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Facebook’s Forgotten Origins

I love Facebook.  I also love a good conspiracy theory.  Especially the one involving the murky origins of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook.com.  In it, Harvard students Aaron Greenspan, Divya Narendra, Tyler Winklevoss, and Cameron Winklevoss claim they were the victims of a grand white-collar heist, rivaled only by Bill Gate’s appropriation of QDOS from Tim Paterson of Seattle Computer Products.

Disputed claims are at the heart of every fortune.  And Mr. Zuckerberg’s is no different.  Read on as we unearth a surprising new artifact in the history of Facebook.

Some Stanford alums chuckle when we hear Messrs. Narendra,  and Winklevoss’s claims of misappropriation of the Facebook concept by Mr. Zuckerberg.  Wondering, with a wisp of nostalgia, that if things had turned out differently, we might have included the Facebook service among our alma mater’s successes the way we include the services of Google, Yahoo, Sun Microsystems, Cisco, and Hewlett-Packard – all companies whose roots trace to Stanford.

From 1999 to 2000, Stanford students used an online Facebook service that was launched in Beta to the Stanford community.  It was even called ‘Facebook’.  To put this in perspective, Messrs. Greenspan, Narendra,  Winklevoss, and Zuckerberg were only fifteen at the time, and to them, inclusion even in Harvard’s ‘Facebook’, was but a distant yearning.  That is why Stanford alums like myself think it strange that any of these gentlemen should be credited with originating the online Facebook concept.

The original online Facebook was started at Stanford.  It was located at Steamtunnels.net.  It was invented by three Stanford students: Aaron Bell, Lawrence Gentilello, and Tuyen Truong.  And it was available to the Stanford community during the 1999 – 2000 school year before it was shut down by Stanford’s Office of the Dean.

Marc Wais, Stanford’s Dean of Students at the time, threatened to expel the site’s creators and file a law suit against them if they did not close the Facebook component of the web site.  The source of controversy was the fact that Messrs. Bell, Gentilello, and Truong had scanned and posted the entire undergraduate student body’s 6,500+ Facebook pictures to their web site.  This produced immediate critical mass and usability, at a time before the general public was comfortable posting pictures of themselves online.

The University claimed this violated their copyright on the physical printed Facebook that they had compiled and distributed.  However the students claimed that the University’s Facebook was a collection of other people’s works (the students’ submitted individual photos), and that the pictures could not be copyrighted by the University any more than quotes could be copyrighted by a publisher who compiles famous quotes for publication in a ‘book of quotes’.  The University’s attorneys claimed the University’s physical printed Facebook had included proprietary creative value by altering the shades and tones of the pictures.  The pictures were black and white plain vanilla reprints.  The attorney’s claims were silly.

Rather than risk expulsion and the costs of a law suit with the University, the site’s creators closed the Facebook to the general public, but its use continued, by a small group of Stanford students, ‘underground’ through a private ‘back door’ entrance throughout the school year.  The service was wildly popular, but its use limited by secrecy, from fear of the Office of the Dean’s threat of expulsion. When the creators graduated in June of 2000, they took the service down and moved on to other pursuits.  In the face of Facebook.com’s present success, this turned out to be a big mistake.

Let us turn briefly to the origins of Microsoft.  The genesis of Microsoft’s MS-DOS had three main characters: (1) Gary Kildall of Digital Research who wrote a workable OS called CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers) far in advance of MS-DOS, (2) Tim Paterson of Seattle Computer Products who subsequently developed QDOS  (Quick and Dirty Operating System), and (3) Bill Gates who bought QDOS from Seattle Computer Products, and then marketed it as MS-DOS to IBM.

Silicon Valley legend has it that Gary Kildall, a passionate private pilot, missed a crucial meeting with IBM because he decided to go flying instead.  IBM then turned to Bill Gates for its new PC’s operating system.  Gates agreed to provide an OS even though he did not yet have one.  After Gates struck the agreement with IBM, he turned to Seattle Computer Products, a company run by a friend, for QDOS.  He bought the rights to QDOS for $50,000 and then licensed the software to IBM as MS-DOS without ever telling Seattle Computer Products.

