At yesterday’s Congressional hearing with the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Billy Long (R-MO) asked Mark Zuckerberg if Facemash — a “hot or not” website the Facebook co-founder and CEO created when he was a Harvard sophomore — was still around. It seemed like a sore subject.
“No, Congressman,” Zuckerberg replied. “Facemash was a prank website that I launched in college, in my dorm room, before I started Facebook. … The claim that Facemash was somehow connected to the development of Facebook, it isn’t, it wasn’t…it actually has nothing to do with Facebook.” Watch the exchange below:
Here’s everything you need to know.
How Facemash worked
Facemash operated exactly how it sounds: it “mashed” faces together to compare them against each other.
Moira Weigel, a writer/editor and junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, discussed Facemash in a piece for The New Yorker published yesterday. The article states that the site used “I.D. photos of female undergraduates scraped [read: hacked] from the university’s online directories” and that it “presented users with pairs of women and asked them to rank who was ‘hotter.'” The homepage proclaimed: “Were we let in for our looks? No. Will we be judged on them? Yes.”
By the end of Facemash’s launch day, at least 22,000 votes were cast on the site.
Facemash took less than one week to create
According to a 2003 article from The Harvard Crimson, Zuckerberg created the site in less than a week, and he recorded the process — hacking into the online intranets of Harvard Houses for photos, formulating algorithms and codes, etc. — in a blog. He called his hacking, “child’s play.”
In one entry, Zuckerberg wrote, “The Kirkland facebook [read: Kirkland House intranet, not THE Facebook] is open on my computer desktop and some of these people have pretty horrendous facebook pics. I almost want to put some of these faces next to pictures of farm animals and have people vote on which is more attractive.”
Weigel tweeted about Zuckerberg’s “hot or not” hub prior to her New Yorker piece, revealing that she used to live in Kirkland House:
a global empire built on the faces of awkward teen girls what could possibly go wrong
— Moira Weigel (@moiragweigel) April 8, 2018
Facemash received immediate backlash
Zuckerberg had to explain himself (sound familiar?) in front of the university’s Administrative Board back in November 2003, after Facemash caused a stir across the Harvard community. As Weigel points out in her piece, groups such as Fuerza Latina and the Harvard Association of Black Women voiced their protest, and the computer services department issued a complaint with the Ad Board.
Weigel references another article from The Crimson about the Ad Board hearing, which states that Zuckerberg was “accused of breaching security, violating copyrights and violating individual privacy.” An earlier report from The Crimson notes that Facemash prompted “both praise and criticism across campus” but that he was violation of computer use policies as well as Harvard’s rules against copying and distributing digitized images from their ID photo database.
Metro has reached out to Weigel, who was not available for immediate comment.
Facemash got taken down after about two days
According to The Crimson, Zuckerberg finished Facemash on the morning of Halloween that year. It was then reportedly taken down by November 2.
“I understood that some parts were still a little sketchy and I wanted some more time to think about whether or not this was really appropriate to release to the Harvard community,” Zuckerberg wrote in apology e-mails to the student groups involved.
He continued, “I hope you understand, this is not how I meant for things to go, and I apologize for any harm done as a result of my neglect to consider how quickly the site would spread and its consequences thereafter.”
Zuckerberg told The Crimson that he wouldn’t be re-activating the site because he wasn’t “willing to risk insulting anyone.”
Facemash was depicted in “The Social Network”
The 2010 film portrays Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) creating Facemash:
Also included in the movie was the Harvard Ad Board meeting:
Zuckerberg told Rep. Long at yesterday’s hearing that the film’s depiction of Facemash — though he did not name “The Social Network” specifically — was “of unclear truth.”