Sunday, February 12, 2012

More Harvard Facebook prehistory

Spurred by the interest of some journalists and bloggers (see The Alternate Reality Facebook that Almost Happened), I did some more digging in my email archives to see if I could document the path from the earliest electronic face books at Harvard to early 2004 when Mark Zuckerberg took matters into his own hands. I come away with a general feeling that whether or not Facebook was "invented" by any of the three Harvard claimants (the Winklevosses and Aaron Greenspan as well as Zuckerberg), it emerged in a sort of technological inevitability, assisted by Harvard's shortsightedness.

Physical "facebooks" had been around Harvard since forever, not just for the Houses but for departments. The first reference I can find to moving a facebook online is from 1994 and his here reproduced in its entirety.

From: gwertzma@husc
Subject: Re: facebook
Date: February 13, 1994 6:46:56 PM EST
To: lewis@das (Harry Lewis)

Hey.. Don't know if I answered this already. Right now the images  ARE available outside Harvard, but noone knows about them yet. I  am looking into ways to make the facebook only accessible within Harvard.
         James Gwertzman    :     No neat quote.    :     For that you'll have to read my plan. 

That's exactly 18 years ago. Clearly it was sent in response to a query from me, presumably of something we had discussed in person, Alas, I don't have my half of the exchange, or any direct followup.

I hope James Gwertzman won't mind receiving the credit here. At the time he was an undergraduate concentrating in computer science, and a trusted colleague on the Information Technology committee. Subsequent emails make clear that what he is referring to here is creating a face book for both students and faculty of what was then called the Division of Applied Sciences (now the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences), of which Computer Science is a part. There are followup emails, on which I am copied, between him and administrators responsible for the ID photos and the list of faculty email addresses.

It is clear even from this first message that policy issues were being confronted. Followup emails dealt with a data leak resulting from the fact that the photos had Harvard ID numbers (which are not supposed to be public) in their file names, and whether any faculty members would object to having their email addresses made public. A response James got from one administrator gives the tenor: "Yes, we can release them to you.  However, some questions have been raised about proper use of the images.  My supervisor has drawn up a standardized form …" A few weeks later, James was in correspondence with the Admissions Office about getting its view book online. In April 1994 he circulated a concrete proposal. Here is some of what he offered:
Admissions Department Internet Proposal
As the number of high schools connected to the internet increases, it becomes increasingly important for Harvard Admissions to display an active internet presence. The reasons for this include:
o Attracting the student who might otherwise believe Harvard is backward technologically.
o Showing that the myth about Harvard doing everything several years after other schools is false.
o Taking advantage of this new medium to recruit in areas not usually covered by traditional guides (Alaska for example has one of the best high school connectivity rates)
o Providing a very cost effective way of attracting foreign students.
James goes on to suggest some concrete steps, such as making the email address of the Admissions Office widely available, and this gem:
3. Create a simple page about Harvard on the World Wide Web, a multimedia tool for accessing the internet that is rapidly becoming the predominant means of accessing resources on the internet for many people. Include links to other Harvard on-line resources such as the course catalog and any departments with pages, such as the Division of Applied Sciences, and the Biology department. 
Sounds like a good idea, doesn't it! Remember, this is not only pre-Web 2.0, that is, before the time where people could easily modify each other's web pages. It is barely Web 1.0. The I/T professional from the Admissions Office included in his response to James and me some correspondence he had just received from colleagues at the University of California, including this priceless quote: "It turns out that gopher is now old technolgy!!! You need to do some reading about Mosaic …."

I do not remember whether the DAS face book ever went live. James, however, has gone on to great things. After some years at Microsoft he went to Popcap games, recently acquired by Electronic Arts. He now manages their China operations. A good guy and a visionary both.

In the August 1997, a student from the Harvard Computer Society put forward a fairly long proposal about creating an online facebook for all Harvard undergraduates, and by this time there is no question that this could mean anything but a Web site. A lot of thoughtful discussion ensued with various interested parties, including the head of the I/T committee and the Registrar, about issues of privacy, security, and accuracy, and whether a student-run project could manage it all. (Remember, this is Web 1.0--it was like print publishing. If a phone number was wrong, you needed the I/T department to fix it.)

