More Awesome Than Money: Four Boys, Three Years, and a Chronicle of Ideals and Ambition in Silicon Valley

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9780143127895: More Awesome Than Money: Four Boys, Three Years, and a Chronicle of Ideals and Ambition in Silicon Valley

The David-versus-Goliath effort to build a revolutionary social network that would give us back control of our personal data
 
In June of 2010, four nerdy NYU undergrads moved to Silicon Valley to save the world from Facebook. Their idea was simple—to build a social network that would allow users to control the information they shared about themselves instead of surrendering it to big business. Their project was called Diaspora, and just weeks after launching it on Kickstarter, the idealistic twenty-year-olds had raised $200,000 from donors around the world. Profiled in the New York Times, wooed by venture capitalists, and cheered on by the elite of the digital community, they were poised to revolutionize the Internet and remap the lines of power in our digital society—until things fell apart, with tragic results.

The story of Diaspora reaches far beyond Silicon Valley to today’s urgent debates over the future of the Internet. In this heartbreaking yet hopeful account, drawn from extensive interviews with the Diaspora Four and other key figures, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Jim Dwyer tells a riveting tale of four ambitious and naive young men who dared to challenge the status quo. 

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About the Author:

Jim Dwyer, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter with the New York Times, has written or cowritten six books. He lives in New York City.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION

If his laptop had been a mirror, the face staring back at Dan Grippi would have been some blend of boy and wild man. Nature had given him full, pouty, rebel-without-a-cause lips, and a jewelry shop in the East Village had given him a piercing in the bottom one a few days after he started college. He fastened a ring in the hole. His father was not thrilled.

Long and lean to begin with, Dan grew sideburns that ran down below each ear, sketch-strokes of whiskers that further drew his angular face to a point. He gave himself another inch of height by heaping his black hair in a pile, occasionally pinning it to the air with a generous, retro slathering of gel. On his ring finger he wore what appeared to be a cyanide capsule. Most of his arms rippled from short-sleeved white T-shirts. With the Elvis hair, the Springsteen sideburns, and the scary jewelry, Dan Grippi turned out for the world looking like a hybrid greaser-punk.

Except that he was neither. He smiled easily and warmly, spoke softly, but thought twice or three times before uttering a syllable. On the cross-country team, he logged miles in silence. His digital graphic artwork won awards for him while he was a teenager. A portfolio of that work had gotten him into college, overcoming indifferent grades at his high school in the Long Island suburbs of New York. His striking looks got him work as a model, and his mastery of the blend and stitch of music beats scored him gigs as a DJ. The menacing-looking cyanide ring was really a spare piece salvaged from a build-it-yourself printer he had helped assemble. He was a nerd with muscles.

On a February night in 2010, he stared at a page on Facebook, the soul-sorting social network machine. It was time for him to get out. He had joined in 2005, when he was sixteen. Facebook had started circling the globe a year earlier, college by college, working its way to high school students. It became the gyroscope of a generation, a tool for high-speed social navigation. Long after Dan’s high school classmates had scattered to colleges all over the map, their friendship had a digital pulse on Facebook. At New York University in Greenwich Village, Dan would check out the Facebook listings of people who caught his eye in a class or at a party. He could see who they knew in common, sniff their electronic pheromones. By now, in his final months of college, he was so hooked on Facebook that even when he was entertaining guests in his apartment, he would often sit with a computer in his lap so he could keep track of what people were up to elsewhere. That was sick, he knew. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

After a week of fiddling with the settings, clicking and unchecking boxes, disabling certain notifications, he kept coming to the same end point. It was hopeless. While he might be able to regulate some settings on his own account, he had no control over what his friends did with the applications that they ran on theirs. They could, for instance, permit a game to contact everyone in their address books, giving access to everything Dan had shared with friends to these third parties. Facebook was everywhere: go to a music website, and there would be a Facebook “like” button, meaning that it could follow him there. It knew what he read and knew what he listened to and knew what he watched. This was not just an extension of the high-octane party scene that defined his weekends. He could barely think a thought without giving some hint to the machinery that was recording it all. The site had grafted onto his personality.

Enough, he decided.

Using a piece of software, he scraped all the information and pictures he had posted on Facebook. That got him a copy of everything.

One last time, he checked updates from friends. Then he found his way to the account settings. Buried several layers down was the box he was looking for.

Delete account.

Was he sure? the software asked.

Dan clicked his affirmation.

Okay, then. The account would be deactivated but not actually deleted for two more weeks. Any activity by him during that time—logging in, checking on friends, the least flicker of digital life—would be interpreted by Facebook as a sign that he had changed his mind and didn’t really want to shut it down. That was all boilerplate delivered to anyone who declared an intention to leave the flock.

The next message from Facebook was tailored for Daniel Grippi. “Your friends are going to miss you,” it said.

Dan had about four hundred “friends” on Facebook, a number of them people he had never spoken with in the flesh, or, for that matter, online. Someone who knew someone would send a friend request. He’d say yes. And that would be the end of it. No loss.

