Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Facebook’s ‘Letter from Zuckerberg’: The Annotated Version

Facebook’s ‘Letter from Zuckerberg’: The Annotated Version:

Mark Zuckerberg giving the keynote at SXSW conerence in 2009. Credit: Jim Merithew/

Facebook’s Form S-1 Registration Statement with the Security and Exchange Commission includes details on the IPO itself and the company’s financial condition as well as a letter from founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to current and potential shareholders — aka the whole world. It discusses the company’s business and technological philosophy and what Zuckerberg calls its “social mission” — i.e. “to make the world more open and connected.”

Statements like these serve as a manifesto, a declaration, a founding document for the company and its future. It’s useful to pay them close attention. As Zuckerberg writes: “We think it’s important that everyone who invests in Facebook understands what this mission means to us, how we make decisions and why we do the things we do.”

Below is the full text of the letter, with apposite commentary and analysis. Unless otherwise indicated, everything in indented blockquotes is commentary, and all emphases (except for section headers) are mine.



Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected.

Sometimes to accomplish a social mission — whether it’s Google’s attempt to organize the world’s information or Microsoft’s to put a computer on every desktop — you need to build a company. And sometimes companies get so large, ubiquitous, and profitable that they need to have a social mission to legitimize their activity and give them something to work towards beyond cashing checks.

We think it’s important that everyone who invests in Facebook understands what this mission means to us, how we make decisions and why we do the things we do. I will try to outline our approach in this letter.

“I am tired of you people misunderstanding Facebook. This is why you should buy into our vision and let us do what we want.”

At Facebook, we’re inspired by technologies that have revolutionized how people spread and consume information. We often talk about inventions like the printing press and the television — by simply making communication more efficient, they led to a complete transformation of many important parts of society. They gave more people a voice. They encouraged progress. They changed the way society was organized. They brought us closer together.

If you invoke the printing press and you don’t seem totally out of your mind, you’re swinging for the fences.

Today, our society has reached another tipping point. We live at a moment when the majority of people in the world have access to the internet or mobile phones — the raw tools necessary to start sharing what they’re thinking, feeling, and doing with whomever they want. Facebook aspires to build the services that give people the power to share and help them once again transform many of our core institutions and industries.

Note that here, Zuckerberg hedges on whether it’s Facebook that he’s comparing to the printing press and television or the ubiquity of the internet and mobile phones. On the one hand, internet and phones are “the raw tools” that produce “the tipping point.” On the other, Facebook and the services it “aspires to build” are what will “once again transform many of our core institutions and industries.”

It’s quite a tap-dancing act here. On the one hand, Zuckerberg wants to evoke a feeling of a revolutionary change, like the advent of the television or the personal computer. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to actually claim credit for social revolutions, nor does he want to make it seem as if this is a hippy-dippy, pie-in-the-sky company. He lands hard on that last word, “industries.”

There is a huge need and a huge opportunity to get everyone in the world connected, to give everyone a voice and to help transform society for the future. The scale of the technology and infrastructure that must be built is unprecedented, and we believe this is the most important problem we can focus on.

Again, fascinating to me that Zuckerberg talks about Facebook as “infrastructure,” a word we usually reserve on the internet for fiberoptic cables and such. Social networks are the new plumbing.

It also suggests that Zuckerberg sees Facebook not just as a website or even a platform, but as part of the fundamental services that shape the future of the web.

We hope to strengthen how people relate to each other.

Even if our mission sounds big, it starts small — with the relationship between two people.

Nice: not only is this immediate, personal and understandable, but it helps justify Facebook’s basic topological principle, symmetry. If I have a relationship with you, you have a relationship with me. Facebook allows users to “follow” each other’s public updates, but at its core, it’s never hedged from that original concept, which it inherited from Friendster and other social networks. Relationships are a two-way street.

Personal relationships are the fundamental unit of our society. Relationships are how we discover new ideas, understand our world and ultimately derive long-term happiness.

At Facebook, we build tools to help people connect with the people they want and share what they want, and by doing this, we are extending people’s capacity to build and maintain relationships.

People sharing more — even if just with their close friends or families — creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others. We believe that this creates a greater number of stronger relationships between people, and that it helps people get exposed to a greater number of diverse perspectives.

I think that if there’s anything Zuck’s truly passionate about, it’s this: that there’s something broken about how we hide and mask ourselves with other people, and that our lives would be better if we were more open. He’s had to learn over time how quickly to accelerate those principles and give people time to adjust.

