Whether Facebook is responding to changing social norms or, in fact, leading the charge is an unresolved question. "There's no point in demonising Facebook, which is obviously providing a great service to hundreds of millions of people," said Alessandro Acquisti, associate professor of information technology and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. "But to use a famous saying, 'With great power comes great responsibility.' "
The concern expressed by Acquisti and others is that while Facebook itself may be benign, the same cannot be said about everyone online. And it is the unintended consequences of a more social world that cause the most consternation. In one nightmare scenario, a user shares information about their eating and exercise habits on Facebook, and this is paired with other information, such as Web browsing history, by any number of so-called "data mining" companies. These companies create a profile of the user that is sold to various parties, potentially including health insurers. Based on some of this unflattering information, the insurer decides to deny the user coverage.
Such salacious anecdotes are thus far the stuff of speculation. But as Acquisti said: "The major concern is that we are getting used to more and more information about ourselves being available to others. It's often invisible how much information is available about us, how much can be inferred from that, and how that can be recombined and misused. The more this happens, the more consumers become adjusted to this being the new normal."
The row shook the company to its core. "The privacy backlash was my most difficult time at the company," says Chris Cox. "We were on 100 front pages. That was a moment as a company when we came to grips with how important we are."
Facebook responded the following month, giving users more control of their data. "We really do believe in privacy," Zuckerberg said at the time. It was a familiar pattern. Since Facebook's earliest days, its users have resisted changes to the service. Facebook has routinely made some concessions, only to push further ahead. Users have never left the site in droves. For now, Facebook has succeeded in quieting its critics. But if history is any guide, it is only a matter of time before the company is in hot water once more.
On June 2, Zuckerberg appeared for an onstage interview at the "D: All Things Digital" conference in southern California. The privacy backlash was still fresh, and the interviewers confronted him on the subject. Zuckerberg broke into a profuse sweat, stuttering his way through largely incoherent answers. "D was a low point," a longtime confidant of Zuckerberg's acknowledged. "It was hot in there. He started sweating. He was suddenly really self-conscious. It was a fuck-up. We all fuck up."
Since then, however, Zuckerberg has spoken in public several times, seeming more confident at each appearance. "Mark has always been really good at getting better," Cox told me. "It's one of his two or three superpowers. This year he had to be a better communicator. He did that."
The need for a more polished public persona was amplified this year by the emergence of Zuckerberg as a celebrity in his own right. He has appeared on front pages and magazine covers nearly every week, and guest-starred as himself on The Simpsons. An authoritative book about the company, The Facebook Effect, came out. An unauthorised movie, The Social Network, took the box office by storm, even as it portrayed Zuckerberg in an unflattering light. (Zuckerberg said he wasn't going to see the film but eventually hosted a screening for Facebook employees.) It was enough to elevate the young chief executive to A-list status. "Zuckerberg is the Angelina Jolie of the Internet," said Nick Denton, founder of gossip Web site Gawker, earlier this year.
A few weeks before Zuckerberg launched Deals, I was at Facebook for another event. After the presentation in the cafeteria, the company hosted a barbecue on the lawn. I saw Zuckerberg sitting alone on a picnic blanket and joined him. I had meetings later in the day and happened to be wearing a suit (most people in Silicon Valley wear jeans and T-shirts). Zuckerberg told me to be careful not to get grass stains on my trousers and made some more room on the blanket for me. Then, without prompting, he said: "At least in the movie they got that part right. The first time I met venture capitalists, I really was wearing pyjamas." It was a flip remark, but it indicated a new self-awareness in Zuckerberg. Others who know him confirmed as much. "I met him six years ago, and he was in shorts and flip-flops," said Ron Conway, an angel investor and early adviser to Facebook. "Now you see him and he's literally a business leader."
He has also become a philanthropist. In September, just as The Social Network hit cinemas, Zuckerberg appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to announce he was donating $100 million to the troubled schools of Newark, N.J. Some wrote off the gift as a publicity stunt, but people close to Zuckerberg say the decision was months in the making and heartfelt. As a longtime friend of his said, "He's excited about the opportunity to do something good for the world, beyond Facebook."
These distractions have done little to knock Zuckerberg off balance. "He's always been very focused," said the longtime friend. Today, he seems more intent than ever on extending Facebook's influence. With photos, video games and local deals already feeling the effects of Facebook, Zuckerberg is now looking for other industries that are ripe for disruption. "We're going to see that in probably the other entertainment-type verticals first." Music and movies, he argues, are poised to change. "Those are naturally social things," he said.
Meanwhile, Facebook's power as an identity platform keeps growing. The site will most likely hit 600 million users soon, giving it more muscle as it moves to be the default single sign-on for the Web.
Industry veterans stress that Facebook may not be the only identity one has on the Web. "I think there will be a couple of different identities on the Web," said John Donahoe, chief executive of Ebay. (Ebay, which owns PayPal, works closely with Facebook.) "Facebook will be one of the identities you carry with you. The identity we're focused on with PayPal is your monetary identity. It's not one where you want to share all your information."