Review: Non-fiction: The Boy Kings: A Journey Into the Heart of the Social Network by Katherine Losse
Free Press, £18.99, hbk, 250 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
The latest Facebook status update won't be one that founder Mark Zuckerberg will like -- a former employee has written an exposé claiming that the social media site's early days were full of sexist guys who were pretty much allowed to behave as they liked, provided that they devoted their lives to executing Zuckerberg's vision of world domination.
Katherine Losse was a key insider because she was there from near the beginning. She was the 51st employee hired by Facebook.
Her new book, The Boy Kings: A Journey Into the Heart of the Social Network, portrays Zuckerberg not so much as the ringmaster of a frat house gone wild, but rather as an aloof, sandal wearing, anti-drugs maths nerd who has come a long way from handing out business cards branded "I'm CEO, Bitch", as he allegedly did when Losse joined the fledgling company in 2005.
Zuckerberg also had a tin ear, Losse says, when it came to issues of sexual harassment in the workplace, where women were greatly outnumbered by men and not nearly as valued.
"When a female co-worker reported being told by a male co-worker in the lunchtime queue that her backside looked tasty -- 'I want to put my teeth in your ass,' is what the co-worker said -- Mark asked at (a meeting) . . . 'What does that even mean?'
"I went to Mark at the open office hour he kept after the meeting and told him it was unacceptable to blow off sexual harassment in the office.
"Mark's tendency to mock or disregard everything that wasn't a technical issue triggered a sinking feeling that accompanied the heady glee we all began to feel over the early months and years as the website soared higher and higher."
A couple of engineers took it upon themselves to develop an app called "Judgebook" that would allow users to rate photos of female members -- the app never became official -- perhaps taking a cue from Zuckerberg's pre-Facebook invention, Facemash, which allowed visitors to do the same thing.
Zuckerberg comes across as childish when it comes to his dealings with women -- "I dated a model once who was really hot, but my girlfriend is actually smart," Losse quotes him as saying at a barbecue, and she challenges him as to why a woman can't be both. "The group went quiet for a second, seeming confused," she writes.
When Zuckerberg hired Sheryl Sandberg, a Google millionaire, as chief operating officer in 2008, he announced her arrival at a staff meeting by saying: "When I met Sheryl the first thing I said was she had really good skin, and she does . . . Everyone should have a crush on Sheryl."
During one of several trips to Las Vegas nightclubs, some booze-fuelled Facebook engineers with big expense accounts would have bouncers ask women to approach their tables, only to tell them to leave because they weren't "pretty enough" -- all of which would be filmed and broadcast on Facebook video.
Losse's book contains many instances of out-of-bounds behaviour -- some of the older men who joined the company as it grew were eager to seek "sex and attention", with one married engineer sending out emails to female subordinates in search of a partner for a threesome -- and a sometimes bizarre corporate culture.
Women were asked to wear T-shirts bearing Zuckerberg's likeness to celebrate his birthday (men were told to wear Adidas sandals like Mark), and Zuckerberg offered a housing subsidy for top-tier employees to encourage them to live a mile from Facebook's HQ in Silicon Valley because they'd be "happier" living so close to work.
In return, Facebook demanded round-the-clock devotion to Zuckerberg's goal of "domination", making the world a more open space where -- in Losse's view -- real and virtual lives practically became one and the same.
"He preferred us always to be in a state of emergency . . . Sometimes when people didn't feel stressed enough he called official lockdown periods, during which employees were required to work on weekends and late into the night," she writes.
Losse rose through the ranks at Facebook, going from a customer service rep to 'internationalising' the Facebook brand and eventually becoming part of Zuckerberg's inner sanctum as his ghostwriter.
She finally called time on her career in Facebook in 2010. During a trip with Zuckerberg to promote Facebook in Brazil, he suggested that one day they would write a book together about the site.
"The book I would write about Facebook would be so different from the one Mark would write . . . My face must have betrayed my doubts and questions, because Mark looked at me with his typical coy smirk and said, more directly than usual, 'I don't know if I can trust you'."
The seed was planted in Losse's head to pen her own version of Facebook's rise, and she left the company to do just that -- cashing out a number of company stock options that probably made her a multi-millionaire.
When she sold her stock she became a pariah to Zuckerberg, who had her desk removed from outside his office to another floor. She never sat at her new location and says that the day she left Facebook her life became "instantly better".
Though her book is filled with office gossip, parts of it are also whiny and self-absorbed, with Losse casting herself as a literary independent spirit with a Master's degree in English who somehow managed to succeed at Facebook against the odds.
"I just wanted to be happy and loved for who I was, and I wasn't sure all the algorithms or fame in the world could produce that," she writes.
Companies like Facebook don't come to life without a relentless dedication to success and innovation.
Toes will get stepped on along the way, and if Losse was so aggrieved at spending five years in what she says was a male-dominated environment that didn't hold women in high regard she could have left at any time.
But then she wouldn't have a book contract from Simon and Schuster, or Facebook stock.
Debbie McGoldrick is editor of the Irish Voice newspaper in New York