FB: The Boy Kings

I was a student of the humanities, including histories of colonialism and revolutions and, despite Mark’s talk in All Hands, I knew that the war that Facebook was waging, if it continued the way it was going, wasn’t exactly revolutionary. The company’s entire human-resources architecture (and, conveniently, Facebook had no actual HR department to correct any of this for a long time) was constructed on the reactionary model of an office from the 1950s, in which men with so-called masculine qualities (being technical, breaking things, moving fast) were idealized as brilliant and visionary while everyone else (particularly the nontechnical employees on the customer-support team, who were mostly female and sometimes, unlike the white and Asian engineering team, black) were assumed to be duller, incapable of quick and intelligent thought. It was like Mad Men but real and happening in the current moment, as if in repudiation of fifty years of social progress. For example, on Mark’s birthday, in May 2006, I received an email from his administrative assistant telling me that it would be my job that day, along with all the other women in the office, to wear a T-shirt with Mark’s picture on it. Wait, what? I thought, he’s not my god or my president; I just work here. The men in the office were told that they would be wearing Adidas sandals that day, also in homage to Mark. The gender coding was clear: women were to declare allegiance to Mark, and men were to become Mark, or to at least dress like him. I decided that this was more than I could stomach and stayed home to play sick that day. I was the only one. The other women in the office, including Mark’s girlfriend, who did not work at Facebook, but had come to the office to celebrate his birthday, happily posed for pictures wearing identical shirts printed with Mark’s picture, like teenage girls at an *NSYNC concert or more disturbingly, like so many polygamous wives in a cult. These pictures also appeared in Gawker years later, making me relieved that I had stayed home so that I wasn’t immortalized forever online in such a strange, Stepford-Wives- like pose. I wondered if any of the women had been secretly troubled by the request that they pay homage to Mark or if, as often seemed the case, everyone was just happy to belong to something.

(..)

Maryann also often came to the pool in her bikini and set up her towel nearby, tanning quietly behind big sunglasses, pleasant and reserved as always. She was unequivocally considered hot at the company. But, I sensed, the last thing you wanted at Facebook was to be the hot girl, especially if you weren’t protected, as Maryann was, by a close group of college friends who also worked there. One day, one of the sales guys told me pointedly that I was hot, reminding me that I was surrounded by men who were in the habit of sorting women into hot or not-hot categories. Facemash, Mark’s first website at Harvard, was designed to allow viewers to rank the attractiveness of Harvard students’ photos. I wanted to be the cool girl, not the hot girl. The cool girl always has a chance of winning, because she has something beyond looks. As Stevie Nicks once said about her trip through the male-dominated music business, “I never wanted to be too pretty.” At another summer barbecue, I overheard Mark talking with some engineers about whether it was better to date a girl for looks or intelligence. “I dated a model once who was really hot, but my girlfriend is actually smart,” he said, as if they were mutually exclusive categories. “Why can’t a girl be pretty and smart?” I asked him in front of everyone. “Why does it have to be one or the other?” The group went quiet for a second, seeming confused. I knew then that if you had to pick one in order to succeed at Facebook, smart, not hot, was the thing to be.

(…)

In one of the last photos Luke took, Mark is gesturing at me haughtily like an emperor as I stand doubled over in laughter with the bear suit draped over me. It was all innocent fun; everyone was laughing and enjoying themselves, but when I saw the photograph appear in a Facebook album on Monday I was struck by the loaded nature of the image, ripe for interpretation, in which Mark appeared to be commanding an employee, female, to submit. If I were his PR person, I thought, I would tell Luke to take it down. Whether to protect the company, or Mark, or myself, I wasn’t sure. In this take-no-prisoners company, where you were either willing to devote your whole young life to it or not, it was starting to be hard to tell the difference. I felt certain that some gossip writer was going to find the photo and post it in an article about Facebook someday. In fact, the photograph appeared in Gawker four years later, with the caption, “This one also might lead the confused and bewildered to conclude that Mark Zuckerberg got drunk in Lake Tahoe and taunted a coworker.” Perhaps more interesting than the fact that the photo was taken and posted on Facebook is that it didn’t occur to anyone in the office that there was anything wrong with it, or that the picture revealed something about the culture of Facebook that it shouldn’t. Mark was too busy programming to get to the part of a liberal arts education where you study social inequality. As he wrote on his business card with boyish hubris, “I’m CEO, bitch.” That image was saying that power wasn’t something to be questioned; it was something to collect and brandish. This—not the anarchist ethos I knew from my punk-rock hacker friends—was Facebook’s new world order.

Katherine Losse, The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network, Free Press 2012.

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