Mark Zuckerberg’s Ghost Haunted the Harvard 2006 Reunion

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Mark Zuckerberg, Justin Coffin, Bede Moore, and Samyr Laine as freshmen roommates at Harvard in 2002.

“All these people seem terrible on Facebook, but in person they’re sort of nice,” a member of the Harvard class of 2006 said, surveying her classmates who had come back to Cambridge for their tenth reunion. It was noon on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and the alums were gathered for a barbecue in Harvard Yard, having just watched several TED Talks given by a predictably successful group of their peers. Ruth Schlitz spoke about her work developing a smart window that can be tinted automatically, while Rebecca O’Brien detailed an investigative series on heroin use in New Jersey that made her a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Susanna Brock, a math teacher at Berkeley Carroll, the Harvard of Brooklyn’s K-12 institutions, had been conducting an experiment on whether single-sex math classes might improve the performance of female students. (Early results are promising.)

Michael Beal, who had started a hedge fund, devoted his presentation to talking about the digital revolution that his company was utilizing to make trades and that, he suggested, had been launched in part by the class of 2006. “We showed the world that virality could really add value,” Beal said. “We started this as Harvard students, with a desire to take it from Kirkland House to the world.”

Well, one of them started it. Kirkland House was the Harvard dormitory where, in the fall of 2003, Mark Zuckerberg began work on Thefacebook.com. Zuckerberg came to Cambridge as a member of the class of 2006 and had he not joined Bill Gates, Matt Damon, and Pete Seeger as Harvard dropouts, he might have been just another one of his overachieving classmates who had come to the reunion to update everyone on his latest promotion. Instead, he had made more money than all 1,650 of them combined. “I told my sister that I was doing this TED Talk today,” O’Brien, the Pulitzer finalist, said. “And she was like, ‘So what’s the TED Talk for? People who aren’t Mark Zuckerberg but did okay?’”

Among the many industries that Facebook has disrupted is the in-person reunion, but nearly half of the class had decided to show up for a real-life status update, despite a warning from the university about a mumps epidemic. (“What could be more quintessentially Harvardian than a 19th-century disease that isn’t transmitted sexually?” one ’06er said.) The organizers had tried to stress that the digital age only made reunions all the more meaningful. “Perhaps we share more honestly with no pressure to garner ‘likes,’” wrote the class secretary in her introduction to the Red Book, a bound class directory published at each reunion, with updates written by the graduates themselves. Some choose to abstain, but others go on for pages, or compose entries to the tune of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables: “I dream of Harvard years gone by / With precious friends, each day a story.” Quitting Facebook was mentioned as an important life update, as were marriage, infertility, battles with depression, and, most commonly, the acquisition of a dog. Several people brought up the class’s most prominent member. “The Class of 2006 is full of competitive type-A overachievers that, unfortunately for me (and quite frankly for you too), includes Mark Zuckerberg, who I think we can all agree has probably won this round,” wrote one alum. He then described his “deadbeat life,” which included earning a Ph.D. and working for the National Institutes of Health.

“I had no idea he was gonna fucking build Facebook,” Bede Moore, one of Zuckerberg’s freshman-year roommates, told me a few hundred yards from where they had lived in Straus Hall. “But it was very clear to us already that we were living with somebody very brilliant.” Most everyone who knew Zuckerberg at Harvard rejects the heartless version presented in The Social Network, and Moore, an Australian who came to Harvard as a rower, remembered him as a kind, friendly, and generous roommate. “I mean, let’s also not kid ourselves,” Moore said. “He was super-nerdy.” A freshman-year photo of Zuckerberg, Moore, and their other two roommates shows Moore beaming with his head above theirs while Zuckerberg looks shyly down at the ground.

Thefacebook.com went live on February 2004. (“The big thing was poking,” several people told me at reunion, referencing an early feature unfamiliar to most of the more than a billion and a half people who have since joined the site.) By semester’s end, Facebook had more than a hundred-thousand users and Zuckerberg left for California, but the site’s growth was still manageable enough that Chris Hughes, one of Zuckerberg’s sophomore-year roommates, was able to perform his duties as Facebook’s spokesman while studying abroad in Paris. It wasn’t especially odd for a Harvard undergraduate to take time off to work on an extracurricular project, and many people assumed Zuckerberg would return to Cambridge after a semester or two. But by graduation, there was still no sign of him, and Facebook had a valuation of $750 million, which turned out to be a rather pessimistic projection. “There’s a bunch of people from our class doing really brilliant things — they just don’t happen to be the most successful person of our entire generation,” Moore said. “There’s competition for them, where for Mark, there is no rival. It’s like a joke with people in our class: ‘Who’s coming in second?’”

