How Facebook Is Redefining Privacy

Nearly 500 million people worldwide live their lives — or versions of them — on Facebook. Is there a limit to how much we'll share? CEO Mark Zuckerberg is betting there isn't

  • Artwork by Yuji Yoshimoto. Photograph by Tom Schierlitz for TIME.

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    Since the site expanded membership to high schoolers in 2005 and to anyone over the age of 13 in 2006, Facebook has become a kind of virtual pacemaker, setting the rhythms of our online lives, letting us ramp up both the silly socializing and the serious career networking. Zuckerberg's next goal is even more ambitious: to make Facebook a kind of second nervous system that's rapid-firing more of our thoughts and feelings over the Web. Or, to change the metaphor, Facebook wants to be not just a destination but the vehicle too.

    "I'm CEO ... Bitch"
    Facebook's world headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., looks like an afterthought, a drab office building at the end of a sleepy stretch of California Avenue. Lacking the scale of Microsoft's sprawling campus or the gleaming grandeur of Google HQ, Facebook's home base is unpretentious and underwhelming. The sign in front (colored red, not the company's trademark cobalt blue) features a large, boldface address with a tiny Facebook logo nestled above.

    Inside the building, Facebook crams in hundreds of employees, who work in big, open-air bullpens. Without cubicles or walls, there isn't much privacy, so each desk seems like, well, a Facebook profile — small, visible-to-all spaces decorated with photos and personal sundries. Zuckerberg spent the past year in a dimly lit bullpen on the ground floor. But perhaps in a concession to the fact that the CEO needs some privacy, the 26-year-old billionaire recently moved upstairs to a small office, albeit one with a glass wall so everyone can see what he's doing in there.

    Steve Jobs has his signature black turtlenecks; Zuckerberg usually sports a hoodie. In Facebook's early years, he was the cocky coder kid with business cards that read, "I'm CEO ... Bitch." (Zuckerberg has said publicly they were a joke from a friend.) And elements of the Palo Alto headquarters — snack tables, Ping-Pong — still impart some semblance of that hacker-in-a-dorm-room feel.

    The office's design reflects Facebook's business model too. Openness is fundamental to everything the company does, from generating revenue to its latest plans to weave itself into the fabric of the Web. "Our core belief is that one of the most transformational things in this generation is that there will be more information available," Zuckerberg says. That idea has always been key to Facebook's growth. The company wants to expand the range of information you're sharing and get you to share a lot more of it.

    For this to happen, the 1,400 Facebook employees in Palo Alto and around the world (Dublin, Sydney, Tokyo, etc.) work toward two goals. The first is expansion, something the company has gotten prodigiously good at. The site had 117 million unique visitors in the U.S. in March, and the company says some 70% of its users are in other countries. In cellular-connected Japan, the company is focusing on the mobile app. In cricket-crazed India, Facebook snared fans by helping the Indian Premier League build a fan page on Facebook's site.

    There's a technical aspect too. The slightest fraction of a second in how long it takes to load a Facebook page can make the difference between someone's logging in again or not, so the company keeps shaving down milliseconds to make sure you stay. It also mobilized Facebook users to volunteer to help translate the site into 70 languages, from Afrikaans to Zulu, to make each moment on Facebook feel local.

    The Aha! Moment
    Facebook did not invent social networking, but the company has fine-tuned it into a science. When a newcomer logs in, the experience is designed to generate something Facebook calls the aha! moment. This is an observable emotional connection, gleaned by videotaping the expressions of test users navigating the site for the first time. My mom, a Facebook holdout whose friends finally persuaded her to join last summer, probably had her aha! moment within a few minutes of signing up. Facebook sprang into action. First it asked to look through her e-mail address book to quickly find fellow Facebook users she knew. Then it let her choose which of these people she wanted to start getting short status updates from: Details about what a long-lost friend from high school just cooked for dinner. Photos of a co-worker's new baby. Or of me carousing on a Friday night. (No need to lecture, Mom.)

    Facebook has developed a formula for the precise number of aha! moments a user must have before he or she is hooked. Company officials won't say exactly what that magic number is, but everything about the site is geared to reach it as quickly as possible. And if you ever try to leave Facebook, you get what I like to call the aha! moment's nasty sibling, the oh-no! moment, when Facebook tries to guilt-trip you with pictures of your friends who, the site warns, will "miss you" if you deactivate your account.

    So far, at least, the site has avoided the digital exoduses that beset its predecessors, MySpace and Friendster. This is partly because Facebook is so good at making itself indispensable. Losing Facebook hurts. In 2008 my original Facebook account was shut down because I had created multiple Dan Fletchers using variants of the same e-mail address, a Facebook no-no but an ingenious way to expand my power in the Mob Wars game on Facebook's site. When Facebook cracked down and gave me and my fictional mafia the kiss of death, I lost all my photos, all my messages and all my status updates from my senior year of high school through the first two years of college. I still miss those digital mementos, and it's both comforting and maddening to know they likely still exist somewhere, sealed off in Facebook's archives.

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