Facebook: Corporate Hackers, a Billion Users, and the Geo-Politics of the "Social Graph"

By Fattal, Alex | Anthropological Quarterly, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview
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Facebook: Corporate Hackers, a Billion Users, and the Geo-Politics of the "Social Graph"


Fattal, Alex, Anthropological Quarterly


ABSTRACT

As Facebook moves to a new office space, consolidates its growth internationally, and sculpts its corporate identity, it navigates contradictions between the attempt to preserve ideals associated with the company's founding and the demands of global growth. Through an ethnographic snapshot of Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, California I explore the company's expansion toward one billion users and its efforts to dominate the few national markets in which competitors still have the upper hand. I argue that Facebook combines technical and geopolitical savvy by using cross-network pressure and the softpower of user data, or what it calls "the social graph," to win the market-share wars. These realpolitik demands trump the impulse to reproduce Facebook's idealistic origins outside the realm of its carefully crafted "corporate culture," performed meticulously in the company's office design. [Keywords: Facebook, corporate culture, social media, media politics]

Facebook's S-1 Filing with the SEC

On February 1, 2012 Facebook filed a S-1 form with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for its highly anticipated initial public offering. The 793-page document, which contains an open letter to investors from CEO Mark Zuckerberg, clearly sets out the company's mission, business philosophy, strategic assets, and future risks. The form attempts to communicate Facebook's corporate culture and makes plain the company's global ambitions. The filing papers are the company's most comprehensive self-presentation and candid assessment of its strategic outlook. With this in mind, I've inserted textboxes with excerpts from Facebook's S-1 Registration filing papers with the SEC throughout this piece since they dovetail so closely with my arguments.

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Introduction

In the lobby, tourists from Milan, Italy posed for a picture in front of a Facebook poster autographed by the company's first 200 employees. They were visiting Stanford University and wanted a photo of the building that creates the website that they frequent. The tourists took their photos wearing a giant foam "Like" thumbs up, a prop the receptionist has on the ready (see Figure 1). After milling around the lobby, and stopping to stare at the "Real Time Friend Connections" display, a spinning globe with white streaks charting the consummation of Facebook friendships in almost real time (within ten seconds), they leftto grab dinner in San Francisco. In their brief visit, these Italian tourists tasted two aspects of Facebook that this essay will explore: the symbolism of its headquarters and the company's international expansion.

Through an analysis of the design of Facebook's main office at 1601 South California Avenue in Palo Alto and interviews with Facebook employees, I locate contradictions in Facebook's expansion and raise questions about the implications of those contradictions. The first section, on the symbolism of the office space, focuses on the office as an expression of the values that Facebook has sought to embody since its founding, and desires to selectively preserve in its projected future. The second section, on the geo-politics of the global social graph, looks at some of these values and their limits in the context of the company's international expansion. At stake in both sections is an effort to retain and perform founding principles-"openness," being "anti-establishment," and the company's one word motto, their condensed amalgam, "HACK." I will expand on these terms in a moment, but the important point that this essay strives to make is that while these ideals serve as the company's internal cultural logic, that logic is contradicted by corporate practices and realpolitik battles for market share and profits-what official company discourse elides. Zuckerberg walks a fine line as he denies and downplays the profit motive in his letter to investors, while assuring them that the company is not naïvely idealistic.

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