What I saw in Zuckerberg’s bungalow

May 17, 2012, 4:25 PM UTC

Editor’s Note: When I was still in college and dreaming of getting paid to write, my friends started a magazine. I wanted to contribute. At the first ideas meeting I mentioned a social network that was quickly taking over all the Ivies and would soon, we all knew, arrive at our campus. The site’s creators had dropped out of Harvard to work on their project full time. They were in Palo Alto, and I’d be home in California for the summer. Maybe I could make the six-hour drive to visit them? So I did. I drove up and visited and met Zuck and attempted, in a somewhat naïve but earnest way, to make sense of what Thefacebook was and what it might eventually become.

On the way up, I got a speeding ticket, so arrived later than planned. I walked in through a wide-open front door; I saw the burnt out Tiki torches and the aftermath of generally minor, college-ish debauchery; I met Zuck, who was standoffish but generous with his time and driven and careful in a way that seemed well beyond his, or my, years. And he told a funny “your mom” joke.

Below is the article I wrote about Thefacebook as it ran in The Passenger magazine in 2005. Of course it feels dated, and, to me, the writing feels young. (Also, I ripped off the conceit of the first paragraph from a Charles P. Pierce essay. At least it was in good taste.) Perhaps most embarrassing of all, for everything I saw, I didn’t see the money. In some way, though, not seeing all the riches that lay ahead for Zuck and Co. allowed me some clarity. There is, it turns out, something even bigger, even cooler, than $100 billion. And it’s this thing, I think, that drove Zuck then — that drives him still.

Mark Zuckerberg with Dustin Moskovitz, circa 2004.

FORTUNE — We should have seen it coming.

We should have known better and barred the doors, battened the hatches, hid the children and said a prayer. But no. We invited it into our homes. Let it stay. Gave it space, a desk or even a room. Gave it our time, our money, our phone lines. Provided for it. Ogled it and praised it. Loved it for its size, its immeasurable size. Loved it with that American love for open spaces, the same love that led our great grandparents to cross plains, deserts and mountains-new territories and the unknown.

We should have seen it coming. We kick ourselves and wince. We fed it everything, this insatiable beast: credit card numbers, social security numbers, names of first pets and mother’s maiden names. Christ, some of us learned sex from it, had sex on it, watched people having sex in ways we still do not understand. But we kept one thing forever hidden from it, until everything we’d given wasn’t enough-and the internet took our face.

It was a gradual taking. Sites like Hotornot.com and UglyPeople.com allowed the especially cruel and invested among us to judge strangers, wondering all the while why they had volunteered for such abuse. We found pretty faces, ugly faces, photoshopped faces. Faces not of people with exotic names and bodies, but faces from our state, our county, city, school, dorm, class; low-resolution faces full of braces and pimples. Slowly, the sites began masquerading in purpose beyond procrastination. The middle-aged could find former classmates at the yearbook picture database Classmates.com. The lonely could find a date at AmericanSingles.com or LoveCompass.com or Lavalife.com or PlentyofFish.com or Datingpearl.com or, well, just about anywhere in the limitless cyber-universe full of faces and possibility. Low-resolution faces connected with low-resolution faces and somewhere along the way our bastions of education decided they’d have a go. MIT and Columbia tried their own inter-campus, face-based networking programs, and then Harvard tried the same.

Problem was, all initial attempts at networking came from administrators, squares, rubes that had lost touch with the student body long ago. The suits scratched their heads and slumped their academic shoulders and questioned the sanity of youth while a streaker ran past their window. These face-sites didn’t have what we wanted, didn’t have the searching capabilities, didn’t let us say what we wanted to say or find other people who were interested in cheese, Russian literature and Fela Kuti.

But Zuck! Zuck could do it. Zuck was our guy. Zuck was one of us and knew what we wanted. And Zuck could do it faster, better, sooner than the squares. And Mark Zuckerberg did. He created Thefacebook.

“Harvard [administrators] were working on their own inter-campus networking program, but Zuck approached them and he said he’d do it in a week and he’d do it better–and he did,” says Zuckerberg’s friend and Thefacebook compatriot Dustin Moskovitz.

The audacity! Saying you’ll do something better and faster and then doing it. Zuck had a knack for knowing what students would want, and he knew how to program the necessary features. He knew that college students want options–the option of self-expression, the option of listing our sexual leanings, the option of finding classmates, the option of making ourselves look more attractive and interesting than we actually are. Zuck and company gave us all of these things, and more–because Zuck knew that what we abhor above all is stagnation, and as long as Thefacebook kept growing and changing, we would be drawn to it.