By helping people form these connections, we hope to rewire the way people spread and consume information. We think the world’s information infrastructure should resemble the social graph — a network built from the bottom up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date. We also believe that giving people control over what they share is a fundamental principle of this rewiring.

“Rewire” = our wires and networks, but also our psychologies. Has Zuckerberg read Marshall McLuhan?

We have already helped more than 800 million people map out more than 100 billion connections so far, and our goal is to help this rewiring accelerate.

We hope to improve how people connect to businesses and the economy.

We think a more open and connected world will help create a stronger economy with more authentic businesses that build better products and services.

No astroturfing, please.

As people share more, they have access to more opinions from the people they trust about the products and services they use. This makes it easier to discover the best products and improve the quality and efficiency of their lives.

Reputation and recommendations — going beyond gaming into something now.

One result of making it easier to find better products is that businesses will be rewarded for building better products — ones that are personalized and designed around people. We have found that products that are “social by design” tend to be more engaging than their traditional counterparts, and we look forward to seeing more of the world’s products move in this direction.

Our developer platform has already enabled hundreds of thousands of businesses to build higher-quality and more social products. We have seen disruptive new approaches in industries like games, music and news, and we expect to see similar disruption in more industries by new approaches that are social by design.

In addition to building better products, a more open world will also encourage businesses to engage with their customers directly and authentically. More than four million businesses have Pages on Facebook that they use to have a dialogue with their customers. We expect this trend to grow as well.

If you’re not on board, get on board. Because this is where your customers will expect to find you.

We hope to change how people relate to their governments and social institutions.

We believe building tools to help people share can bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time.

By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible. These voices will increase in number and volume. They cannot be ignored. Over time, we expect governments will become more responsive to issues and concerns raised directly by all their people rather than through intermediaries controlled by a select few.

Through this process, we believe that leaders will emerge across all countries who are pro-internet and fight for the rights of their people, including the right to share what they want and the right to access all information that people want to share with them.

On the one hand, this is awesome. On the other, there goes China.

Finally, as more of the economy moves towards higher-quality products that are personalized, we also expect to see the emergence of new services that are social by design to address the large worldwide problems we face in job creation, education and health care. We look forward to doing what we can to help this progress.

Image by Facebook, from the company's S-1 filing with the SEC

Our Mission and Our Business

As I said above, Facebook was not originally founded to be a company. We’ve always cared primarily about our social mission, the services we’re building and the people who use them. This is a different approach for a public company to take, so I want to explain why I think it works.

I started off by writing the first version of Facebook myself because it was something I wanted to exist. Since then, most of the ideas and code that have gone into Facebook have come from the great people we’ve attracted to our team.

Most great people care primarily about building and being a part of great things, but they also want to make money. Through the process of building a team — and also building a developer community, advertising market and investor base — I’ve developed a deep appreciation for how building a strong company with a strong economic engine and strong growth can be the best way to align many people to solve important problems.

Simply put: we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.

Expect profits to be regularly reinvested into growing the company, not hoarded or dished out in dividends. Facebook is taking the Amazon approach to Wall Street: we’re building something for the future. Back off.

And we think this is a good way to build something. These days I think more and more people want to use services from companies that believe in something beyond simply maximizing profits.

By focusing on our mission and building great services, we believe we will create the most value for our shareholders and partners over the long term — and this in turn will enable us to keep attracting the best people and building more great services. We don’t wake up in the morning with the primary goal of making money, but we understand that the best way to achieve our mission is to build a strong and valuable company.

Note that Zuckerberg isn’t just signaling to investors, reporters, and business partners with this letter. H e’s also trying to capture the hearts and minds of a generation of engineers. If Google doesn’t look so non-evil any more, Apple looks like Scrooge McDuck sitting on a pile of money, and Microsoft looks like it’s long disconnected from its original team and founders, Facebook wants to be the place for people who want to build things with the original team that will last long into the future.

This is how we think about our IPO as well. We’re going public for our employees and our investors. We made a commitment to them when we gave them equity that we’d work hard to make it worth a lot and make it liquid, and this IPO is fulfilling our commitment. As we become a public company, we’re making a similar commitment to our new investors and we will work just as hard to fulfill it.

“If I had it my way, we’d probably stay private forever. Instead, I’m giving the people around me millions of dollars. I’m okay with this.”

