“I definitely had this impostor syndrome,” he told me in 2018, reflecting on the Yahoo bid. “I’d surrounded myself with people who I respected as executives, and I felt like they understood some things about building a company. They basically convinced me that I needed to entertain the offer.”
He did verbally accept the offer, but then Yahoo CEO Terry Semel made a tactical error, asking to renegotiate terms because his company’s stock had taken a downturn. Zuckerberg used that as an opportunity to end the talks. He believed that the two products he wrote about in the Book of Change would make Facebook more valuable.
The executives who had urged him to sell would either quit or be fired. “It was just too broken a relationship,” Zuckerberg says.
After Zuckerberg rejected Yahoo, he turned to the launch of the key products he had outlined in the Book of Change. After almost eight months of intense preparation, News Feed launched in September 2006. The rollout was a disaster, and the flash point was privacy.
News Feed hit your social groups like a stack of tabloid newspapers crashing on the sidewalk. Every one of your “friends” now knew instantly if you made an ass of yourself at a party or your girlfriend dumped you. All because Facebook was shoving the information in their faces! Over 100,000 people joined just one of many Facebook groups urging the product’s retraction. There was a demonstration outside headquarters.
Inside Facebook there were calls to pull the product, but when employees analyzed the data, they discovered something amazing. Even as hundreds of thousands of users expressed their disapproval of News Feed, their behavior indicated the opposite. People were spending more time on Facebook. Even the anger against News Feed was being fueled by News Feed, as the groups organizing against it went viral because Facebook told you when your friends joined the uprising.
Zuckerberg did not panic. Instead, at 10:45 pm on September 5, he acknowledged their complaints, albeit in a condescendingly titled blog post: “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you.” For the next few days the News Feed team worked all-nighters to gin up the protections that should have been in the product to begin with, including a privacy “mixer” that let users control who would see an item about them. The rage was quelled, and in a breathtakingly short period of time, people got used to the new Facebook. News Feed turned out to be crucial to Facebook’s continued rise.
Zuckerberg seemed to take a lesson from his first public crisis, possibly the wrong one. He had pushed out a product with serious privacy issues—issues his own people had identified. Yes, a crisis did erupt, but quick action and a dry-eyed apology defused the situation. People wound up loving the product.
“It was a microcosm of him and the company,” says Matt Cohler, who left Facebook in 2008 but is still close to Zuckerberg. “The intent was good, there were misfires along the way, we acknowledged the misfires, we fixed it, and we moved on. And that’s basically the way the company operates.”
Zuckerberg became comfortable as the ultimate decider on all things Facebook. Sam Lessin, a Harvard classmate who later worked as a Facebook executive, says that multiple times he was in a room where Zuckerberg made a decision that conflicted with everyone else’s opinion. His view would prevail, and he would be right. After a while, people came to accept that a Zuck decision would turn out to be the wise one.
Zuckerberg wanted growth. As he had outlined in his notebook, Facebook grew when people shared their information, and he believed that, as happened with News Feed, people would come to see the value of that sharing. Facebook did offer privacy controls, but as with all software, default settings rule: Providing privacy controls is not the same as providing privacy. “What makes this seem secure, whether or not it actually is?”