And Thefacebook grew and grew, taking over the Harvard campus, the Ivy League, the private schools, the state schools, the East Coast, the West Coast, the Midwest, the South, the country.

And now the beast dwells in a small bungalow at the end of a cul-de-sac in Palo Alto, cared for by five kids not from the West but westerners nonetheless. Five kids busily staring into glowing screens, eyes red, wrangling bandwidth. I walked in the front door on an unseasonably warm September evening. The door was open and ignored. Half-finished chip bags, pizza boxes, bottles of Corona and Pacifica and empty bags of In-N-Out covered every bit of counter space around Zuck’s Sony laptop. There was an electronic hum, barely audible, and the faint sound of crickets from the backyard. All five sat at tables, five different tables, each surface covered with its own unique assortment of excessive litter surrounding a computer. Zuckerberg, the founder, creator, and leader of the outfit, looked up for a moment, then returned to his laptop and the programming jargon that flashed across the screen. Dustin Moskovitz, also supposed to be a junior at Harvard, also stopping out for a year, also 20, acknowledged me with a quick smile. Moskovitz had told me on the phone, a few hours earlier, to “keep an open mind” when I came to visit.

Moskovitz and I had been corresponding over email for months. They were a dodgy lot, these five kids slumped over keyboards and staring into glowing screens. I was happy to finally pin them down.

Wed Jun 23: Hi Ryan, I guess just give us a call when you’re around. We’re not planning to take any vacations during the summer, so you’ll be able to meet with us for an hour or so. We are pretty busy though, so just make sure to contact us the day before.

Wed Jul7: Yeah, sure. Well, maybe Friday wouldn’t be best for us as we’re planning on throwing a party. I guess you could go if you wanted, but we tend to run around getting stuff when we do that. Are you planning on staying around a few days?

Sun Aug 8: Hi Ryan, We’re actually extremely busy this late in August. We’ve sort of entered crunch time. However, I think our normal press guy should be returning state-side relatively soon. You may have better luck trying to get in contact with him again (press@thefacebook.com) and arranging an interview that way. I apologize for the inconvenience,

Wed Aug 11: Hi Ryan, I talked it over with Mark. I guess if you came the last week of August or early September (we stopped out, so not going back to Harvard…), you could chill for a while.

Fri Sep 3: Man, you’re killing me Ryan. Can you make it to a party on Saturday? (during the day). Maybe Wed. or Thur. but next week will probably be the most intense week of thefacebook’ s existence (i know a reporters dream) so it may not be possible. I’ll have to let you know sooner to the date.

It was the most intense week of Thefacebook’s existence. The crew was busy releasing Thefacebook on college campuses, crunching in hours to make sure the release date corresponded to the beginning of the school year in early September. In the past week Thefacebook had opened on 41 new campuses, and had been wildly popular (in varying degrees of wild popularity) on each. Drawn on a whiteboard was a tournament-style bracket system that pitted the schools against each other in terms of Thefacebook popularity–Uconn vs. Rutgers, Irvine vs. Brandeis, UT vs. Vassar. At the time of my visit, Thefacebook had opened on more than 120 college campuses. Three months later, that number had grown to more than 200. At each of the 203 campuses–from American to Yale–the popularity is phenomenal, always over 60 percent. At Harvard, student-members make up well over 90 percent of the student body.

“It’s always kind of a surprise which schools Thefacebook really takes off on,” Moskovitz says.

He takes me through several new features, some recently released, some still being tested. He tells me how important it is, for them, to keep Thefacebook “built by college students, for college students.” How it’s a networking tool, a study tool; how, with a new calendar feature, Thefacebook makes our lives more organized and easier.

He pauses, again flashing a smile, “But most guys still just use it to look for chicks.”

And will It ever stop? We search ourselves, our photos, others’ photos–searching for reinvention, an opportunity to appear better, more interesting, more social, more than we really are. We question our friendships, our social networks. Hidden in our rooms, we secretly scan pages looking for more attractive, more interesting, more exotic faces. And can we help it?

Best-laid plans.

One of the more fascinating new features Thefacebook offers is the creation of “groups.” The groups feature allows a user to invite other users into his or her group, through which online message board discussion ensues. But it’s also just a group. Which is to say that Thefacebook has, brilliantly, recreated the real life social scene online–complete with cliques and gossip, playing into all of our insecurities. Now we can be more attractive, have more friends, be in more groups then we ever were in high school. And isn’t college about reinvention?

