By Steven Levy (2020)

Pages: 592 , Final verdict: Great-read

Steven Levy is what you might call an OG tech journalist. Starting in the 80's, he has done everything from contributing to Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Software Catalog, publishing for the NY Times, Wired, Macworld and writing several books covering the most iconic companies in the industry.

My favorite - Insanely Great - is a detailed account on the story of the Macintosh computer. Most recently, Levy took on the big blue app. "Facebook: The Inside Story" is a comprehensive account of the social media giant, from its humble start in Zuck's Harvard dorm room to the most ubiquitous social media platform in the world.

The story of Facebook is well known, or at least, the Hollywood version of its story is. But that's not the Facebook story that Levy wants us to know about. No. It's the story that follows 15 years of interviews with Facebook's CEO, exclusive access to his management team, and hundreds of interviews with Facebook employees, investors, and friends.

Video of a young Mark Zuckerberg finding out he's been accepted into Harvard.

The book is divided into three parts:

  • Part One looks at the origin story of Mark and covers the first few years of "Thefacebook," all the way to Open Reg, the moment Facebook was fully opened to the world.
  • Part Two delves into the company's culture and the evolution of the product, from the News Feed to the acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram.
  • Part Three is all about the public scandals following the 2016 US Election, covering much of the nuance inside how policy and content moderation decisions were made at the company.

As expected, the book is full of interesting anecdotes about the history of the company. There's a bit of everything: internal feuds from the Facebook founding team, lawsuits with multi-million dollar settlements, the origin of the "move fast and break things" motto, and the wild story of David Choe, the graffiti artist who painted the wall murals in Facebook's first office, got paid in stock, and made more than $200 million from the deal.

The thread that runs through the entire book is Zuckerberg's idealism. Time and again, you come away with the sense of Zuckerberg's genuine belief in the mission to connect the world as a driving force behind Facebook's product decisions and company positioning. Levy writes how that idealism, communicated to the outside world by extensive media training that transformed an awkward college student into a (less awkward) public persona, is both the company's most important strength and its biggest weakness.

That's not to say that Levy absolves the Facebook team from its egregious mistakes. On the contrary, about one-third of the book is dedicated to those, in detail. Some, like the consequences of giving developers access to one's friends' data via the Facebook Graph API, can be explained by a naive adherence to its mission of connecting the world. Others, like the gross negligence in its role in the Rohingya prosecution in Myanmar, are the consequence of its global ambitions, focus on speed, and obsession with growth.

I especially appreciate Steven Levy's non-judgmental approach to the book. He is not out there to impose his viewpoint on you. Instead, Levy invites readers to draw their own conclusions about Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, and the broader Facebook story.

Bottom line

If you're like me and can pinpoint exactly when and where you first signed into Facebook—my own flashback is to a friend's party in '09 during my first year of college—then Facebook: The Inside Story is going to hit differently.

It has this mix of nostalgia and revelation that's just gripping. It's somewhat of a long read, but it doesn't feel like it. Steven Levy does a wonderful job writing a tech book that is approachable, and is "tough but fair" in his exposé of Facebook's public controversies.

For anyone curious about how Facebook went from a college phenomenon to a trillion-dollar company, or just fascinated by the impact of social media at large, this book is a must-read. Levy has this way of making you feel right in the middle of it all, and I can't recommend it enough.