Are Social Technologies Really Invented?

Networks like Facebook are innovative, but inevitable

Illustration: Mick Wiggins

In a memorable scene from the movie The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg is deposed by a lawyer for the Winklevoss twins, who are suing him, claiming that Zuckerberg had stolen their idea for Facebook. Zuckerberg's attention wanders. When he is accused of being inattentive, he comes out of his fog and points his finger across the table at the Winklevoss twins and their lawyer, saying, "You have part of my attention. You have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, is intellectually or creatively capable of doing."

My eyes were on the screen, but my mind was reflecting on the question of who should get the credit. Even if I had been physically present for all the events portrayed, I still wouldn't know for sure to whom all those billions of dollars should be assigned.

Credit can be a complex and murky thing. Once it is decided, however, it becomes simple and robust. The 1870s race to invent the telephone between Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell, among others, was as murky as it gets, but the outcome was as clear as day—Bell won his patent. Had it been the other way around, none of us would have heard of Alexander Graham Bell.

Facebook is an example of something that happens periodically in cyberspace—an invention built on a technology platform but not necessarily involving technological innovation. Its success relies on a "tipping point" phenomenon, in which the winner takes all. In the regular world, we benefit from competition and even have antitrust laws to ensure it, but in the networking world, we all benefit from being in the same place. When all your friends are on Facebook, why go anywhere else?

In my experience, while great ideas are rare, good ideas are rather plentiful, and what really matters is what you do with them. Zuckerberg took a good idea and made it better. It wasn't the first social network; sites like Myspace and Friendster already existed. But Zuckerberg captured the world with good features, good business strategy, and—one of the most important ingredients—good timing. In such cases, moreover, we shouldn't forget the roles of happenstance and luck.

However, if Zuckerberg hadn't created Facebook, some similar site would be offering the same features. Maybe we'd all be on Myspace, which might have become even better than what we have today. I often reflect on the transience of even great ideas and inventions. If Beethoven hadn't written his symphonies, they wouldn't exist. Great art, music, and literature are like that, but science and technology uncover what nature has intrinsically made possible. It's as if our inventions have been lying under rocks and the first person to turn over the rock gets the credit. The second person who comes along…well, it's too late. Does anyone think that if Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain hadn't invented the transistor in 1947 it wouldn't exist today?

Perhaps the measure of any invention or discovery is the amount of time that passes before someone else ends up doing much the same thing. Paul Baran, who died in March, had as much to do with the founding of the Internet as anyone. Yet Donald Davies in the United Kingdom and Len Kleinrock at the University of California, Los Angeles, were working independently on Baran's key idea, packet switching. Even Einstein's general theory of relativity was a law of nature waiting to be discovered, and we undoubtedly would know it today. Perhaps the state of knowledge now would be no different, in spite of the fact that this was surely one of the most transformative ideas in the history of science.

It's nice to be the first person to turn over the rock and see something novel underneath, but unless you do something with that find, maybe you don't deserve the credit. In the case of Facebook, it appears that Zuckerberg does deserve the credit—or at least the money.

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