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From the annals of $75 billion origin stories

Jenny 8. Lee tweeted earlier today about Harvard’s prehistoric efforts to develop a virtual “facebook” in the mid-90s. The blog post she links to is somewhat interesting, somewhat tedious—although as former Dean of Harvard College Harry Lewis explains, his intention in publishing the emails is to bolster the “historical record,” not because the content of the correspondence happens to be all that fascinating in its own right.

In any event, reading the post reminded me of my own tenuous connection to the founding of TheFacebook.com—an event that has taken on something of mythical status. A few years back, a college friend from my time on the editorial page of The Harvard Crimson, dug up some of our old meeting notes and sent them around after noting something Mark Zuckerberg said in a deposition in regards to the Winklevoss lawsuit. This part never made it into Aaron Sorkin’s film, although the “FaceMash” debacle (the context for what’s below) certainly did. Here’s what Zuckerberg said was the real inspiration for the site now valued at $75 to $100 billion (a portion of the quote appeared in an article, reproduced here, in the now defunct magazine “02138”):

Part of the editorial around the school after that and in The Crimson, the school’s newspaper, was that there should be an online FaceBook and that’s what this highlighted, but it really needed to ensure that people had control over their own privacy and could control who saw what they put up. So I mean I basically took that article that they wrote and made a site with those exact privacy controls and that was FaceBook.

So what did we write? Here’s a link to the editorial. In retrospect, given everything that’s happened in the years since, this part is probably the craziest:

Much of the trouble surrounding the facemash could have been eliminated if only the site had limited itself to students who voluntarily uploaded their own photos. Instead of the shock of seeing your awful first-year image broadcast to the world at large for open competition, such a site would have brought joy to attention-seekers and voyeurs alike. A site that allows us to succumb to the guilty pleasure of judging our friends and enemies in an e-Darwinist free-for-all would be acceptable—and hilarious—so long as its targets all choose to opt themselves into the spotlight.

Not only that, in an editorial a month later responding to the college’s announcement that it finally planned to create a centralized school-wide facebook—as it turns out seven years (!) after Dean Lewis first initiated discussions about developing such a thing—The Crimson published a fairly detailed editorial about the features we thought should be included.

As is seen with several of the current online House facebooks, a series of searchable features prove helpful when seeking out a particular student. For instance, Winthrop House—which, unfortunately, only allows in-House access—uses such search fields as “Concentration,” “Birthday Month,” and “Home State” to streamline the search function. The campus-wide facebook should be modeled in a similar fashion—perhaps also including a student’s registered courses and some optional pieces of personal information to allow for more effective searches.

The first version of TheFacebook.com did precisely that.

We didn’t come right out and call on that “Harvard sophomore” who managed to “obtain a great majority of the campus’ photos” in a matter of hours “and compile them on one navigable site” to design the new site. We didn’t have to.

“Everyone’s been talking a lot about a universal face book within Harvard,” Zuckerberg told The Crimson two months later. “I think it’s kind of silly that it would take the University a couple of years to get around to it. I can do it better than they can, and I can do it in a week.”

P.S. Mark Zuckerberg, I hear The Crimson is accepting donations for its financial aid program. Not that you owe them anything or anything. Just saying…

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