Launching Facebook and Obama

Nieuws | de redactie
5 juni 2013 | Chris Hughes co-founded Facebook in a dorm when he was 21. Three years later he helped the first black man into the Oval Office by revolutionizing political campaigning. What does he think is the future of Big Data and privacy? “You don’t have power when you don’t have the right technology."

Chris Hughes, the man who started Facebook and helped launch Obama, visited Amsterdam to share his experiences at the founding party of Kroodle, the world’s first insurance company that entirely operates on Facebook.

Facebook user #5

Everybody knows Mark Zuckerberg, but who is Chris Hughes? Does he have a role in the movie ‘The Social Network’? “Yes, I am in the movie and I’m played by the not very well-known actor Patrick Mapel. It isn’t a very interesting role, my character doesn’t do much. He lies on the couch and watches television a lot. That is not actually what I did in college.” There are some other large differences between the movie and reality as well. “We didn’t have a luxurious apartment for example, or the alcohol fueled hackatons.”

Facebook user 5 and Facebook user 4, “the first three were test accounts”, met in Zuckerberg’s legendary dorm. Later this room became the epicenter of Facebook. “The four of us had a desk in the same room. There was no room to do other things than to work and talk.” From this dorm the four Facebook founders first turned Harvard and later the rest of the world Facebook-blue.

A diverse team

The strength of the Facebook team was its diversity, “we weren’t a room full of only pure engineers. Zuckerberg did a double degree in psychology and computer science, Dustin Moskovitz only followed an introduction course on programming. I studied literature and history. This difference in backgrounds made us approach a problem from completely different angles. On top of that we all thought out of the box.”

“Facebook was the first product that came out of our dorm, and it was the only big success as well. When it was launched, Facebook did not look anything like it looks now, there was no wall, no time-line and no chat function. It was just a static profile with a picture, but you could share information in a closed and secure environment with your friends, something that didn’t exist in the era of MSN-messenger.”

Gut feeling and data

Although Hughes underlines that the invention of Facebook was a collaborative effort, he can pinpoint one of his own inventions, the famous ‘share function’. To create new functions for Facebook we continuously thought ‘what is simplest’ and ‘what is the user experience’. At times these decisions were data driven, at other times the gut feeling was more important. “You have to go with your gut for the initial product, with the thing that makes sense for you.”

Other adjustments were purely data driven. “Before 2007 there was no continuous feed on Facebook, you only had a wall. Users would come and write on each other’s wall, that was the most popular part of Facebook. We learned from the data that the part where you were kept up to date with your friends was most liked, so we made the continuous feed.”

A call from Chicago

At one point in 2007 a Democrat senator from Chicago called Chris Hughes and he left Facebook. “Facebook had been growing for 3 years, but it did not yet have the success it has today. A part of me felt that I had a responsibility to channel the frustration I felt after the Bush-era. Obama doesn’t come from a traditional background and he wanted to change Washington and the country. I wanted to help him achieve that.”

The 2008 Obama campaign changed the way campaigns were organized. “Before this campaign, the nerds and webmasters sat literally in the corner. The rest of the campaign team was raising money, writing the message and talking to the press. Instead of putting us in the corner, Obama put us in the center of the campaign. The only reason that he had any success in the campaign against Hillary Clinton was because he did it differently.”

Revolutionizing campaigning

“You don’t have power when you don’t have the right technology. The Obama campaign had well over a hundred folks doing data and tech work. It was not the center of the campaign, but when the campaign progressed it became more and more important. At the end of the campaign, Obama decided what places to visit completely based on our data polls, that was a revolutionary approach.”

This approach can be perfected in the coming years when the time and resources are there. “I would like to know what the most important people are to get on board of a grassroots campaign. What neighbors, friends or family do we need to contact, to get on board, in order to convince others to support the candidate.”

Data-driven laser-targeting

Data in campaigning can tell a lot. “If you are a 56 year-old Afro-American woman from Washington, you are likely to support Obama. You can also see by using Big Data who still don’t know for whom they will vote. You can contact Obama-supporters these undecided voters know and ask them to give them a call. People are more likely to be convinced by people they know and like than by strangers.”

If legislation would allow it, in five years single issue voters would see a candidate’s website that only shows their stand on issues that interests the viewer. “If you only care about a candidate’s stand on abortion, you will only see that, completely tailored for you.” It is not clear if it ever gets that far, Hughes expects that the coming years a debate will start on what data will be off-limit. That debate will influence the future of campaigning.”

The big privacy debate

Will political campaigns, Facebook and other companies push the rules for privacy forward or will people push it backward, in order to put more and more data off-limit? “I feel that culture really matters in these issues. In the United States we already laser target voters while in Europe there is more concern on privacy and in India there are not very strict privacy rules. Although I have to admit, asking questions about privacy is very healthy.

Will companies not overstretch the privacy boundaries and infuriate the general public? “Tech companies are smart, if they see that much outrage among the general public, it is in their interest to stop what started this anger.”


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