Silicon Magic
Newsweek Europe|August 02, 2019
Silicon Magic

How Facebook’s singular approach to data reshaped social connections and changed the political landscape forever

Margaret O'Mara

IN THE CODE: SILICON VALLEY AND THE REMAKING OF AMERICA, MARGARET O’MARA explores how Silicon Valley came to be at the epicenter of technology in America. O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington, worked in the Clinton White House in the early days of the internet. She shows how the explosive growth of social media, when paired with data from the site's users visited online, increased engagement—and how it flourished in an environment free from government oversight. The following excerpt describes how Facebook came of age at a time when society was seeking greater human connection—and in turn reshaped the political landscape in the hands of a social media master named Barack Obama.

Three billion smartphones. Two billion social media users. Two trillion-dollar companies. San Francisco’s tallest skyscraper, Seattle’s biggest employer, the four most expensive corporate campuses on the planet. The richest people in the history of humanity.

The benchmarks attained by America’s largest technology companies in the twilight years of the 21st century’s second decade boggle the imagination. Added together, the valuations of tech’s so-called Big Five— Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google/Alphabet, and Microsoft—total more than the entire economy of the United Kingdom. Yet, few people had heard of “Silicon Valley” and the electronics firms that clustered there when a trade-paper journalist decided to give it that snappy nickname in early 1971. Even 10 years later, when personal computers mushroomed on office desks and boy-wonder entrepreneurs with last names like Jobs and Gates seized the public imagination, the Valley itself remained off to the side of the main action.

However, the Valley and its sister technopolis of Seattle soared to staggering heights in the dot-com 1990s—“the largest single legal creation of wealth we’ve witnessed on the planet,” quipped venture capitalist John Doerr—only to plummet to earth as the new millennium dawned with a massive, NASDAQ-pummeling pop, leaving the carcasses of once-shining internet companies strewn across the landscape. The rocketing rise of Amazon felt like a fever dream, Apple had run out of product ideas, Microsoft had been ordered to split itself in two, and Google was a garage operation whose leaders seemed more interested in going to Burning Man than turning a profit.

How quickly things change. Fast-forward to the present, and Silicon Valley is no longer merely a place in Northern California. It is a global network, a business sensibility, a cultural shorthand, a political hack. Hundreds of places around the world have rebranded themselves Silicon Deserts, Forests, Roundabouts, Steppes and Wadis as they seek to capture some of the original’s magic.

ENTER FACEBOOK

Facebook was a little more than five years old when it moved into a building on the fringe of the Stanford Research Park that once had housed part of Hewlett-Packard. The platform’s growth had left all its competitors and predecessors in the dust. An expansionist, earnest, set-the-defaults-to-public spirit reverberated through the campus. By connecting the world through software, and doing so at massive scale, the company was accomplishing something the Valley had been trying to do for generations. Posters emblazoned with the company’s de facto motto adorned the walls surrounding Facebook’s expansive open-plan bullpen:

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August 02, 2019