Saturday, May 19, 2012

My REAL Contribution to the Birth of Facebook (II)

(I blogged a bit about this earlier. This is an expanded version.)

I have gotten a lot of amusement lately from the fact that one of Mark Zuckerberg's prototypes for Facebook was a little network called Six Degrees to Harry Lewis. Mark, who knew me because he had taken my theoretical computer science course, constructed the network by scraping the archives of the Harvard Crimson and linking names that were mentioned in the same news story. As former dean of the College, I was the maximum degree node. On January 23, 2004, MZ wrote to ask my permission to use my name in the name of the site, explaining that users would type in their names and see how many hops it took to be connected to me. My reaction was interesting.

Can I see it before I say yes? It's all public information, but there
is somehow a point at which aggregation of public information feels
like an invasion of privacy. 
Mark obliged, and after looking at it, thinking it was another Friendster, I shrugged,
Sure, what the hell. Seems harmless. 
Which was sort of true, but not very prescient! David Kirkpatrick tells this story in his book about Facebook.

But it occurred to me recently that I actually HAD done something important, not for Zuckerberg per se, but to encourage student technological innovation and entrepreneurship. I got the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to rescind its rule against students running businesses out of their rooms in the dorms and Houses.

The origins of the rule had been lost in the sands of time. One person I talked to suggested it had to do with shipment of goods (crates of oranges, perhaps) into and out of residential buildings. Others thought that student for-profit businesses in Harvard buildings might jeopardize the University's tax-exempt status. On closer scrutiny these rationales did not hold up. The reasons, some faculty thought, must be deeper and more philosophical. One faculty member, when I proposed rescinding the rule, thought

Student entrepreneurs are not experiencing college as it should be. They are taking advantage of our endowment and tax payers money. Using the university for private gain is taking advantage of the system.
Well, maybe. But the rule was very selectively enforced--basically you had to be successful enough to be noticed before the Administration would lower its heel on you and tell you to stop.

By the spring of 2000, after several years as dean and several years of watching the commercial use of the Internet take off, I began to be worried about the following Gedankenexperiment. How would we tell the difference between a student telecommuting to a part time job (financial aid students had to work part time as a requirement of their Harvard scholarships) and a student who was an Internet entrepreneur, working for him or herself? You could have a videocamera on the student's hands on the keyboard and to watch the packets flowing in and out of the student's room and there was absolutely no effective difference.

And, I thought, shouldn't we be encouraging students to be creative in ways that would be rewarding to the student and to the world?

But what about the load on the Harvard network? Well, we could always regulate that. But seriously, we knew where the load on the network was coming from: peer-to-peer file sharing, not students starting the next Microsoft. (Yes, I had in the back of my mind the unfriendly reception some of my colleagues had given Mr. Gates when he started a little company as an undergraduate, using Harvard resources.)

So in the spring of 2000, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted to change the rule so it now reads:
Harvard permits undergraduates to undertake modest levels of business activities on campus. Students may be required to move businesses entirely off-campus should they disrupt residential life, compromise the educational environment, or jeopardize the nonprofit status of the University or any exemption of its income or property from federal, state or local taxation.
Harvard became quite a bit more supportive of entrepreneurship in the subsequent years. And what Mr. Zuckerberg did, which would have been actionable four years earlier, was completely within the rules.

One other thing worth mentioning. Some have asked why Harvard is not getting a slice of Facebook the way Stanford got a slice of Google. The two situations are completely different. Google emerged from PhD research in the Stanford computer science department. As a result, Google's key patent, the Pagerank algorithm, is actually not owned by Google or by Larry Page personally, but by Stanford, which licenses it to Google for certain considerations. Harvard had no such role in the birth of Facebook. It simply created the need by failing to move its own printed face books online!


  1. Very Interesting post
    especially the last line - "Harvard simply created the need by failing to move its own printed face books online"
    can you elaborate on that

  2. Facebook is as good at monetizing random personal data . as can be imagined... so good that I stay away from it totally.

    Is that only what it will go down in history for.? ..Compare that to Google, Apple, Microsoft... Oh, well....success in one activity is nice. Can "lots of sizzle" offset a lack of beef?