Silicon Valley technologists—and all of us—is to find ways to harness the creative energy of social media while curbing its destructive tendencies. This won't be easy, but it's essential.

Do you put limits on your daughters' screen time?
Like all families, we are trying to figure out the healthy and happy way to live in a world of screens. Only our older daughter, age 13, has a phone. It has limited browsing capacity, with no social media apps. She can communicate via calls, texts and email, and no electronics are allowed in bedrooms.

What about yourself?
Even though I write about the online world, I need to go offline in order to get any good words on the page. The Freedom browser add-on [an app that blocks the internet for a set amount of time] is worth every penny.

What's your next project?
I'm not ready to reveal that quite yet! I can say for sure it will be about the same things that always interest me: powerful people and the times that shape them.

Where is your favorite spot to write and what is your preferred font?
Give me a flat surface, a decent chair and a good playlist on my headphones, and I can write nearly anywhere. And I've flirted with others, but I always come back to Times New Roman, 12 point font.

iPhone or Android? Apple or Windows?
It's awkward for someone from Microsoft's hometown to confess this, but I'm an Apple user all the way.

How Facebook's Singular Approach to Data Reshaped Social Connections and Changed the Political Landscape Forever