by Brian Solis
The question of “Who started Facebook” is a conversation that pales in comparison to who’s actually running it these days. However, the discussion over who truly originated the idea for Facebook will be in the spotlight until those involved are either paid off or silenced by the more dominant player.
John Markoff of the The New York Times wrote an incredible piece that adds to the controversy of who started the popular network. His article is compelling because it approaches the discussion from a personal perspective rather than calling the blow-by-blow shots of he said, he said, he said.
Markoff introduces Aaron J. Greenspan, a fourth Harvard classmate that seems to also have had the idea for what Facebook is today – in fact, he may have even been the creator of its name.
By now we all know the story of Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss and how they’re suing Mark Zuckerberg in Federal District Court in Boston. Their claim is that Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook while working with the duo at ConnectU. They further allege that Zuckerberg also stole code before leaving the startup to pursue his own endeavor.
Credit: Bryan Snyder of Reuters
Does the Winklevoss’ story have merit? It’s certainly an interesting set of accusations and Silicon Valley is loving the gossip. But we’ll have to wait as the suit has been postponed. The Winklevoss brothers were asked to reconstruct their case because it wasn’t strong enough as is. Zuckerberg is seeking to have the suit dismissed.
Enter Greenspan. He claims that he is actually the creator of the original college network and he says he has the emails to prove it.
In 2003, the Harvard student created houseSYSTEM, a network used by several thousand students for a variety of online college-related tasks. houseSYSTEM launched six months before Facebook started and eight months before ConnectU went online. Zuckerberg was a member – perhaps for research purposes.
The New York Times quoted an email provided by Greenspan which was sent to Harvard students on Sept. 19, 2003. It described the newest feature of houseSYSTEM, as “the Face Book,” an online system for quickly locating other students.” The date was four months before Zuckerberg started his own site, originally called “thefacebook.com.”
In 2006, Greenspan earned media attention when he wrote an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg in response to Facebook’s denial of Yahoo’s acquisition bid for a mere $900 million.
Greenspan popped the cork of the bitterness and anger that had remained bottled up for several years and is evident in his words, “Remember the Web site you signed up for at Harvard two days before we met in January, 2004, called houseSYSTEM — the one I made with the Universal Face Book that predated your site by four months? Well, I’ve relaunched it as CommonRoom and just like its predecessor, it has all sorts of features that might seem familiar: birthday reminders, an event calendar, RSVPs, how you know someone, photo albums, courses posters.”
He continued, “After all, when you saw all of those features in houseSYSTEM three years ago, you called them ‘too useful,’ but I stood by them as valuable. Fortunately, even though I shut down houseSYSTEM, I can still use those same features on Facebook — and I didn’t even have to write any more code!”
Despite his bitterness, Greenspan is moving on and it doesn’t seem that he will throw his hat into the Facebook lawsuit ring, for now. In fact he has declined to be a witness in the ConnectU case.
Zuckerberg is rumored to already be worth $1 billion and Facebook is currently one of the hottest sites on the Web with 37 million users and growing, rapidly. At that level, it’s almost unheard of if someone doesn’t try to take a piece of you. It’s just part of the game.
For the most part, if ideas severed as inspiration, Zuckerberg brilliantly pieced them together to create a successful business venture. In most cases the idea is just the first step. The rest is up to execution and endurance.
Perhaps Zuckerberg is merely following in the footsteps of Bill Gates. Remember, it was Gates, a young Harvard dropout, and his classmate, Paul G. Allen, who copied a version of the BASIC programming language, originally designed by two Dartmouth college professors, to start a little company called Microsoft.