Monday, November 7, 2011

My Real Contribution to the Birth of Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg paid a visit to Harvard with much fanfare today. He presented himself very well at the session I attended, in the newly renamed Farkas Hall (AKA the Hasty Pudding Theater, AKA the New College Theater). The session began with David Malan, who was acting as moderator, reading part of an email exchange between me and Zuck in January 2004 entitled "Six Degrees to Harry Lewis." We all had a good laugh about this as one of the germs of Facebook, though Mark noted that it was really a different project. When he asked me, back then, if I minded his using my name (he said today that he was being careful since he was scared of being thrown out of school), I replied "Sure, what the hell, seems harmless." David put the URL up on the screen-- for the record, the Facebook prototype was hosted at

Facebook would surely have happened whatever I responded to Mark about his "Six Degrees" site (which enabled students to see how far they were from me in the network created by linking names that appeared in the same Crimson story). But it occurred to me that I had done something else a few years earlier that laid a foundation for Facebook, and indeed for all the current rage of student entrepreneurship. (The Gazette story has a lot about how much Harvard loves student entrepreneurs.)

In early 2000, I proposed and persuaded the faculty to repeal the age-old rule against students running businesses out of their rooms. Maybe it had made sense when a student business would involve moving goods (oranges, say) into and out of rooms. But it didn't make much sense in the Internet age. In fact, when students are making money by typing on a keyboard, there is no way to tell whether they are working for themselves or someone else, so there was no reason for one to be prohibited and the other encouraged. At first I thought there might be tax issues, but Harvard's lawyers helpfully advised that student businesses of reasonable proportions would not jeopardize Harvard's tax-exempt status.

So we killed the rule, and one of the grievances Harvard might have had against Facebook was pre-empted! There was some skepticism at the time about whether this was wise--it is nice to see the chorus of enthusiasm for student businesses today.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Harry,

    Just a quick note that doesn't challenge the spirit of this entry: I don't think that Facebook was running a business (or yet incorporated) until the summer of 2004, when they moved their operations to Palo Alto. I believe that technically, they would have been in the clear.

    Marc Chiarini