Why did Columbia's Campus Network lose out to Harvard's Facebook?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Sept. 29 2010 6:56 PM

The Other Social Network

It launched first. It had cooler features. Why did Columbia's Campus Network lose out to Harvard's Facebook?

Also in Slate, predict how much The Social Networkwill gross at the box office.

Adam Goldberg.
Adam Goldberg

In a parallel universe, there is a blockbuster movie coming out this weekend about a Web site that changed the world. It's called The Social Network. It stars Jesse Eisenberg as the site's wunderkind creator. It features wealth and drama and Ivy League shenanigans. But it's not about Facebook. It's about another site, Campus Network, and its founder, Adam Goldberg, a guy who came within arm's reach of a multibillion-dollar idea that ultimately slipped his grasp.

As The Social Network dramatizes, Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook after allegedly backing out of a commitment to work on another networking site, Harvard Connection. Lawsuits ensued, and Zuckerberg ended up shelling out tens of millions of dollars in a settlement with his one-time partners. What the film doesn't mention are all the other college social networks that Facebook shoved aside as it expanded across the country. Of those sites, perhaps the greatest threat to Facebook's dominance was Campus Network, then called CU Community after Columbia University, where it was founded.

"If you talk to Mark, he'll be the first to tell you he thought CU Community was the biggest competition that Facebook ever had," says Goldberg, now 26 years old and living in New York City. While I was unable to confirm that Zuckerberg agrees with this statement—the Facebook CEO and the company's PR reps didn't respond to requests for an interview—it is true that Facebook and CU Community were running neck and neck for a brief moment in Internet history. Facebook had Harvard, CU Community had Columbia, and both were mulling plans for expansion. Only one site would survive. It wasn't Adam Goldberg's.

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Goldberg got the idea for Campus Network in 2003, during his freshman year at Columbia's school of engineering. As president of his class, he heard a lot of complaints about the university's lack of community spirit. Over the summer, he wrote a simple script for a social network for engineering students. The site let users share personal information, post photos, write journal entries, and comment on one another's posts. In just a few weeks, Goldberg says, three-quarters of engineering students had profiles. Over winter break, he rebranded the site CU Community and opened the site to all undergraduates in January. Goldberg says that most Columbia students signed up in just over a month.

On Feb. 4, Facebook launched. "At first I was like, Oh my God, they copied my Web site," says Goldberg. Unlike Zuckerberg's Harvard Connection adversaries, however, the CU Community founder quickly changed his mind. "I saw it was totally different. It had an emphasis on directory functionality, less emphasis on sharing. I didn't think there was that much competition."

As of early 2004, Goldberg's social network was a lot more advanced than Mark Zuckerberg's. The first incarnation of Facebook—known as The Facebook back then—let users post a photo and basic biographical information. It let them "friend" and "poke" each other. But that was about it. Fancier tools like photo sharing and Groups and the Wall didn't come till later. Meanwhile, CU Community already had blogging and cross-profile commenting. Facebook's simplicity and the fact that it was available only to Harvard students made it easy for Goldberg to dismiss. "We were the Columbia community, they were Harvard," he says.

Click image to expand.
Click to enlarge

The illusion of safety crumbled a month later when Facebook opened its doors to students at Stanford, Yale, and Columbia. While Facebook grew exponentially at Harvard and Stanford, growth was slower at Columbia—in part, says Goldberg, because CU Community was already so entrenched. Some Columbia students launched a campaign to "Google bomb" Facebook by linking the search term "cucommunity ripoff" to TheFacebook.com and "worthless safety school" to Harvard.edu. The Columbia Spectator called the effort "marginally successful." (I wrote for the Spectator at the time.) Despite this online agitprop, Facebook continued to grow. That summer, it overtook CU Community as the most popular social network on campus.

That spring, Goldberg started instant messaging with Mark Zuckerberg. In March, he met with Zuckerberg and Sean Parker, the Napster co-founder and early Facebook investor, at a Starbucks on 96th Street. According to Goldberg, Parker tried to persuade Zuckerberg to acquire CU Community. Zuckerberg didn't tip his hand, but Goldberg says they kept in touch. In June, he says, Zuckerberg invited him to Palo Alto, Calif., where the Facebook crew had moved to work on the site. Goldberg flew out and stayed with Zuckerberg and pals for two weeks. "I think we went to one Stanford party," he says. There was "no crazy partying or drinking," Goldberg says, despite what The Social Network may suggest.

