How Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg Are Changing Politics

Author David Kirkpatrick discusses how the Web site acts as a social empowerment tool.

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With extraordinary speed, Facebook has become a centerpiece of the social and political lives of people around the world. In just six and a half years, the Internet social networking site has amassed half a billion users, making it what author David Kirkpatrick says is probably the fastest growing company ever in terms of customers. In The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World, Kirkpatrick takes readers from Facebook's inception in Mark Zuckerberg's dorm room at Harvard University to its present status as a grassroots global phenomenon with the power to shake business and government. In February 2008, for instance, a Facebook group generated street protests by a total of as many as 12 million people in Colombia and in cities around the world against the kidnappings and killings by the violent Colombian rebel group known by its Spanish acronym FARC. A former senior editor at Fortune magazine, Kirkpatrick recently spoke with U.S. News about how the company is changing politics and institutions. Excerpts:

Will Mark Zuckerberg take over the world?

No. That's overly grandiose. But it's amazing, when you look at Facebook, the superlatives that it does justify. It is still gaining roughly a million new users every day. It's in every country on the planet at this point except in countries like North Korea or China and a few places where it's not really legal. Taking over the world is an extreme concept, but the company seems to be on a path to penetrate the Internet to a substantial degree, and it could be that it might someday begin to approach the vast majority who are on the Internet. At the moment, it's around a third.

Your book is partly a biography of Zuckerberg. Do you think he's proven capable of running something so influential?

He's grown into his job. Whether or not he can make the transition to being the ambassadorial, diplomatic leader who can represent the company as its CEO in an increasingly public and public-policy-oriented context is unknown. You might have to guess that he's probably not ideally suited for that, although, he has surprised us all. I wouldn't put it past him.

Has he been too idealistic?

Not at all. It's amazing how idealistic he has been and how much he has accomplished nonetheless. You might argue that he's the world's most successful person at realizing over an extremely short time a vision based on idealism. Maybe he's like the Beatles in that regard. The question becomes: Can idealism carry him much further, or should he become more pragmatic? And, is he willing to?

Facebook acts like the old-fashioned petition, but is faster and broader. How is that changing politics?

If you're upset about anything, and you want to get people riled up and join you in protesting it, no matter where you are in the world, and no matter whether it's a pothole on your block or a stolen election in your country, Facebook is likely to be the first place you're going to turn if you're just an ordinary citizen. Facebook has this amazing ability to convey messages between people very efficiently and for messages to spread virally. It has had quite an impact in many countries as a platform for protest—in places like Indonesia, Egypt, and Colombia.

How has it affected elections?

Facebook had a significant role in the election of Barack Obama. For any politician who really wants to come out of nowhere and have an impact, Facebook is the tool that he or she would be crazy to ignore.

In your book, you discuss Facebook's impact on institutions and bureaucracy.

The world has historically been a very hierarchical place in general. We've had a lot of authority figures, and ordinary people have not had that much of a chance to influence decision-making at the top, particularly in a company. While that remains the case, Facebook as a tool for empowerment does impact that, even inside enterprises. The leadership of a lot of companies are made uncomfortable by this, because employees can communicate with one another in a very lateral way without the hierarchal systems that the management imposes to try to assert control.