But there were others: real buds from high school, people he cared about in college, family members. Authentic friends. Their pictures were the ones appearing on the screen. It was a simple matter for the Facebook servers to figure out whose profile he had checked out, with whom he had exchanged messages, even people who were in the same picture.

Facebook kept records of what he cared about. Knowing who and what Dan Grippi wanted in his life—knowing more than Dan himself consciously knew—was Facebook’s business. It sold that knowledge.

Daniel, Facebook pleaded. Wouldn’t you want to stay in touch with these people?

They were hostages; Facebook was transforming his attempt to quit the network into a betrayal of his fondness for them.

Manipulation.

He clicked the delete button.

In the winter of 2010, four talented young nerds with time on their hands decided that they should bring an end to Facebook’s monopoly on social networking. They were man-boys, college students who became friends while staying up all night, eating pizza and hacking at geeky projects in a computer club at New York University. Their mission would have been literally inconceivable just one generation earlier; social networking barely existed when they began high school; Mark Zuckerberg had not yet started “The Facebook” in his dorm room at Harvard. But by 2010, Facebook had become such a global behemoth, joined by hundreds of people every minute, that a revolt seemed inevitable. Someone had to do it.

Like most “free” web services, Facebook was a middleman that made money by peeking into everybody’s business. With the right software tools, the four guys believed, no one would need to surrender everything to big companies like Zuckerberg’s. People could connect to friends and networks of friends without going through the servers of Facebook, Inc. It was a simple notion of vast disruption. Such an alternative would mean remapping the lines of power in digital society. To Dan Grippi and three other guys from the NYU computer club, Ilya Zhitomirskiy, Max Salzberg, and Raphael Sofaer, it would be a fun way to spend the summer of 2010. In the months before then, they spent nearly every conscious minute in room 311 of the math building at NYU working on their upstart social network project. They called it Diaspora.

“We’re not about killing off Facebook,” Raphael said. In Diaspora, they aimed to create a tool that would emancipate the power and vitality of social networks from the control of a single company. “Social networks have only existed for 10 years. We don’t really know what’s going to happen to our data, but it’s going to exist into the foreseeable future. We need to take control of it.”

His words were printed in the New York Times, and the notion that such a thing was possible thrilled hundreds of thousands of people. Social networking occupied an essential place in society, but was Facebook—avatar for the commercial surveillance embedded in the digital infrastructure of modern life—an irreplaceable link for all vital communication and connections? The Diaspora vision was thrillingly countercultural.

The four set out at a pivot point in human history, their project a single tiny pixel on a vast screen of rapid change, watched by millions. In June 2010, they moved to California to build the tools that would save the world from Facebook. Also, they hoped, to have fun. Dan and Max had just graduated. They had the most programming experience and chops. Dan, besides his strong eye for design, had a will of steel when it came to coding. Max, the eldest of the four, would pile thankless tasks on his back until he resembled an ant carrying five hundred times his weight. With a gift for turning phrases, Max described himself as an “effusive salesman type,” and said that his rhetoric often benefited from a “cold bucket of water” dumped on it by Rafi, the youngest of the group, who possessed a cool detached intelligence. He was a quick study in programming. With some trepidation, he took a leave from school. So did Ilya, a math prodigy, Russian émigré, and idea-heaving furnace. Technically the weakest software programmer of the group, Ilya was their most potent spiritual force. No one could imagine Diaspora without him. Once they relocated to San Francisco, Ilya’s home, an apartment on Treat Street in the Mission District, became a center of gravity for all manner of grand schemes and hopes. It was called the Hive.

The neighborhood of the Hive pulsed with people in their early twenties, constellations of dreamers and engineers and strivers in the expanding universe of the tech boom. Google ran a private bus system to bring employees to its offices forty miles south. But the area was not just home to the well-salaried and corporate-backed. Computers and computing had become dead cheap, a fraction of what they had been a decade earlier, and shrinking by the day. Brainpower, not money, was the essential capital.

Not only were there fortunes to be made; there were also fortunes to shape. Who could resist? Like steel at the start of the twentieth century, software had the power to win wars, bring prosperity, change lives. It could guess your appetite before the first pang of desire had struck.

This generation had come from cities around the world, out of schools and universities certainly, but also old factories and basements, derelict garages, and warehouses that had been turned into hacker spaces—rooms where they could tinker with software and cheap electronic parts, write programs and build robots or break into virtual cabinets where they didn’t belong.

Said one hacker: these spaces are a force for chaos in the world; when you walk in, you expect to see kittens in jet packs flying around the room.

They slept in mansions tricked up as dorms, rented rooms in flophouse hotels, surfed from couch to couch, shared apartments at places like the Hive. Creature comforts were for later; right now, the act of creation, of making—not of making it—was all that mattered. Fall on your face? Get up. Fail faster. Like mentalists playing tricks with a spoon, the young people were sure they could bend the steel of their era just by thinking long and hard.