The parallels between Messrs. Greenspan, Narendra,  and Winklevoss and Tim Paterson, and Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, respectively, are obvious, and well publicized.  But returning now to our ‘origins of Facebook’ story, we introduce these gentlemen: Messrs. Bell, Gentilello, and Truong as the ‘Gary Kildall’ of Facebook lore.  They had a workable and wildly popular ‘Facebook’ product far in advance of Mr. Zuckerberg’s Facebook.com.  But when the proverbial ‘IBM opportunity’ came knocking, they were out to lunch and out of touch, folding in the face of the Stanford Dean’s Office’s bluff, and then foolishly abandoning the project altogether.

In 1999 there was a lot of buzz about the Facebook service on the Stanford campus.  The web site received coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle and was featured on local television stations, as well as in lengthy coverage in Stanford’s student newspaper, The Stanford Daily.

The most comprehensive coverage was led by burgeoning journalism talent Nadira Hira.   Ms. Hira was a writer and editor for The Stanford Daily.  Notably, Ms. Hira has since become a well respected writer for Fortune Magazine.  She has interviewed George Bush, and has been featured on a variety of major television and radio outlets, including HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, VH1’s The Fabulous Life, CBS’s The Early Show, BET’s Black Carpet, ABC’s America’s Black Forum, MSNBC, CNBC and BBC-A.

Curiously, most of Ms. Hira’s early work covering the Facebook story for The Stanford Daily is absent from The Stanford Daily’s web site.  All mention of the Facebook creators’ clash with the University and the subsequent stamping out of the original Facebook project has been removed.  We surmise this was at the request of the various school officials named in the articles who now seem to have overstepped their bounds by bullying the students and short circuiting such a promising innovation – one of the earliest incarnations of online social networking – the original online Facebook.

In ancient Rome, the ultimate affront to an adversary was to strike one’s name from records and to remove one’s identity from history.  This ‘striking’ is referred to in Latin as damnatio memoriae.  Translation: ‘damned from memory’.  The story of the original Facebook, and the characters involved, it seems, were ordered ‘damned from memory’ by someone at Stanford.

Until now.

We have unearthed two lost articles written by Ms. Hira in 1999 recounting the original Facebook’s short life and ultimate demise.  It is an interesting story and is a heretofore lost piece of information that discredits Messrs. Greenspan, Narendra,  and Winklevoss’s claims that they originated the online Facebook concept on the campus of Harvard.

We are not suggesting Steamtunnels would have become the success Facebook.com is today.  Web usage was different in 1999.  And it is doubtful Messrs. Bell, Gentilello, and Truong could have matched Mr. Zuckerberg’s flawless execution.  But with a five year head start, who knows where things may have gone had the Stanford Dean’s Office not stepped in.

The final unanswered question is why The Stanford Daily, which bills itself as “one of the finest college newspapers in the country” and whose tag line is “An Independent Publication”, has seemingly compromised its journalistic independence by removing from its web site the Facebook articles written by its distinguished alumnus Ms. Nadira Hira?  We can’t imagine The Stanford Daily, acting on its own ‘independence’, had any incentive to remove the articles, so we must assume The Stanford Daily submitted to the same type of pressure from the Stanford administration that was applied to the Steamtunnels site’s creators back in 1999.

Read on for the original Stanford Daily articles written by Ms. Nadira Hira.

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8 Responses to “Facebook’s Forgotten Origins”

  1. SV Lawyer Says:

    Stanford was probably worried they’d get sued. that’s probably why they had the Daily remove the articles from their web site.

  2. QDOS Says:

    didn’t one of the guys that blew the IBM PC OS opportunity end up killing himself

  3. Page Says:

    I wonder if Zuckerberg knew about this when the Winkelvoss guys were suing him? this seems to make their law suit moot.

  4. Mark Says:

    interesting story

  5. Steve Smith Says:

    wow – it looks like Stanford really blew it on this one. they usually do a great job of fostering innovation.

  6. Jake McGowan Says:

    Fascinating story, it’s a shame that Steamtunnels was shut down before it had the chance to flourish. I wonder how many other great ideas have been similarly stifled at Stanford and other universities.

  7. rodney stemple Says:

    Where are these guys today? What are they working on now? How do i invest?

  8. john Says:

    there was an even older version of facebook started by williams college students in 1995-1996. http://wso.williams.edu/wiki/index.php/WSO

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