How The Social Network Got It Wrong:
Facemash and the Dangerous Propagation of the Myth of Network Scarcity
There have been many reviews of “The Social Network” decrying the movie for missing or distorting some essential aspect of the Facebook story. For example, there are negative reviews from Lessig and Jarvis both of which are worth reading. To some extent criticism is to be expected. Love it or hate it, Facebook is now too significant to ignore. Facebook represents an essential element of the zeitgeist. It’s the most successful business to emerge in the new millennium and hundreds of millions of people use it daily.
It is with some hesitation then that I have decided to add myself to the many grumbling reviewers. But what makes this review different is that instead of focusing on things that the film left out or themes that it should have included, I intend to focus on a specific and clearly documented and verifiable instance in which the film differs from real events: the technical effects of Facemash.com‘s popularity on Harvard’s network. I will also explain why this deviation leads to the propagation of dangerous myths of scarcity.
The film relatively accurately depicts how late one night before he started Facebook Mark Zuckerburg decided to start Facemash. For those who haven’t seen the movie, Facemash presented the user with two randomly selected pictures of Harvard students and then let the user vote on which one was hotter. Zuckerburg really did start Facemash on a whim in his dorm room late at night and he obtained the content by programatically scrapping Harvard house websites. Yes the real site was just as tasteless as what was shown in the film and has all sorts of copyright and privacy problems. Both in reality and in the film, word of the site spread more quickly than Zuckerburg intended or expected. However, in The Social Network, the popularity of the site and the traffic it generates crashes the Harvard network. As both a computer scientist and a user of the Harvard network, it just didn’t seem plausible to me that the Harvard network would have crashed. (Even non-technical viewers might wonder about an apparent logical inconsistency. In the movie, Facebook becomes many times more popular within Harvard than Facemash ever was but Facebook has no adverse effects on Harvard’s network.) I researched the issue extensively and found no evidence that the Facemash traffic had any significant effect on the University’s network. I therefore conclude that the crash of the Harvard network shown in the film is purely a dramatic fabrication.
The Crimson – the newspaper of record for Harvard College – is perhaps the best source of documentation on Facemash. A search through the Crimson archives shows that Facemash received much coverage through articles and editorials, most of which were negative. The social and moral implications of the site are extensively discussed. But in the many articles in the Crimson, I found no mention whatsoever that any adverse harm came to the Harvard network infrastructure from the Facemash fiasco. What I did find is 1 article in which Zuckerburg said that the unexpected traffic made his personal computer, on which Facemash was hosted, so slow that he had trouble logging onto it. Facemash was actually on-line for a little over two days before Zuckerburg semi-voluntarily shut it down in response to wide-spread criticism (see the following article).
Why this Matters
I know that this difference may seem nitpicky. Showing a network crash is much more entertaining than showing a slow server; so why shouldn’t the director be able to take some dramatic license? The Internet changes costs in ways that are difficult to conceptualize and many people are misinformed. We as a society are only going to make sensible policy about the Internet if we have some intuitive understanding of how it works. I don’t expect movies to inform an audience about policy discussions, but I expect them not to misinform people. The policy implications of the two scenarios are dramatically different. If the sudden popularity of a single web site is enough to cripple an entire network, the only logical response is to come up with some technical or legal mechanism to regulate or restrict access to the network. For example, students might be restricted from running web sites on their computers or there might be a mechanism in place to artificially limit traffic to student web sites. If on the other hand, the unexpected success of a web site merely affects the site owner’s computer, there is no cause for concern. It is the site owners’ responsibilities to optimize their sites or obtain more powerful servers and if they don’t no one else suffers. (It is still possible to argue for website restrictions for social rather than technical reasons – an approach followed by countries such as China and Iran.)
The above discussion is not purely hypothetical. Network owners often push the paradigm that network bandwidth is a scarce resource that must be rationed. This view was most famously advocated by Ted Stevens in his series of tubes speech and is frequently reiterated in one form or another. Examples include telecoms insistence that they need to be able to employ discriminatory network management policies and the recent data usage limitations on AT&T’s iPhone plans and Comcast’s residential Internet. The individual issues have been debated elsewhere and a thorough discussion of them is outside the scope of this blog. However, the fundamental point is that the paradigm of scarcity creates dangerous incentives for network operators. If network operators can profit from rationing their capacity, there is no incentive to increase capacity. For example, cell phone companies have historically charged ridiculous rates for SMS data and voice overages. As mentioned above, recently AT&T stopped offering unlimited data plans to new customers. The company apparently decided that it was more profitable to simply ration network access and impose usage charges rather than to upgrade their network.
Competition can help but once social expectations of scarcity are in place they tend to remain long after they are warranted. For example, when Hotmail started in 1996, it offered 2MB of storage per account which may have been a reasonable amount of storage given the cost of disk space. But by 2004, disk space was hundreds of times cheaper yet Hotmail still only offered 2MB of free storage. Hotmail was hardly unique, other email services such as Yahoo didn’t offer much more storage. Once a social expectation of scarcity was established, it remained in place long after the technical justification. The email market was competitive during this time, although there were high switching costs, there were also dozens of providers to choose from. However, this competition did not result in increased availability of email storage. Part of the problem may have been that Hotmail and other free services sold premium plans that included additional storage. Just as airlines are reluctant to improve coach for fear that 1st class will be comparatively less desirable, web mail providers may have been wary of improving their free offering for fear of losing sales of the premium plans. However, even the premium plans had surprising low storage. Finally in early 2004, Google launched Gmail and this myth of scarcity was shattered over night. Gmail initially offered 1GB of free storage – 500 times more than Hotmail’s free offering and many times more than Hotmail’s premium plan. Suddenly everyone’s expectations changed and within weeks other email services increased their storage offerings.
Free market purists might argue that this story is a vindication of the market since the problem was eventually corrected. But it is important to remember that competition among the existing firms wasn’t enough. A change in social expectations only came about because a new company was able to enter the market. Imagine a market in which there was less competition and higher barriers to entry. The cell phone market is marginally competitive while the broadband market is essentially a duopoly. Both markets have high barriers to entry. Furthermore imagine how much the world would have been improved if we hadn’t had to wait 8 years for this change to come.
It’s easy to laugh at the Ted Stevens’s of the world. Stevens can easily be seen as a corrupt Luddite who was either too dumb, too lazy, or too crotchety to understand the Internet but was too arrogant to know how clueless he was. (Though I disagree with Stevens’s series of tubes metaphor and some of his policy conclusions I acknowledge that it is possible to defend them; however his reasoning, examples, and misuse of terminology are not defensible and showed that he lacked any real understanding of the technology he felt confident enough to make policy on.) Criticism of Stevens is certainly warranted. He had a responsibility to make an informed decision about the issue and clearly failed in his duty as a public official. However, Stevens also serves as another cautionary tale. If someone whose job is to make and understand policy and who has a staff to assist him is nevertheless misinformed, how much chance do the rest of us have?
It is important that we as a society understand the Internet and its basic economics. I have attempted to push back against the paradigm of false scarcity that has been perpetuated by “The Social Network”. The wonderful thing about the Internet is that the cost of trying new ideas is low and consequently the risks of failure are minimal. I’m not defending the creation of Facemash – the site was clearly invasive of privacy, hurtful, and generally a bad idea. However, the conditions that gave rise to Facemash also enabled the creation of Facebook. The important thing was that after the Facemash debacle, Zuckerburg could easily start again with something new. On the whole, experimentation and innovation make the world better. I hope that those who saw The Social Network will be inspired to build their own websites rather than fear that their unexpected success will cause some type of network meltdown.