It was the winter of 2003, and I was a pre-frosh. On my high school guidance counselor’s list of prospective colleges, Harvard was so high a reach as to be omitted from consideration. Nonetheless, visiting Cambridge one weekend with my family, I dialed up a friend there to say hello. He suggested I tag along that night to a student party. Much as I’d like to say that the undergrads were huddled around monitors, scribbling furiously on whiteboards, in fact there was loud music and a spiked punch. No one was “wired in.”
A few months later, and nine years ago today, Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg flipped the switch on the service that would, in short order, upend his alma mater, higher education, the nation, and, ultimately, the world. And so by that summer, I was eagerly awaiting an .edu email address from Cornell — the fifth campus opened to the online directory — where I planned to matriculate in the fall. On June 4, 2004, I cropped my date from our senior prom photo and established a profile of my own on the Thefacebook.com.
I was user 409,520, which I knew at the time because it said so in my profile. In 2009, User IDs were replaced with usernames. It’s still possible to find your own number — or anyone’s — through a standard browser. Type graph.facebook.com/[yourname] into the address bar, and check out the first field that comes up, called “id.” My page, for instance, is graph.facebook.com/rbfishman, and my number remains unchanged.
Two years later, as a staff writer for the Cornell Daily Sun, I was assigned a story about Facebook’s expansion to high schools. The spokesman who fielded my interview request said email would be the fastest and that he promised to get back to me in a day or two. His name was Chris Hughes. Reaching out to Hughes again, some seven years later, the billionaire Facebook cofounder and publisher of The New Republic was splitting his time between three cities, as per an assistant, and unable to reply.
It’s easy to forget that, back then, Zuckerberg, Hughes, and cofounder Dustin Moskovitz were still kids themselves, teenage fathers to an unwieldy toddler that, in the near-decade since, has done very well by them.
More than a billion users later, Facebook is still very much a Mark Zuckerberg production. The initial public offering, in one view, only cemented the company as a “corporate dictatorship.” Then, now, and for the foreseeable future, Zuck’s CEO, bitch. Of all the smart people I met (and didn’t meet) at Harvard that night, only one had the vision or tenacity to engineer a sprawling technological empire, over which the sun truly never sets. Even Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter who skewered the boy king, concedes that “there is no question that Mark Zuckerberg is a genius. He doesn’t just have brains. He created something.”
And so, as News Feed begets Timeline begets Graph Search, the counterfactual — if not Mark, then who? If not Facebook, then what? — tumbles deeper down the Wayback Machine. It’s hard to imagine another hoodie-clad substitute, a different anti-hero scowling through Sorkin’s movie. But in an alternate universe, it’s the closest eyewitnesses to Facebook’s inception who might have been its likeliest founders: the kids down the hall, who logged in instead of starting up. Among them, yes, are a few billionaires. But nine years after graduation, Facebook reveals they are lawyers, doctors, financiers, activists, and athletes. In the parlance of Silicon Valley, they’re the earliest adopters.
Harvard’s Class of 2006 was the university’s first to open its acceptance letters in their electronic inboxes. Thick emails awaited only one in ten of the 19,605 hopefuls who applied that year. The ritual frenzy of Friending your new classmates was, of course, unavailable to generation zero, so they met the old-fashioned way. Arie Hasit, later the fourth user, came from Philadelphia, and hoped to move to Israel after college. Number 14, Colin Jackson, hailed from the Bay Area. “My brother was at Harvard when I applied,” Jackson remembered, “so the East Coast didn’t seem like such a faraway place.” Sarah Goodin, who would become Facebook’s first woman, was from nearby Berkeley, with plans to study psychology.
Harvard’s housing lottery divides freshmen into so-called “blocking groups,” placed together in one of the university’s residential houses. Goodin was assigned to Straus Hall, a red-bricked Georgian Revival off Old Harvard Yard, where the writer William S. Burroughs and David Souter, the Supreme Court Justice, had both lived. One of her hallmates was Samyr Laine, a high school track-and-field star, born to Haitian immigrants. A government major “with a little bit of French on the side,” he said, Laine ran in a different social circle than one of his roommates, a curly-haired computer programmer named Mark Zuckerberg.