The Registrar included in one of her plies (August, 1997) the following fascinating paragraph:
You might want to know that my office currently provides data to a site called "Facebooks" which includes "directory information" for those students who have not set security flags.  This data is refreshed every day of the year.   The House administrators go to that site to pull the data for their houses (which is all they currently are permitted to access).  The image (the photo of the student) is provided by the HUID Office for those who have not set security flags. The image may be used for internal Harvard publications and other processes.  In the case of the Facebbook,I believe the student is given the opportunity to reject having his/her photo in the Facebooks via a query at the Houses.  I have not been able to confirm this yet, however, but hope to do so this afternoon.
Two things of interest here--the use of the term "the Facebook," with a capital F, for what was an entirely internal administrative system, not visible to students or the outside world. And the great sensitivity about student photos, and protocols for their use even within Harvard--which underscores that when Zuckerberg launched Facemash, Harvard administrators had been struggling with the issues surrounding electronic distribution of student photos for a decade. No wonder they reacted with some alarm!

Here is another piece of the history--this email, from the Registrar, is from November 1997. so the incident referred to must have been in the summer of 1995: "about two years ago in the summer … the Science Center failed to filter out student dorm room numbers from the Ph directory, which is available to outside users via the kiosks in the Science Center.  Apparently, a female student's location was found that way and she was stalked."

Now while all this was going on, two of the bigger agenda items for the dean's office were a series of peer sexual assault cases, and the question of "Universal Keycard Access," that is, should a student from one House be able to swipe into another. These two were related, because a woman fleeing an assailant would want to get into the first House she came to, whether or not it was her own (but if her assailant was a peer, then he could swipe in too …). So there was a larger and more urgent context in which these discussions of data security were taking place.

On May 10, 2001, a student approaches me with the same proposal: "I was wondering about the possibility of setting up a Campus Wide Facebook on the Web." The Registrar reminds me of what had happened a few years earlier:
I had at first asked Y to take on the project but he was unable to assign the resources.  The student group was providing the staff for developing the project and the server, the RO [Registrar's Office] was providing the data, and HU ID office was providing the images. It had been agreed that Freshmen would not be included in the facebook project. (And, I believe, the one House that was not interested in a web-based book was Eliot House!).
To make a long story short, the students responsible for the project did not have enough time to get it going and the project died.  I worked with three different students during the course of 2 years.  The model, you might recall, was to do it House-by-House working with the House staff and using a standard template and guidelines. As you know, Y is now planning to assign staff resources to develop the web-based House facebook.
As in the previous post, Y is the head of computing services. He reported up through a different chain of command, and his priorities were set by academic authorities, not by the Registrar or student life deans like me. And I imagine the academic authorities just did not see the project as having much educational value, by comparison with the many things faculty were asking for to assist their research and teaching. And as the email also suggests, even the relevant College authorities were not agreed on the privacy issues.

And then in February 2003 it comes back again, with this email from a student:
I am writing to you on behalf of the Harvard Undergraduate Council on the matter of all-school online facebook.

In our recent meetings, many representatives expressed a concern for the lack of a mean to locate other students in the college. It is indeed frustrating when one wants to look someone up from class/dining halls/paths, since there is no way to go about it unless they are from your house (or the yard). In fact, even the freshman facebook is missing a significant portion of the class.

Do you think it is possible to create one main website- accessible with ID and pin number- that has everyone's ID pictures on it? The ID office in Holyoke already has all those pictures on file and it should not be a problem. I believe that this project will increase school unity, as well as classmate bonding, which we lack so much after we leave the Yard.
Back it went to the I/T department, which by now was totally preoccupied with music downloading--the need to keep increasing network capacity, and to respond to RIAA complaints against students. A month later I was released as dean, so I don't know whether anything might have been in the works over the summer of 2003.

But in January of 2004 I got the famous "Six Degrees to Harry Lewis" inquiry from a student who had taken my CS theory class in the fall of 2002 (just as Friendster was aborning), and that ends the Harvard prehistory of Facebook!

Readers of Kevin Kelly's "What Technology Wants" will see this sequence of events as fitting the pattern he describes. Technology wanted an online facebook. By this time all that was needed to make it a reality was a student who was a bit less respectful of authority than the several wonderful people I have quoted or mentioned here!


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.