Of course, this is Harvard, so there are a few candidates. If we exclude Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, 45, who spent nearly a decade taking classes between tours before graduating in 2006, the class’s first celebrity was Nick McDonell, who wrote his debut novel in high school, to considerable acclaim, and published his second while at Harvard. (That occasion was marked in this magazine with a profile titled “Don’t Hate Him Because He’s Young, Good-Looking, Privileged, Impeccably Connected, and About to Publish His Second Novel.”) He recently published his seventh book, having spent much of his postgraduation life reporting from Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Several people pointed to Elise Stefanik, who announced her candidacy for a congressional seat in upstate New York, which she won, by posting a photo on Instagram, which Zuckerberg owns. (Stefanik could not attend the reunion owing to Memorial Day commitments in her vet-heavy district.) Others said that they had recently been served ads on Facebook featuring their classmate Alexa von Tobel, who has become a prominent personal-finance guru.

The official hashtag for the weekend was “#legendary06,” and a wide range of skills were on display at both the TED Talks and a talent show held after the barbecue, during which one person performed Kesha’s “Tik Tok” in sign language, another sang “a short song about misery,” while a third read from a novel he had written about finding millions of dollars under a bathroom sink. No one had eradicated mumps, but the class included a doctor on a Native American reservation, writers for Game of Thrones and Parks and Recreation, a section violinist in the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, and the COO of the Harlem Children’s Zone. Other notable figures were sure to emerge: The buzz at the 35th reunion was that newly minted attorney general Loretta Lynch was going to show up.

Zuckerberg’s departure hadn’t launched a string of expensively educated dropouts heading west: In terms of tech entrepreneurs, there was Alexa Hirschfeld, who co-founded Paperless Post, and Trip Adler of Scribd, a “Netflix for reading,” and, well … people were certain there were other entrepreneurs in their class, but none of their names were coming immediately to mind. The class had entered college on the heels of the first dot-com crash, and most people said that the mind-set required to get into Harvard — academic excellence, extensive extracurriculars, committed SAT prep — didn’t necessarily lend itself to risk-taking. “I don’t think it’s endemic to people from here to take a big risk, because they feel they have a lot to lose,” Alexa Hirschfeld, the Paperless Post founder, told me. Some of the graduates seemed to view a Harvard degree as a set of (very golden) handcuffs: Nearly half of those with job offers at graduation went into either consulting or finance.

Some people tried tech, but for perhaps the first time in history, Harvard graduates found an industry that was relatively unimpressed by their degree. Google had been founded by Stanford alums, who hired a number of other Stanford graduates and were happy to hire computer-science majors from Harvard. But while Wall Street was willing to accept an Ivy League bachelor’s degree in philosophy as proof that someone could grasp the outlines of a credit-default swap, Silicon Valley was less convinced of that as a sign someone would make a good business-development manager. When I asked a member of the class whether a Harvard degree was worth as much in the tech world, where programming skills were king, as elsewhere, the ’06er cupped hands over mouth and whispered, “I really don’t think so.”

Facebook, however, gave Harvard graduates something of a foothold in Silicon Valley, and a number of them had joined the company as its needs expanded beyond engineers. One member of the class said that a friend of hers had been one of the company’s earliest employees with a job in recruiting. “She’s really, really, really, really, really, really, happy now,” she said. In the Red Book, another person recalled a trip to Bali, where he intended to find “an infinity pool worthy of an Instagram shot”:

“After a week of lobotomized relaxation within the walled confines of the Four Seasons, I started to step out. A few nights later, I found myself traveling down a dimly lit backroads [sic] towards a party at an unknown beach café. I was riding on the back of the scooter of a friend of a friend of an expat I had met on an unnamed iPhone app. And I smiled. Because after years of ever-increasing precision and ambition and discipline and single-minded drive, I suddenly realized that I still had the ability to surprise myself … That was when I decided that everything needed to change.”

He quit his job and went to work at Facebook.