The invitation to come to Palo Alto was basically a job offer, says Goldberg. "They didn't give me a clear salary and working terms. It was, Come out here and work with us." He remembers that Zuckerberg even offered to pay for Goldberg's flight.

Goldberg said no, thanks. "I really believed that Campus Network was a better product," he says. He spent the summer of 2004 coding a new site, rebranded it Campus Network, and launched it at fiveother schools in September. But Facebook was expanding, too. "We made a strategic decision to go after Big 12 schools," says Wayne Ting, who ran business and legal operations for Campus Network. "But when we went to the Big 12, Facebook immediately went to the Big 12, too. They were clearly monitoring our activity."

Ting's analysis squares with a description of Facebook's "surround strategy," as described in David Kirkpatrick's book The Facebook Effect. "If another social network had begun to take root at a certain school," Kirkpatrick writes, "Thefacebook would open not only there but at as many other campuses as possible in the immediate vicinity. The idea was that students at nearby schools would create a cross-network pressure, leading students at the original school to prefer Thefacebook."

Beating Facebook would take all the time, energy, and cash that Goldberg had. He and Ting decided to take time off from school. They moved to Montreal, hired three employees, and set up shop in the offices of a programmer friend of Goldberg's. They slept on the office floor. Every morning, they woke up early and put away the air mattresses before the employees arrived. "We didn't want them to know we were homeless," says Ting.

It quickly became clear that Facebook was winning. One factor was that Zuckerberg's site had the financial means to expand. Goldberg says he turned down advertisers, including MTV, and didn't seek out venture capital: "We would have if we thought the reason we couldn't succeed was because of money." By the time Facebook hit 1 million users, Campus Network had only 250,000. Goldberg knew there was no catching up.   He returned to Columbia in the fall of 2005 and shut down Campus Network. Goldberg declined to put a figure on how much the whole effort cost him, but Ting estimated it was between $100,000 and $200,000.

In the meantime, Goldberg had launched a social network for high schools called Friendex. But he says he killed the project after a month at the request of Zuckerberg and the Facebook team. "They made me feel really bad for having launched it," he says. "So I took it down." Facebook soon expanded to high schools.

Why did Facebook succeed where Campus Network failed? The simplest explanation is, well, its simplicity. Yes, Campus Network had advanced features that Facebook was missing. But that wasn't necessarily a good thing. Goldberg's site smothered the user with doodads. Its pages were fully customizable, with multiple designs and backgrounds, not unlike MySpace. To sign up for Facebook, on the other hand, users had to fill in three fields: name, email, and password. User profiles were uniform, their contents intuitive—favorite movies and relationship status and class schedule. While Campus Network blitzed first-time users right away, Facebook updated its features incrementally. Facebook respected the Web's learning curve. Campus Network did too much too soon.

Other factors contributed to Campus Network's downfall. User profiles were open to the public, scaring off some potential enrollees and allowing cyberstalkers to satisfy their curiosity without joining. Campus Network didn't expand quickly enough, either, allowing Facebook to get a first foothold in potential markets. And its aesthetics didn't help. "It looked like somebody who loves Dungeons & Dragons," says Ting. "It had that look and feel." And of course there's the H-Factor. "I think the name had a lot to do with it," says Ting. "When we go to a school and say this site is from Columbia, it doesn't carry the same marketing punch as, This is from Harvard."

Neither site, of course, can claim to be the first social network—Friendster and MySpace already had large followings in 2003. But both Facebook and Campus Network had the crucial insight that overlaying a virtual community on top of an existing community—a college campus—would cement users' trust and loyalty. Campus Network figured it out first. Facebook just executed it better.

Does Goldberg regret not hopping onboard the Facebook express when he had the chance? To borrow a phrase, it's complicated. "In some ways I do, some ways I don't," he says. "I wasn't ready to drop out of school, to give up my own project. I thought the best way to do it was to do it myself." Ting tries not to dwell on it. "There are still moments when you feel a deep sense of regret, especially when I read an article about this movie or Mark Zuckerberg or see him on the cover of Time, and you ask, Could this be me? Could we have succeeded? I think that's a really painful question. … There are fleeting moments like that. But I'm much prouder that we took a risk and we learned from it."

Goldberg took two years off after graduation to study language in Argentina and France. He started writing a food blog. Now he's getting ready to launch a new site, Topic.org, a Wikipedia-style forum where users lay out arguments on issues like the BP oil spill and the death penalty. He maintains a Facebook profile, but it's hard to find unless you're already his friend. On his Facebook page, Goldberg has this as his favorite quote: "One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time."

AP Video: Jesse Eisenberg on The Social Network

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Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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