Given his unusual level of access to the dominator himself, the now-35-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, Levy has been accused of writing too friendly an account. Notably, he leaves out one fruity online messaging exchange in which the Zuck refers to his early users as “dumb f---s” and offers to share their personal data with a friend. Even so, if this is the sanitised official history then the samizdat version must be atomic. There is more than enough here to explain exactly how and why Facebook’s “idealistic and terrifying mission” to “connect the world” resulted in global scandal, billions of dollars in fines and the worst reputational reversal since Enron.
If you want a play-by-play account of Facebook’s rise, this is the book for you. It is told, however, almost exclusively by the players themselves. They have an interest in recasting the narrative after years of scandal, but what the narrative likely won’t do is fill you with hope. Zuckerberg’s engineering “value set” — to relentlessly build a better machine — virtually guaranteed that Facebook would end where it is now: vilified by politicians, stalked by regulators and still growing like a weed.
Admittedly, the writing is functional at best and clunky at worst but the book’s evenhanded, careful tone distinguishes it from the brash genre of anti big tech polemics that has thrived in recent years. Inevitably, it is as much a biography of Zuckerberg as it is a history of his company. Little Zuck was, we learn, a precocious tyke who scorned his intellectually substandard playmates, to spend five hours coding each night after school. He built a video game that allowed him to conquer the world virtually and a communication system called Zucknet for his father’s dental surgery.
Facebook is known for its often hostile relationship with the press, so the company’s willing participation in Levy’s book raises questions about the parameters of his access. Many of the executives and associates quoted are now millionaires or even billionaires thanks to Facebook. For example, Levy tells us earnestly of Zuckerberg’s desire to “give people a voice” — the exact phrase parroted by the founder recently as defence for his contentious decision to allow political advertising to run on the platform without fact checking. But ultimately the portrait is unforgiving.