Facebook’s billionaire CEO Mark Zuckerberg calls himself a hacker. For most people, that word means something malicious, shady criminals who listen in on private voicemails, or anonymous villains who cripple websites and break into email accounts.
For Facebook, though, hacker means something different. It’s an ideal that permeates the company’s culture. It explains the push to try new ideas (even if they fail), and to promote new products quickly (even if they’re imperfect). The hacker approach has made Facebook one of the world’s most valuable Internet companies.
Hackers “believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete,” Zuckerberg explains. “They just have to go fix it, often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo.”
Zuckerberg penned those words in a 479-word essay called “The Hacker Way”, which he included in the document the company filed with government regulators about its plans for an initial public offering. The company is seeking $5 billion from investors in a deal that could value Facebook at as much as $100 billion.
The 27-year-old, who has a $28.4 billion stake in the stock deal, uses the H-word 12 times in the essay; “shareholder” appears just once. Should Zuckerberg have left those references out of his IPO manifesto, knowing full-well it could scare off potential investors? He could easily have described Facebook as “nimble” or “agile” instead.
“Symbolically, it doesn’t bode well to Facebook and to potential investors,” says Robert D’Ovidio, an associate professor of criminal justice at Drexel University in Philadelphia who studies computer crime. “I think it shows maybe an immaturity on his part. He should definitely know better.”
By using the word, Zuckerberg is also trying to reclaim it. To him, Steve Jobs and the founders of many of the world’s biggest technology companies were hackers.
“The word `hacker’ has an unfairly negative connotation from being portrayed in the media as people who break into computers,” Zuckerberg writes. “In reality, hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done.”
To be fair, the meaning has become complicated. Bad hackers destroy things with evil intentions. They break into the voicemails of crime victims and celebrities in search of a hot news story. They breach security systems to steal credit card data. Just this week, members of the loose-knit group Anonymous hacked into law enforcement websites around the world and gained access to information about government informants and other sensitive information.
Good hackers break things, too, sometimes. But they do it in the name of innovation. They call themselves “white hat” hackers to counter the criminal “black hats.” Often, they’re hired to expose security vulnerabilities at big corporations.
Kevin Mitnick, who was convicted and sent to prison in the 1990s for computer hacking, now works as a security consultant. It’s the flip side of his past life, when he spent years stealing secrets from some of the world’s largest corporations.