Facebook Was the ‘Next Google’

Since I contributed $10 to the $23 million The Social Network grossed nationally this weekend, I see no reason not to blog some thoughts on the film.

First of all, the movie, which purports to be a history of the founding of Facebook, succeeds wildly as entertainment. As you may have heard by now, the film basically posits that if its founder, Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg, had not been dumped by his girlfriend for questioning the academic credibility of her school, Boston University, Facebook may never have existed at all.

Whether or not the film’s facts are straight on this is another matter. Nonetheless, it is not my purpose to comment extensively on either the film or its veracity, other than to recommend it highly as long as you ingest the story and characters with the copious grains of salt.

But some facts the film depicts are undeniable. The most significant for my purposes here is that the idea that became Facebook was germinated in the fall of 2003, just six years ago, and, as a website, was launched on the Harvard campus in February 2004.

This coincidentally is the same time I started my work as an analyst in telecom policy circles. In that period, Facebook has gone from a fairly localized Ivy League phenomenon to encompass 500 million “friends” and made social networking a significant dimension to the online experience.

Yet, even now, in the face of this one incredible example, I find myself, as I was six years ago, still challenging the assertion that the telecom industry is re-consolidating into a monopoly and that regulatory policies such as network neutrality are required to ensure innovation thrives for consumers, connectivity grows and applications remain inexpensive or free.

In fact, one of the rallying cries for network neutrality is that it is needed to ensure the viability of the “next Google.”

Well, Facebook was the next Google, and what it and its founders have accomplished, completely devoid of Internet regulation, is extraordinary. Moreover Facebook’s success is testimony to the free market counterclaim that network neutrality is a government solution in search of a problem.

On the technical side, as the film covers in broad strokes, Facebook’s biggest resource requirement was server space. That’s what Zuckerberg and his friends need most of their start-up capital for. In the film, as was the case in real life, access to bandwidth, which net neutrality proponents say carriers have monopolized into artificial scarcity, never is an issue.

Despite all the alleged backstabbing and double-crosses the film depicts, at no point does an evil telecom executive show up and demand a king’s ransom for the right to use its network. Zuckerberg’s biggest fear is a server crash, not the threat of being stuck in an “Internet slow lane.” On the contrary, throughout the film, broadband access to Facebook is taken for granted. Broadband wireless connections work flawlessly. When a character says he viewed the video of a regatta on Facebook within minutes of the race’s conclusion, the filmmakers assume audiences will accept it without further exposition.

So, while the film presents Facebook’s founders as dysfunctional, it does not extend that judgment to the telecom and Internet industry. My enjoyment of the film was enhanced-and I hope yours is, too–by its tacit acknowledgement that, in America, a high-tech idea still can go from a dorm room to household word within six years, and that there is no broadband monopoly bottleneck strangling start-ups, whether or not they are fueled by beer and bad break-ups.