On the last day of reunion, after a memorial service for the six members of the class who had died — one from cancer, two from a heart attack, and three from suicide — the alums gathered for waffles branded with the university crest at a brunch in Kirkland House, where Zuckerberg had built Facebook. None of the Facebook founders had shown up for reunion, though I couldn’t help thinking that Zuckerberg would have liked to be there. His name is listed in the Red Book despite the fact that he didn’t graduate. One member of the class told me that she had spoken with someone in the development office, who said donations from the class had been down. “The working theory in the alumni office is that because this is Mark Zuckerberg’s year, people think they don’t have to give any money,” she explained. The university had begun discussions with Zuckerberg about a possible donation, and several people speculated that Harvard would one day give him an honorary degree, as it had done with Bill Gates.

One attendee described his Harvard peers to me as “pathologically competitive” — when one person told me Elise Stefanik was the youngest congressperson ever, at age 30, a chorus of (male) classmates jumped in to point out that she was the youngest congresswoman, preceded by many men—and though almost everyone insisted they were not envious of Zuckerberg, a number were quick to suggest he had somehow been as lucky as he had been visionary. One ‘06er, who said she initially disdained start-ups owing to their focus on “the whole money thing,” but had since started her own, called Facebook merely a “better MySpace.” Another pointed out that a high-school classmate of Zuckerberg’s, who was also a member of the class, had built a similar site at Exeter.

But the professional envy seemed to have dimmed over time. In the first years after graduation, when they gathered for Harvard-Yale football games, everyone worked hard to present the best version of themselves, justifying their professional choices or expressing disappointment that they weren’t yet changing the world. The fifth reunion was filled with “triumphal course corrections,” as people transitioned from jobs that paid well to jobs they liked. (The guy who built a Facebook-style site at Exeter was now running a vineyard in South Africa.) At the tenth reunion, people had more or less stopped justifying their career in finance and instead simply nodded to their babies.

Being relieved of the pressure to fulfill the impossibly high expectations they once set for themselves seemed to be a great relief to many members of the class, and the competitiveness in the Red Book was less about professional bragging — though there was still plenty of that—than about telling your classmates about a cool vacation, trumpeting your law firm’s maternity-leave policy, or reporting that you’d found the love of your life. (At a party the night before the brunch, I saw someone log in to Tinder — Harvard graduates intermarry so often that the University sends out Valentine’s Day cards to intramural couples — but given how many people in the class had bragged about their marriages in the Red Book, there didn’t seem to be many options.) Others rejected Lean In, by Harvard graduate Sheryl Sandberg. “Everybody’s still super-competitive, but people are becoming human to each other in a way that probably five years ago was not the case,” Bede Moore said.

Moore didn’t live with Zuckerberg sophomore year, when Zuckerberg started Facebook and made his roommates unfathomably rich. Moore and Zuckerberg hung out just before Zuckerberg left for California, a decision he told Moore he had reached when two-thirds of the campus had been using Facebook at a single moment. “Even at that time, I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, shit, I should totally go into tech,’” Moore said, after sprinting to grab one more beer from the barbecue’s open bar. It was unseasonably warm in Boston, and Moore wiped his forehead with a handkerchief as he walked me through his post-Harvard career. He briefly avoided the business track of many his classmates, earning an advanced degree in history at a university in The Netherlands, before taking a job with the Boston Consulting Group. That job took him back to Australia, where he met a girl and helped a large tech company launch a site that became “the largest e-commerce company in Indonesia.” He and his girlfriend then poured all of their life savings into a start-up of their own, which sold high-end clothes to Indonesians. Eight years after his former roommate had launched his company, Moore had become an entrepreneur, too.

But the site shut down last fall, and when I asked Moore whether he regretted not living with Zuckerberg, he started his reply several times before settling on an answer. “Do I think that it would have been interesting to have worked with Mark in the construction of that company and to be on the inside of Facebook? Yeah, that sounds really interesting,” Moore said. “And would the outcome of that — getting a lot of money — be great? Hell, yeah! Who would say, ‘I wish I didn’t have $600 million?’” That figure happens to be the estimated Facebook windfall of Chris Hughes, whose role in Facebook’s founding was the closest to Moore’s skill set. But Moore, who is now married and expecting a child, is happy with his life. “To be like, ‘I wish I changed the course of my existence for money’ is kind of a problematic thing to say,” Moore said. He and his wife skipped the brunch to catch a flight to France, where they were visiting another friend from Harvard. Afterward, Moore was going back to Sydney to start working as an employee at a start-up.

*A version of this article appears in the June 13, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.