The Hacker Way

As part of building a strong company, we work hard at making Facebook the best place for great people to have a big impact on the world and learn from other great people. We have cultivated a unique culture and management approach that we call the Hacker Way.

I suspect that if this approach is really unique, it probably doesn’t resemble what I think of as anything like “the hacker way.” In fact, I suspect both of these things.

The word “hacker” has an unfairly negative connotation from being portrayed in the media as people who break into computers. In reality, hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done. Like most things, it can be used for good or bad, but the vast majority of hackers I’ve met tend to be idealistic people who want to have a positive impact on the world.

The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it — often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo.

This may have been cut and pasted from a dozen or so different pages on agile web development.

Hackers try to build the best services over the long term by quickly releasing and learning from smaller iterations rather than trying to get everything right all at once. To support this, we have built a testing framework that at any given time can try out thousands of versions of Facebook. We have the words “Done is better than perfect” painted on our walls to remind ourselves to always keep shipping.

I love the “alternate worlds” approach to software design. For some reason I imagine Zuckerberg sitting in a room with thousands of screens, like Ozymandias in Watchmen watching all the different versions fly by to look for the secrets of the universe.

Hacking is also an inherently hands-on and active discipline. Instead of debating for days whether a new idea is possible or what the best way to build something is, hackers would rather just prototype something and see what works. There’s a hacker mantra that you’ll hear a lot around Facebook offices: “Code wins arguments.”

Hacker culture is also extremely open and meritocratic. Hackers believe that the best idea and implementation should always win — not the person who is best at lobbying for an idea or the person who manages the most people.

This is a very powerful idea, and I suspect this may be one statement that comes back to haunt Facebook. It’s very difficult as companies and the people who run them get older for them to maintain this open, freewheeling, anti-hierarchical kind of anti-organization in favor of something more traditionally managerial.

Contrast this too with Apple’s approach of assigning a DRI or “directly responsible individual” for every product. One person, his or her vision, his or her reputation on the line.

To encourage this approach, every few months we have a hackathon, where everyone builds prototypes for new ideas they have. At the end, the whole team gets together and looks at everything that has been built. Many of our most successful products came out of hackathons, including Timeline, chat, video, our mobile development framework and some of our most important infrastructure like the HipHop compiler.

To make sure all our engineers share this approach, we require all new engineers — even managers whose primary job will not be to write code — to go through a program called Bootcamp where they learn our codebase, our tools and our approach. There are a lot of folks in the industry who manage engineers and don’t want to code themselves, but the type of hands-on people we’re looking for are willing and able to go through Bootcamp.

Little of this seems to be related to shareholders any more. I think Zuck might be reusing material from a company retreat.

The examples above all relate to engineering, but we have distilled these principles into five core values for how we run Facebook:

Focus on Impact

If we want to have the biggest impact, the best way to do this is to make sure we always focus on solving the most important problems. It sounds simple, but we think most companies do this poorly and waste a lot of time. We expect everyone at Facebook to be good at finding the biggest problems to work on.

Move Fast

Moving fast enables us to build more things and learn faster. However, as most companies grow, they slow down too much because they’re more afraid of making mistakes than they are of losing opportunities by moving too slowly. We have a saying: “Move fast and break things.” The idea is that if you never break anything, you’re probably not moving fast enough.

Be Bold

Building great things means taking risks. This can be scary and prevents most companies from doing the bold things they should. However, in a world that’s changing so quickly, you’re guaranteed to fail if you don’t take any risks. We have another saying: “The riskiest thing is to take no risks.” We encourage everyone to make bold decisions, even if that means being wrong some of the time.

Be Open

We believe that a more open world is a better world because people with more information can make better decisions and have a greater impact. That goes for running our company as well. We work hard to make sure everyone at Facebook has access to as much information as possible about every part of the company so they can make the best decisions and have the greatest impact.

Facebook famously has open floor plans and glass walls in its offices for this reason.

Build Social Value

Once again, Facebook exists to make the world more open and connected, and not just to build a company. We expect everyone at Facebook to focus every day on how to build real value for the world in everything they do.

Thanks for taking the time to read this letter. We believe that we have an opportunity to have an important impact on the world and build a lasting company in the process. I look forward to building something great together.


That’s Zuckerberg’s statement of principles for Facebook and its future. Are you surprised? Intrigued? Skeptical? Convinced?

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