The Social Network is an excellent movie. It’s fast, entertaining. And words crafted by Aaron Sorkin, one of Hollywood’s most talented screenwriter, flatter the Harvard crowd and make it sound wittier than it actually is. In addition, digital imaging enthusiasts will enjoy the Red Camera’s performance, demonstrating its extraordinary low light and depth-of-field creative potential. David Fincher’s movie has to be seen as fiction based on a true story. Nothing more. There is no room or need for an exegesis here.

And yet, Facebook’s most game-changing feature couldn’t be rendered into pixels. It is actually encapsulated on page 34 of Sorkin’s script, when Zuckerberg is facing the too-perfect Winkelvoss twins (played by a single actor in the movie, thanks to special effects) who pitch him their idea of the “HarvardConnection” social network. Their sketchy description triggers a short but intense burst of activity in Mark’s brain. The 20 year-old geek is seen processing the idea at light speed, before mumbling: “I’m in”.

No further questions. In five seconds, we’ve witnessed the fictitious Zuckerberg envisioning the seeds of a grand plan, going well beyond his own (and gross) rate-a-girl algorithm, and beyond the Winkelvosses project of “an exclusive Harvard-dot-e-d-u” network. (In the real life, the twin eventually sue Zuckerberg for stealing their idea, and settle for an alleged $64m).

I changed my mind about Facebook. A few months ago, I got an assignment from Le Monde Magazine to write a Facebook cover story (PDFs are here). My initial idea focused on privacy issues, with this headline: “Can We trust Him?”. Then I found the subject a bit overtrodden. As I accumulated interviews with people with inside knowledge of the social network scene (the beauty – and the frustration – of magazine writing is you gather five times more material than you’ll ever use), another idea came to mind: The Architect. Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for Facebook reaches much further than a network to interconnect the inept prattling of millions of people.

To sum-up, Facebook’s strategy appears to be built on three pillars :

– a social graph
– ….leading to a self-certified global directory
– … supported by an ubiquitous, high capillarity platform

The first two are intertwined. You go to Facebook, you upload contacts, you can see your social graph beginning to grow like a living organism. Your friends, connections, interests now draw your profile. It expands by the day, as the web of your social interactions become denser and reaches further. Mining your personal data, someone will be able to list the places, brands, tastes, preferences that will surface, all validated in real time by your “friends”. Face-recognition software could find you on every profile — friend or foe — your picture landed on.

Over time, your social graph will certify your ID with a high degree of accuracy. That could draw Facebook into seriously troublesome territory. If there is only one book to read about Facebook inception and strategy, it definitely is David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect, a first-class work of in-depth reporting. Less dramatized than Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, on which the movie is based, but better if you really want to understand what Facebook is up to. “A big threat to Facebook’s growth is the risk government push-back and regulation”, warns Kirkpatrick in an email exchange we had last month. “Facebook is attempting to manage identity and that has historically been a government function”.

And that’s just the beginning. An engineer, specialized in search and data mining, told me about Facebook’s possible dark side: “Facebook’s potential is immense. My company is already selling APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) to crawl Facebook”. In theory, Facebook is off-limit to web crawlers. But the obstacle can be partially circumvented. Someday, a deal between Facebook and Google could allow the search giant to dive into the social network’s huge trove of personal content. In itself, the volume of text left on Facebook by its 500m members is said to be equivalent to 10 times the entire blogosphere. Also, more than 100m photos are uploaded every day on the 60,000 servers the company operates (for detail about FB infrastructure, go here).

Once someone is allowed to mine these exabytes of data, the sky (or the Cloud…) is the limit. “You can do semantic and contextual analysis”, this engineer tells me. “You can refine each person’s profile to the extreme. If Facebook’s raw material falls into the wrong hands, such as political or religious groups, they could do whatever they have in mind, for instance assigning reliability or even morality scores to people or groups. It is just a matter of cost — e.g. algorithm and CPU cycles — versus performance. And it becomes cheaper and cheaper”. He draws me to an MIT Study that demonstrates Facebook’s ability to out gay people based on their friendships. The MIT survey is very basic but the issue is nonetheless obvious and chilling.

When asked to rank the most serious threat to Facebook’s growth, all the persons I talked to point out the privacy issue, the ability to analyze data and extract almost anything — unbeknownst to the targeted individuals. On this, Facebook is definitely not moving in the right direction. It makes it increasingly difficult for its users to understand and keep control of their data. Take for instance your cell phone address book. Unintentionally, you can find your entire set of contacts “subject to Facebook Privacy Policy”, i.e. uploaded on Facebook (see this story in the Guardian).

The main vector for the execution of Zuckerberg’s vision is Facebook’s platform strategy. Summed-up again by David Kirkpatrick: “Facebook’s long term strategic plan is to become submerged below the surface of the internet, providing the crucial identity and social graph layer which enables all of us to bring a social component to whatever we might be doing. With over one million websites using the Facebook Open Graph API in some fashion, the company is making steady progress on this path. [Zuckerberg’s intent] is to build a critical portion of the evolving internet, in the form of the identity matrix which, he hopes, will reside at the core of the net, offering social functions in conjunction to whatever we do, on and off the internet. I think we can all agree that a social graph at the core of the web is a valuable thing. It’s hard to agree who ought to run it, however. Facebook is the only entity making an effort to do so”.

How many people on Facebook in the future, then? Expect more than a billion several sources told me. Mark Zuckerberg is said not to be particularly impressed by the current 550 million. He more into the 6 or 7 billion. But, at this scale, chaos theory looms. Business decisions become non-linear as a small input can lead to uncontrollable consequences. The Facebook saga is just beginning.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

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