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Mark Zuckerberg in the New Yorker

This week's New Yorker has an in-depth article by John Cassidy on what he labels as "Me Media" and the explosion of Internet sites tailored to creating personalized extensions of the self on the web. Unfortunately, the article is not available online, but the article is so good I would reccomend that you pick the issue up at the news stand.

Not suprisingly, the article revolves around facebook.com and its now-infamous creator -- Mark Zuckerberg. The article provides detailed insights into the company and the student that started it. While Cassidy does his fair part in triumphing Zuckerberg as boy-genius and correctly credits Zuckerberg's little project for catalyzing substantial changes in the way that college students socialize, he also isn't afraid to hit some hard punches in some of the places that people have always been curious about -- like how the website is dealing with potential market saturation and with user privacy issues, as well as the lawsuit alleging that Zuckerberg broke a contract with a rival project before forging ahead with his own site where he would be in charge. A very good read, all in all, and Cornell is even mentioned a couple of times in the article.

Of course, this is all even more interesting to me because in my past life as a student I had some more formal interaction with the website and its creator.

First, I was interviewed by Newsweek about my creative use of the facebook to meet people during the summer of my junior year. Following that, I was asked by the person who interviewed me for Newsweek, Olivia Ma (who also makes a showing in the New Yorker article), if I would like to interview Mr. Zuckerberg for Current Magazine, a national magazine written mostly by Harvard students. I naturally jumped at the opportunity to interview Zuckerberg, but, much to my chagrin, the interview that Current published ended up being slightly different in context and less mature in scope than the one I conducted. (You can read my original interview with Zuckerberg here without any of the edits and follow-ups that my more low-brow editors at Current added to it.)

Anyways, my interview with Zuckerberg wasn't particularly hard-hitting, although we did chat about the ConnectU allegations off-the-record. But I did feel that I got a good sense of Mark and his personality during the 90 minutes or so that I chatted with him, and I basically came away from the conversation with the impression that even though he was obviously shrewd and very on top of his business, he was also a pretty down-to-earth and likeable guy. The only odd take-away I had from the interview was how often Mark seemed to casually mention beer drinking -- either while programming, hanging out with friends, or partying he would always refer to himself as 'drinking a couple of beers'. But then again, he was a college student and perhaps he just wanted to relate to Current's readership.

Now, Cassidy paints Mark as being somewhat aloof and wet behind the ears, and makes sure to pepper Zuckerberg's quotes with 'likes.' But shouldn't this expected, Zuckerberg just haven turned the legal drinking age and all?

In my interview with Zuckerberg I also didn't feel like he was an "egomaniac" as somebody contends in the article. In fact, I was suprised at how unassuming and nice Zuckerberg came across -- he was obviously a very busy individual at the time I interviewed him yet he took the time out of his day to have a rambling, inconsequentional conversation on such things as the post-modern meanings of targeted advertising, the monopoly of network effects, and the use of his website's data for academic purposes -- topics which very evidently weren't going to show up in a 500 word interview.

Bringing this back to Cornell...

But the number one question I couldn't answer after the Zuckerberg interview really had nothing to do with Zuckerberg or facebook.com: How come a Cornell student didn't come up a with similiar idea first? Cornell engineers are considered to be some of the best and the brightest, and there certainly a lot of very smart individuals on campus. Zuckerberg even freely admits that the underlying code for his website is very simple.

Yet, from all I could gather (and I am stereotyping here a little bit) they were all to busy either 1) stressing themselves out for prelims and finals, 2) drinking and partying in the Greek scene, 3) playing video games and/or 4) counting the money they would be making in the future with their newly minted technical degree.

In fact, I became increasingly frustrated with my engineering peers during my time at Cornell -- I always felt that there was too much synergy -- too much potential -- being squandered on the Engineering quad, and the rest of the campus never benefited from the creative minds that Cornell claimed to cultivate in its Engineering school. Every year the architects would bless us with a beautiful dragon, the hotelies would engage in a bout of hospitality each spring, and the outdoor education types would place pumpkins and disco balls on top of the clock tower -- not to mention the fact that the campus is always endowed with some of the most delicious ice cream flavors known to mankind thanks to our food science majors. But, as far as I could tell, the Engineering College underperforms in its civic duty to the rest of the campus... only producing a rather lackluster phoenix on a yearly basis. (Sure there are such things as the Mars Rover and the Solar Decathalon House, but I'm specifically interested in things that ostensibly benefit undergraduate life).

When I first had the idea for MetaEzra three years ago (it would have been an undergraduate-events portal), I asked around if any computer science majors would be interested in developing the back-end of the system, but most people I got into touch with felt like the effort wouldn't be worth the time, and besides, the programming was 'beneath them'. This always dissapointed me.

If anything, Cornell needs to find a way to harness the energy and creativity that engineers can provide to the campus... perhaps the new House system on West will help foster more cross-college interactions?

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on May 11, 2006 (#)

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