Who Gets the Credit?

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, May 2011

In the movie about the founding of Facebook, The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg is being sued by the Winklevoss twins, who claim that Zuckerberg had stolen the idea from them.  Zuckerberg’s attention wanders as he is being deposed by the Winklevoss lawyer, and when he is accused of being inattentive, he points his finger across the table at the Winklevoss twins and their lawyer and caustically belittles their contributions to his success.

“You have part of my attention.  You have the minimum amount.  The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.”

During the movie I often reflected on the question of who should get the credit.  This is, after all, just a movie, and we’ll never know what really happened.  However, I believe that even if I had been physically present for all of the events portrayed, I still wouldn’t know for sure to whom all those billions of dollars should be assigned.  Credit can be a complex and murky thing.  Once it is decided, however, it becomes simple and robust.  But for a few minutes delay in the patent office, we would remember Elisha Grey as the inventor of the telephone, and none of us would have heard of Alexander Graham Bell.

Facebook is an example of something that happens periodically in cyberspace – a kind of social invention, built on a technology platform, but not necessarily involving technological innovation.  Its success relies on a tipping point phenomenon, where the winner takes all.  In the networking world, there are dominant externalities – we all benefit from being in the same place, in spite of any antitrust considerations that would argue for greater competition and division of the participants.  When all your friends are on Facebook, why go anywhere else?
My inclination, in the absence of any real knowledge of the situation, is that Zuckerberg deserves the credit.  In my experience, that while great ideas are rare, good ideas are rather plentiful, and what really matters is what you do with those good ideas.  Zuckerberg took a good idea and made it happen.  It wasn’t that no one had thought of social networking before, since there were existing sites like Myspace and Friendster.  But Zuckerberg captured the world with good features, good business strategy, and one of the most important ingredients – good timing.  Moreover, in most such cases we shouldn’t forget about happenstance and luck.

However, I believe it is true that if Zuckerberg hadn’t created Facebook some similar site would offer the same features today.  Maybe we’d all be on Myspace, and maybe it would even be better than what we have today, but we’ll never know.  I often reflect on the transience of even the great ideas and inventions.  If Beethoven hadn’t written his symphonies, they wouldn’t exist today.  Great art, music, and literature are like that, but science and technology uncover what nature has intrinsically made possible.  It’s like our inventions have been lying under rocks, and the first person to turn over the rock gets the credit.  The second person along… well, it’s too late.  Does anyone think that if Schockley, Bardeen, and Brattain hadn’t invented the transistor in 1947 that it wouldn’t exist today?

For many of even our great technological inventions the second person along would likely happen in only a matter of weeks or months.  Perhaps the measure of any invention or discovery would be the amount of time before someone else would have done the same thing.  Maybe in the case of Einstein’s theory of general relativity it would have taken a couple of years, but it was a law of nature waiting to be discovered, and we undoubtedly would know it today.  Perhaps the state of knowledge now would be no different, in spite of the fact that this was surely one of the most transformative ideas in the history of science.

It’s nice to be the first person to turn over the rock and see something novel underneath, but unless you do something with that find, maybe you don’t deserve the credit.  In the case of Facebook it appears that Zuckerberg deserves the credit -- but then, what do I know?