Review: A woman’s view of the boys at Facebook

July 13, 2012

By Megan Miller
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

A childish approach to life can be profitable. It has certainly worked well for the founders and backers of Facebook, as Katherine Losse demonstrates in “The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network.” The engaging and pithy book is a memoir of the author’s five years at the company, before it developed a slick corporate persona.

She describes the office shenanigans of Facebook’s Ivy League wonder whiz kids: games of hide and seek, all night hackathons and serial IM flirtations. It was a collection of ageing Peter Pans: “I came to realize it was the identity of a 19-year-old boy, forever youthful and reckless, unmonitored and unstoppable, that the boys were so anxious about losing. They were worried, perhaps, about growing up. Facebook culture, by another name, then, might be fear of adulthood, a desire to put off commitment, responsibility and the difficult work of relating in real life in real terms, forever.”

The sexual tension was also adolescent, more like “Mad Men” than the film of “The Social Network.” Male supervisors continuously berated their female employees just because they felt threatened. Female employees were encouraged to wear t-shirts depicting founder Mark Zuckerberg’s profile on his birthday in a symbol of idolatry and subservience.

The success of Facebook gives the employees the means for more self-indulgence, and they took advantage – trips to Palm Spring’s lush Coachella music festival, Las Vegas’s swank resorts and Palo Alto’s abundant poolside patios. In Losse’s view, the travel didn’t broaden the mind. The company became more inbred and the employees more indoctrinated in the cult of Facebook. The employees’ immaturity may have fit in with the aspirations of the predominantly young early customers, but there was something ironic about the closed culture in a company which was opening up possibilities of communication for its users.

Sheryl Sandberg’s entrance onto the scene marks the turning point in Losse’s narrative. Her example and sympathetic ear encouraged female employees, but the arrival of a high-powered hire, snatched away from Google, was a sign that leadership would be more professional and firmly from the top. “She enunciated precisely, so as to make every thought seem like a decision, like the matter was always closed and the conversation had always already reached its resolution.”

Zuckerberg remained the aloof wizard behind the curtain. Losse first met him after she had been working at the company for nearly three years, when she was promoted from customer service to be his ghost writer. Describing his approach as both standoffish and insular all at once, she describes their first encounter: “Whenever he looked at me directly, which was rare, it was either with blankness or a slight smirk and some acknowledgement that we were in on some joke. I wasn’t sure what the joke was, if it even existed.”

The closer contact with Zuckerberg did not make Losse more loyal. She left Facebook over two years before the initial public offering, worrying the company was losing its way. “By 2009, everything that happened at work seemed to prompt the feeling that, in Facebook’s perpetual nostalgia for its own early culture, we were losing our utopia.”

If there is such a cultural contradiction, it didn’t trip the company up before the IPO, even if the offering seemed to be managed by a slightly inebriated teenage boy at the wheel of a hot rod. But investors might want to take Losse’s book as a warning. Companies which rely on a cult of reckless youth often don’t age well.

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