Friends without Benefits

Article excerpt

Byline: Daniel Lyons

The sad truth about Facebook.

The people who run Facebook, the social-networking company, are furious about a new movie that takes lots of liberties in its depiction of how Facebook came into existence. They're upset because much of The Social Network, which opens Oct. 1, is just completely made up. That's fair enough. But to me, the really interesting thing about this movie is that while much of the tale is invented, the story tells a larger truth about Silicon Valley's get-rich-quick culture and the kind of people--like Facebook's 26-year-old founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg--who thrive in this environment.

The Valley used to be a place run by scientists and engineers, people like Robert Noyce, the Ph.D. physicist who helped invent the integrated circuit and cofounded Intel. The Valley, in those days, was focused on hard science and making things. At first there were semiconductors, which is how Silicon Valley got its name; then came computers and software. But now the Valley has become a casino, a place where smart kids arrive hoping to make an easy fortune building companies that seem, if not pointless, at least not as serious as, say, old-guard companies like HP, Intel, Cisco, and Apple.

The three hottest tech companies today are Facebook, Twitter, and Zynga. What, exactly, do they do? Facebook lets you keep in touch with your friends; for this profound service to mankind it will generate about $1.5 billion in revenue this year by bombarding its 500 million members with ads. Twitter is a noisy circus of spats and celebrity watching, and its hapless founders still can't figure out how to make money. That hasn't stopped venture capitalists from funding dozens of companies that make little apps that work with Twitter, just as they're also funding countless companies that make apps for Apple's iPhone, and just as, a few years ago, they were all funding companies that made applications to run on Facebook. Zynga, the biggest of those Facebook app-makers, reportedly will rake in $500 million this year by getting people addicted to cheesy games like Farmville and Mafia Wars, then selling "virtual goods" to use inside the games.

Meanwhile, among some longtime techies, there's a sense that something important has been lost.

"The old Silicon Valley was about solving really hard problems, making technical bets. …