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Do You Own Facebook? Or Does Facebook Own You?

This is part of who I am now—somebody who knows that her nursery-school tormentor wasn’t a bully without a heart. It will get logged into my profile, and that profile will become part of the “social graph,” which is a map of every known human relationship in the universe. Filling it in is Facebook’s big vision, a typically modest one for Silicon Valley. It’s too complex for a computer scientist to build. Just as our free calls to GOOG-411 helped Google build its voice-recognition technology, we are creating the graph for Facebook, and I’m not sure that we can take ourselves out once we’ve put ourselves on there. We have changed the nature of the graph by our very presence, which facilitates connections between our disparate groups of friends, who now know each other. “If you leave Facebook, you can remove data objects, like photographs, but it’s a complete impossibility that you can control all of your data,” says Fred Stutzman, a teaching fellow studying social networks at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Facebook can’t promise it, and no one can promise it. You can’t remove yourself from the site because the site has, essentially, been shaped by you.”

This graph, this most intimate of databases, is so immensely valuable, and powerful—if in ways as yet impossible to comprehend—that it is hard to imagine it being held in the hands of a 24-year-old eager to make his stamp on the world. Facebook may thicken social bonds, but it was founded on the ruins of a relationship. Zuckerberg, a confident, privileged programmer and fencer from Dobbs Ferry who graduated from Exeter, started the site in 2004, as a Harvard sophomore studying computer science and psychology. After he created a stir on campus with a mean-spirited comparison of Harvard students’ relative attractiveness (quickly shut down by university administrators), a trio of entrepreneurial classmates, including Olympian rowing twins, approached him to write code for an online Harvard Facebook that they planned to call Harvard Connection. According to the Connection guys, Zuckerberg agreed to the project, then blew them off for a couple months. Then he launched (The three students settled with him for $65 million in June 2008; they are now suing one of their law firms for making them a questionable deal, as the sum was awarded partially in Facebook stock).

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A slight five foot eight with a cocky attitude but a halting way of speaking, and a near-daily uniform of a fleece paired with a tie, Zuckerberg enjoys his position of power immensely, though a friend says that he doesn’t care about money at all—except he really wants a jet. He used to have a business card that read I’M CEO … BITCH. Sweeping proclamations fall from his lips, as when he declared he had started a “movement” when he opened Facebook’s API to developers, or that “once every hundred years, media changes,” upon the release of Beacon, an ad program that he had to cancel because of user discontent (it was reintroduced as an opt-in program a few months later, and continues with a small number of participating sites today). At his core, he is a programmer—he loves the nerd widgets on the site, like (fluff)Friends—and like most programmers, he believes that more information makes a better world, and a more tolerant one. And he could be right. Your digital self could be even more sensitive, and powerful, than your real self: It could possess more information, and more information is power; it could push progressive cultural norms, like the Saudi women who organized for driving privileges with the help of Facebook; more friends on Facebook already mean more job opportunities, and will likely produce free iPods for those who are identified as influencers by marketers.

But web cognoscenti tend to think that people who worry too much about privacy are sentimentalists who should grow up, and while maintaining a sense of privacy is Facebook’s core strength, it’s hard to believe that Zuckerberg and the Facebook staff are all that different. Facebook does not give advertisers access to personal information, but third-party widget developers are allowed to scrape some of it with user consent (they are prevented from accessing information like e-mails and IM addresses). The U.S. government, plus criminal attorneys and divorce lawyers, don’t technically have access to it either, but it’s not hard to get a subpoena in this country these days. And the developers are sometimes located in foreign countries, which means that they could pass our information to foreign governments. I asked Kelly about this, too, and perhaps he found me too credulous. “So the Indian government knows that you like Bon Jovi, and that’s a threat to national security?” he asked, laughing.