They had a suppleness of spirit unburdened by the thickness of middle-age expertise in what couldn’t be done.

The Hive was a perfect space for parties, and Ilya was the ringmaster. Its spacious backyard included a tent-cabin, a fixture adopted from the utopianist desert festival Burning Man, and a necessity for outdoor gatherings in the foggy perma-chill of the Bay Area. Parties at the Hive customarily had a meme, or perhaps it was the other way around: someone would think of a meme and a party would follow. There was “We Are the Internet and We Come in Peace,” and later, “FuckYeahCarlSagan.” When someone in the circle revealed that his Wi-Fi password was “FuckTomCruise,” the meme for the next party was declared “FuckYeahTomCruise,” and Tom Cruise–themed drinks, like the Top Gun cocktail, were concocted, while the dome of the tent became the screen for a continuously looping video of the actor speaking about Scientology. On any given night, the sound system might be knocking out techno-jams, or music for swing or ballroom dance, or all of them.

Hardly any activity would not be considered: a woman who had cultivated an interest in a diet of insects was invited to whip up something on the barbecue, and she produced plates of grilled-cheese-and-mealworm-larvae sandwiches. These were washed down with craft beer and Two Buck Chuck, the value wine from Trader Joe’s.

Raucous and humming, the Hive parties were descendants of the gatherings eighty years earlier of the young and poor, philosophers and scientists and artists, in a marine biologist’s lab in Pacific Grove, forty miles to the south, caught in the amber of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

One weekend at the Hive, there was a contest to break the world record for links of plastic monkeys, each arm hooked into the next until the line stretched up three flights and right to the big bay window that looked out over the yard, the tent, and the city. The window opened from Ilya’s bedroom. He had practically invented this place.

Convener of many parties, Ilya was the one who stayed up latest talking longest with roommates, or with strangers he’d met somewhere and had invited to hang out, or with people who’d wandered in.

One night, from behind the closed door to his bedroom at the Hive, he’d heard his lawyer roommate and math roommate talking in the living room. The lawyer asked the math guy about the importance of a high-level mathematical theorem; Ilya, dissatisfied with the explanation he heard through the door, burst out of the bedroom clad only in boxer shorts. He proceeded to sketch out the implications of the theorem on the floor. Then he returned to his bedroom, where he had been entertaining a young woman visitor. Of which there were many: he had little reticence about hitting on girls, and many found it hard to resist the package of a slightly disheveled guy who wore giant plastic orange sunglasses and aquamarine neon pants, a brainy polymath who actually wanted to learn what other people were passionate about.

“Gather epic people,” he often declared, “and make unreasonable demands.” He was a nerd who glowed with warmth and humor. The world he and the other Diaspora guys had settled into was one of pure buoyancy; the work they were doing was all gravity.

In the tenth century, Rabbeinu Gershom, a sage in Mayence, Germany, set out a series of prohibitions that would be enduring parts of Jewish life. They were issued in response to human impulses that he deemed to be socially destructive, not to mention an offense against the Creator. For instance, Rabbeinu Gershom barred polygamy and forbade divorce of a woman without her consent.

The rabbi also banned the reading of other people’s private mail.

A millennium after Rabbeinu Gershom, other people’s business was sheathed in fiber-optic cable. Ancient human urges to snoop had lost none of their voltage, but the prohibitions and social inhibitions were dissolving. In a virtual instant, forward-thinking businesses data-mined, data-scraped, data-aggregated. As these became exalted missions, digital culture erased social and legal boundaries that had been honored, however imperfectly, for centuries. Commercial surveillance was built into the ecology of everyday life.

Like nothing else since humans first stood upright, the World Wide Web has allowed people to connect and learn and speak out. Its dominant architecture has also made it possible for businesses and governments to fill giant data vaults with the ore of human existence—the appetites, interests, longings, hopes, vanities, and histories of people surfing the Internet, often unaware that every one of their clicks is bein...

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Book Description Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2015. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. The David-versus-Goliath effort to build a revolutionary social network that would give us back control of our personal data In June of 2010, four nerdy NYU undergrads moved to Silicon Valley to save the world from Facebook. Their idea was simple to build a social network that would allow users to control the information they shared about themselves instead of surrendering it to big business. Their project was called Diaspora, and just weeks after launching it on Kickstarter, the idealistic twenty-year-olds had raised $200,000 from donors around the world. Profiled in the New York Times, wooed by venture capitalists, and cheered on by the elite of the digital community, they were poised to revolutionize the Internet and remap the lines of power in our digital society until things fell apart, with tragic results. The story of Diaspora reaches far beyond Silicon Valley to today s urgent debates over the future of the Internet. In this heartbreaking yet hopeful account, drawn from extensive interviews with the Diaspora Four and other key figures, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jim Dwyer tells a riveting tale of four ambitious and naive young men who dared to challenge the status quo. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780143127895

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