Our Top 12 of 2012. No. 6: The chances are, you have a Facebook profile yourself: by July, a billion people will have one. But have you thought about what it’s doing to real life? Robert Lane Greene reports, starting with a visit to Facebook’s offices...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2012
Wooooh! yeah! Hoots, hollers and dance music played on a full-volume boombox, assail the conference room where I am quizzing a data scientist at Facebook. It takes 20 seconds for the noise to die down enough for us to continue talking.
This is what Facebook’s offices are like, embracing at least the idea of “creative destruction”, violence to the establishment. Facebook will soon float its shares on the stock market, making several billionaires and many millionaires out of its staff and backers. But the sprawling new Menlo Park office complex is designed—perhaps a bit too designed—to look as if the kids just took over in a revolution. Walls are extensively, if rather meticulously, graffiti’d; the graffiti artist, who was paid in shares, will be among the new millionaires. Chalkboards line many of the remaining surfaces, so Facebook’s wandering young employees can doodle almost anywhere. There are blocks of conference rooms with whimsical names: one here based on Star Wars characters mixed with drinks (Darth Jager, The Empire Strikes Bacardi), one over there echoing Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream (Americone Dream, Half Baked). Signs abound reading “Move Fast and Break Things”.
But these kids are not really breaking things. They are relentlessly building things, one after the other after the other, and adding them to the vastly ambitious mega-thing called Facebook. With its initial public offering (IPO) approaching, the company is in a “quiet period” during which it must avoid making new public predictions, but it is expected that Facebook’s 850m users will grow to a clean billion by July.
So for all the capricious decor and talk of breaking things, Facebook is very well aware that the eyes of the world are on it as an incumbent giant, not an insurgent. Besides “Move Fast and Break Things” there are signs telling employees to “Stay Focused and Keep Shipping”. Visitors are greeted warmly, but also presented with the standard Silicon Valley non-disclosure agreement before they can proceed past security. A billion people connected as never before in history. But Facebook also engenders anxiety on levels from the personal to the political, worries about a world in which private lives are always on display. What is 24-hour social networking doing to our self-expression, our self-image, our sense of decorum? Have we finally landed in the “global village” coined by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s? What if you don’t like it there? Is there anywhere else to live?