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The inside story of how Facebook went from idealism to scandal

Non-Fiction: Facebook: The Inside Story

Steven Levy

Portfolio, 592 pages, hardback €18, kindle £9.99

No Filter

Sarah Frier

Random House, 352 pages, hardback €28.80; Kindle

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Idealist: a hundred cardboard cutouts of Mark Zuckerberg outside the US Capitol in 2018

Idealist: a hundred cardboard cutouts of Mark Zuckerberg outside the US Capitol in 2018

No Filter by Sarah Frier

No Filter by Sarah Frier

Facebook: The Inside Story by Steven Levy

Facebook: The Inside Story by Steven Levy

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Idealist: a hundred cardboard cutouts of Mark Zuckerberg outside the US Capitol in 2018

This supposedly sanitised history of the social media giant reads like an explosive exposé, says Laurence Dodds.

How does a shy teenager who finds his happy place in computer programming end up leading employees in a cry of "domination!" - and then actually live up to it? In Facebook: The Inside Story, a comprehensive new history by the venerable tech journalist Steven Levy, the sequence of events feels terrifyingly logical.

Given his unusual level of access to the dominator himself, Mark Zuckerberg, Levy has been accused of writing too friendly an account. Even so, if this is the sanitised official history then the samizdat version must be atomic. There is more than enough here to explain how and why Facebook's "idealistic and terrifying mission" to "connect the world" resulted in global scandal, billions of dollars in fines and the worst reputational reversal since Enron.

The most obvious villains are Facebook's elite "Growth" team. Their mission was simply to make Facebook bigger by any means necessary. That put them at the root of an astonishing number of the company's biggest missteps.

There was the creepy friend recommendation system, which once linked a sex worker to her clients and a psychiatrist's patients to each other without any of them knowing why. There was the smartphone snooping program (billed as "market research") that eventually got Facebook employees locked out of their own workplace iPhone apps by a furious Apple. The Growth Team may even have enabled genocide in Burma by using quick and dirty automated translation to spread Facebook's networks into markets it could not yet monitor. The Burmese military was able to use it to incite violence like the Rwandan Hutus had used radio.

Assembled methodically in this way, the range and repetition of Facebook's transgressions is almost awe-inspiring. Levy demonstrates that these were not "mistakes" but natural consequences of concrete decisions that Facebook had made years before. In almost every case, there were prominent voices inside the company warning of the dangers to privacy and safety; in almost every case, those voices lost. Again and again, it appears that Facebook chose growth over caution and revenue over security. All those choices came together in Cambridge Analytica, Facebook's biggest scandal (so far).

This is not a case of "good king, bad advisers". Far from merely rubber-stamping these decisions, Zuckerberg was often the decider. Between the college farce of his early life and the poignant awkwardness of Levy's later interviews, a portrait emerges of a strange, fragile conqueror. Though his media-trained bonhomie improves every year, he remains obsessed with competition yet hypersensitive to slights, driven by data except when his pride takes control, and capable of acting with extreme ruthlessness - before seemingly convincing himself that it was all justified by the mission. Even now, the only sin he will confess to is a surfeit of idealism.

Kevin Systrom, the star of Sarah Frier's No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, is a different kind of man. Artistic, socially adroit and perhaps a bit precious, a privileged perfectionist with omnivorous hobbies, he dreamed of getting a job restoring old cathedrals. In 2005, he turned down a personal recruitment offer from Zuckerberg. Instead, he travelled to Florence where he was taught how to make wine and browbeaten by a photography professor who handed him a murky little Holga camera and demanded that he "learn to love imperfection".

In 2012, Systrom and his bare-bones photo-sharing app Instagram made history when Facebook, racing to head off a rival bid from Twitter, bought it practically sight unseen for a then-astonishing $1bn. At the time it had only 30 million users to Facebook's 900 million. What happens next is a brief aside in Levy's account, but Frier, who covers Facebook and Instagram for Bloomberg News, zooms in. Her book is leaner and more focused than Levy's, written with less pizzazz but going to places he never treads.

Surprisingly (to some), Systrom's artistic scruples prove important. His hipster sensibilities let Instagram speak deeply to a new audience. His refusal to add a Twitter-style resharing button, against great pressure, preserved the app's aura of glamour and intimacy while insulating it from the fake news controversy.

A lot of the book's fun comes from the unlikely alliance that ensues between the awkward nerds of Instagram and the showbiz industry. Hollywood fixers and ingenious Kardashians learnt to milk his invention. Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Madonna all cameo in this story; there is even a plot to poach the Pope from Twitter.

Perhaps it could all have ended more or less happily, but it is a classic story of brother turning against brother, which ended badly for Systrom (if you discount his now-enormous wealth). Instagram itself though is doing wonderfully, with more than a billion users who are being slowly sucked further into the Facebook mothership.

No Filter is most intriguing when it steps outside the Facebook campus. Like some fanatical fairy godmother, Instagram's digital reward system has turned pets into superstars and cafés into film sets, demanding perfection from food, holidays and human faces. The pressure it inflicts on users, especially teenage girls, eventually forced a reckoning - but not before the 2017 death of British teenager Molly Russell, who killed herself at the age of 14 after viewing pro-suicide material.

Today, Facebookers passionately swear their company has changed, and sometimes that seems true. It now ranks family photos above viral gibberish, continuously consults human rights experts and is even setting up a virtual court of appeal to check its own power. Yet it remains defined, wholly controlled and indeed dominated by one man - the same headstrong, calculating, competitive man who claimed to have learnt from his mistakes in 2003, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011 and 2018. So has he changed?

© The Telegraph

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