Along with Hughes, another student from his blocking group, Zuckerberg moved into Kirkland House the following year. As he had with Laine, Zuckerberg unbunked the beds, leaving little room to walk. On a whiteboard he kept in the suite, Zuckerberg took two first stabs at connecting the campus. Course Match helped his peers select classes, and Facemash — which landed him in some trouble with the university — brought the concept of “hot or not?” to the elite university. A junior named Joe Green (#20), who helped with Facemash, was forbidden by his father from working with Zuckerberg again.
After a winter spent coding, Zuckerberg was ready to unveil his latest project, registered at thefacebook.com. He had preemptively given up a third of the business to Eduardo Saverin — user #19 — a suave Brazilian charged with monetizing the site. After signing up themselves, the founders fired off notes to friends in Kirkland House. Goodin received an email from Zuckerberg, and even though Facemash had been accused of misogyny, logged on straightaway. “It never crossed my mind to have any trepidation about joining Facebook,” she said. “I was friends with Mark, and I knew the quality of his character.”
The site spread quickly through Zuckerberg’s social spheres, among fraternity brothers in Alpha Epsilon Pi and to computer science classmates. The seventh to sign up, Mark Kaganovich, had taken math classes with Zuckerberg and hung out in his dorm room. “I remember him urging me to put up a profile picture, because I was slow to do so,” Kaganovich said of Zuckerberg. It took Kaganovich “a few minutes of mockery,” said his roommate, Tono Aguilar (#9), to convince his friend. User #16, David Hammer, was another computer science major who took classes with Zuckerberg and Andrew McCollum, the fifth user and designer of Facebook’s original logo. When an email went out to the AEPi listserve, members like Colin Jackson and Zach Bercu, user #10, gave it a try.
Four days after its launch, 650 students had registered, according to David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, and by the end of the first week, half of all Harvard undergrads were on Facebook. “It wasn’t long before it seemed as though everyone was on it,” said Zach Seward, a freshman at the time who worked on The Harvard Crimson, the student paper. Moskovitz and Hughes came on board officially, and they opened the network to Columbia, Stanford, and Yale. By the end of the month, Thefacebook claimed 10,000 active users.
Just like incoming freshmen, everyone and everything on Facebook gets assigned its own UID. The ordering begins, of course, with Mark Zuckerberg, and now includes more than a billion people, pages, places, and apps on the Facebook Platform. The chronology is not always straight, as with the first three accounts left intentionally blank for testing. Zuckerberg’s UID, thus, is four — and his page is facebook.com/4. Others, like the putative fifth and sixth users, Marcel Laverdet and Soleio Cuervo, are actually numerical anachronisms, since early engineers at the company retroactively claimed low numbers.
While some traded up, Tono Aguilar recently said that he’d like to sell his early URL, a sign of just how coveted the numbers are. “Let me know if there are any bids!” joked Aguilar, now an entrepreneur in Guatemala. “I do sometimes feel like being an early Facebook user is the most statistically improbable thing that there is about me,” said David Hammer, who took a job with Google after college. When Saverin eventually parted ways with and then sued Zuckerberg, he demanded that his founder’s title be reinstated. Holding an early number is, for some early Facebookers, like owning a little piece of the company.
“It’s been a very impressive road for those guys,” said Bercu, now a medical resident in Mount Sinai’s department of radiology. “I feel proud to say I remember it from the beginning.” Arie Hasit, who is studying to be a rabbi in Israel, says people will randomly ask of his early status: “Is it true?” For years, Hasit has credited himself with Facebook’s birthday notifications, which he said appeared the day after his own birthday, when he complained to Zuckerberg. But this summer, Colin Kelly, user #6 and an attorney in New York, claimed the birthday addition as his own.
While the early adopters are proud, if somewhat amused, by their connection to Facebook, for many of them since, it’s been only incidental, a fun piece of trivia. After graduation, Hammer had to choose between jobs at Google and Facebook. In 2005, he wrote a prescient essay for the Google job about how Facebook could build a platform. He still reflects on his early standing, “but I don’t feel any sense of proprietary attachment to the company or the product beyond that,” Hammer said. Of course, some of the early users, like engineer Kang-Jing Xain (#13) did elect to join Facebook, eventually earning a lot more than bragging rights.
Others, with numbers much higher than Saverin’s, have also asserted ownership over the social network. Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, twin rowers who partnered with fellow student Divya Narendra, had enlisted Zuckerberg to code their site, Harvard Connection, while, unbeknownst to them, he started creating Facebook. Portrayed in Sorkin’s The Social Network as “The Winklevii,” they sued Zuckerberg for ownership over the site, what Kirkpatrick calls “strong stuff for a supposed 10-hour project for which Zuckerberg never had a written contract and was never paid.”