There is a pool in Zuck’s backyard, but the lights have burnt out from too many pool parties. There are tiki torches, burnt out for the same reason. I look at the empty bag of In-N-Out next to the Cape Cod salt and vinegar chips next to the Corona next to the pizza box next to cases of blockbuster movies (Zoolander, Happy Gilmore) next to Zuckerberg’s laptop next to Zuck and contemplate the lifestyle we have enabled them to lead. Our overwhelming desires, our collective insecurities, our wanting Thefacebook to be the all-encompassing collegiate phenomenon that it has become landed in between piles of chips and beer in a Palo Alto bungalow.

We could have seen it coming. Zuck had been on the techno-radar since high school, turning little programming projects into multi-million dollar ideas. There was the software he and a Phillips Exeter friend, Adam D’Angelo, came up with that tracked the listening habits of users on Winamp, an MP3 player program. D’Angelo, now a student at CalTech, works with Zuck and Moskovitz in Palo Alto. He and Zuck had offers in the millions for their program from the likes of Microsoft and America Online, but they sat on it and by the time they were ready to sell the offers had been dropped.

And then there was Facemash. A short-lived, much controversial site in the vein of Hotornot.com that pitted two Harvard faces against each other and allowed users to vote on which was the more attractive. The site was taken down, amidst public outcry, in less than a week. There was its predecessor, Coursemash, a program that allowed students to network with people enrolled in the same classes.

Zuck himself was an indication of things to come. A kid who, friends say, gets so absorbed in his little ideas that he forgets to eat or sleep and rarely leaves his slouched, edge-of-seat position in front of his laptop until his little idea is manifested or dropped. Most are dropped, or passed around through his group of friends and never released to the public.

A kid who, in an interview with the Harvard Crimson, said of his little facebook idea: “I do stuff like this all the time. Thefacebook literally took me a week to make.”

A kid who’s too low-key to appear arrogant and arrogant enough to appear genius.

Zuck was quiet, almost nervous in my presence. He joked about how every college publication does at least one story on Thefacebook. How I’m not with Time, but hey, it’s press. How, um guys, do you want to take this picture? How he doesn’t really have time to talk now, or tomorrow, or in the next few days or weeks. How they do get paid a marginal amount, like all software engineers, but couldn’t disclose how much and wouldn’t let me photograph his newest scheme, scribbled on a large whiteboard, standing on end near his table of trash and his laptop. Everything in the bungalow is near a table and trash and a laptop.

I asked them why. What makes them work seven-, eight-hour days for a little cash from the ads on the site? Why don’t they just cash out? Buy an island or something?

“I don’t know,” Moskovitz says, “what kept us going through all this Zuck?”

“Your mom.”

“No, she wasn’t a part of this yet.”

But, really, the bungalow could be filled with bottles of Cristal, not Corona. These kids could be living like rockstars, not hunched and red-eyed and weary. Forget the pay, forget the pool and the cul-de-sac and the mild climate. Why are they still there, working to bring Thefacebook to every damn college kid in the nation?

“I think … well, I mean, everyone on Harvard’s campus knows Zuck by name. I think he’s kind of into that,” Moskovitz says.

Milan Kundera, in his novel Immortality, speaks not of a religious immortality of the soul, but of a different, earthly immortality. A kind everyone can achieve in his or her own life. “Greater immortality,” Kundera writes, “means the memory of a person in the minds of people who never knew him personally.”

And there it is, plainly spelled out on the bottom of our screens–thousands of screens, everyone’s screen—

a Mark Zuckerberg production
Thefacebook © 2005

And when the empty boxes of chicken nuggets, the half-eaten candy bars and the squalor of a pool without lights fades away, what we will remember in 10, 20, 30 years is Thefacebook. And wasn’t that a funny part of college? Wasn’t it silly how much time we spent on it? Wasn’t it strange that I name dropped and networked and cared so much about something so intangible? And maybe, just maybe, we’ll remember Zuck. Not so much the name, really, but the idea of Zuck. A kid, like us, whose little idea took off and took over. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll tell our kids about It.

I left soon after snapping some photos and trying in vain to pry more team members away from their glowing computer screens. Zuck, nervous still, asked that I take a picture that didn’t show any of the beer bottles, as he and Moskovitz are underage. They quickly jumped on the couch and joked around–posing for a mock embrace. When I was finished the pair returned to their computers. Business as usual. I checked my watch. 10:53 p.m. Still unseasonably warm. Thefacebook guys showed no signs of stopping.

As I got up to leave, Zuck and Moskovitz gave nods of acknowledgement–Moskovitz threw up an arm. Not stopping, not looking away from the glowing screens. Each carving out their own piece of immortality.