Though they reportedly earned $65 million in a settlement, the Winklevoss twins, who just invested in the shopping start-up Hukkster, maintain that Zuckerberg took their idea and ran with it. “It was very clear when we met him that a light bulb went off,” Cameron Winklevoss said. “Mark Zuckerberg wouldn’t be where he is today had we not approached him.” The twins stayed off Facebook until 2008, when they joined after the Olympics to keep in touch with friends overseas; their User IDs, consequently, number in the billions.
“We are ablaze! — ablaze with excitement, burning, yearning for a glimpse of the John Jacob Astor, the Andrew Carnegie, the E.H. Harriman, the John D. Rockefeller, the Henry Ford, the Bill Gates of our century…and that’s him!” the author Tom Wolfe recently observed of Mark Zuckerberg, on the day that Facebook’s I.P.O. minted a new master of the universe.
Just last week, TechCrunch anointed Zuckerberg as the year’s top CEO, applauding him as “nothing short of a tech icon.” It wasn’t an unusual accolade. In the mold of Thomas Carlyle’s Great Man — “the soul of the whole world’s history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these,” the Scottish thinker wrote in 1840 — Zuckerberg is regularly hailed as prodigy, visionary, genius. What Ford was to the automobile, Zuckerberg is to the social web.
But just as the Model T profited from earlier innovation, Facebook benefited from a long legacy of development. As early as the 1960s, engineers envisaged online communities of the future, which came to pass on the fledgling World Wide Web in services like Usenet, America Online, Geocities, and Friendster. By the turn of the century, the notion that social networks should be digitized was well-established — particularly on college campuses. Sites like Club Nexus, at Stanford, and Wesleyan’s WesMatch, were already thriving when Facebook came about.
How much our interconnected world was made in Zuckerberg’s image is something of an open question. “I think it’s primarily about Mark,” said Laine. “If you give two chefs the same recipe, it doesn’t mean it will come out tasting the same.” Kirkpatrick told me he thought a Facebook-like site might have emerged without Zuckerberg, but not for another year or two. The inevitability of something like it might not detract from Zuckerberg’s ingenuity. “The internet has always needed an identity layer, but the specific way it took shape is in my opinion very much of a function of Mark and the early Facebook guys,” added Hammer.
Others with a front seat to history wonder if, under the right conditions, something close to Facebook might exist even without its founder. The Winklevoss twins, for example, have said they were on to the very same idea. “I believe that many ideas have their time, and the person responsible merely serves as a catalyst,” said Hasit, “and perhaps it’s the same with Facebook.” Aguilar noted that tech giants like Facebook have come and gone, and “it was just called something different in the past and will be in the future.” Eighty percent of success is showing up, said Woody Allen. If Zuckerberg hadn’t released his creation, another would surely have arisen from the primordial stew.
As important as the timing was the setting: Harvard, the world’s premier educational institution. “I don’t think it had to come out of Harvard,” said Seward, now an editor at Quartz. “In the history of tech start-ups, it’s kind of notable that it did, instead of coming out of Stanford.” Carrying, as it did, Harvard’s imprimatur, Facebook traveled well to successive colleges and especially internationally, Kirkpatrick said. “It was completely useful and completely inadvertent,” he added, noting that the Harvard connection impressed elites in countries like Egypt and Turkey, where it trickled down to everyone. Even within the university, as Kaganovich said of his own attachment, “it was always more of a Harvard thing than a personal thing.”
For some of its first class, Facebook has altered their own trajectory. The social network’s global impact, Bercu said, has underlined for him the leadership required to solve small problems. “If we affect even a single person,” he said, “we have changed their world. That’s one of the main reasons I became a physician.” Laine, who competed in the 2012 Olympics as a triple jumper for Haiti, said, “You go to Harvard to meet people like Mark.” A rising tide may well lift all boats: Laine’s Facebook page boasts close to 25,000 followers, while Saverin claims 1.5 million — and nearly $3 billion in wealth from the site.
As Aguilar said, “Being part of the Facebook generation has clearly affected my personal and professional life, as it has the hundreds of millions of young people that have grown up with this.”