In The Boy Kings: A Journey Into the Heart of the Social Network (Free Press, 2012), Katherine Losse describes her experiences working at Facebook shortly after it began and moved into office space (after its birth in a Harvard dorm room). If you’ve seen the film The Social Network, you know that Facebook began as a way for Harvard males* to “find” eligible females, and to also rate women based on their appearance. That Losse would not realize that she was entering the proverbial “heart of darkness” where women are concerned when she took the job at Facebook seems suspect. Yet, to the author’s credit, the book is not actually about the sexism rampant at the company, at least in the early days. It is more a series of rhetorical questions that she asks herself, then answers in the book as she poses the same questions for us to answer for ourselves. Losse admits that she long harbored thoughts of writing about Facebook, and I wish she was more upfront and less ambiguous about that intention (like Ted Conover who became a correctional officer to write “from the inside” about that role). *I find it difficult to refer to them as men and yet also don’t want to come across as derogatorily dismissive and call them boys.
As described by Losse, network definitely describes Facebook, yet social? She questions the idea that we can be truly, or more accurately, authentically social on-line. This is a valid question, and one that is addressed slightly more academically by Sherry Turkle. I believe Losse’s book is more accessible possibly to a younger generation than Turkle’s book, and it is valuable as a first-person experience and individual reflection about life on-line. However, even while I appreciate the insights Losse provides, I can’t help but feel like she didn’t “infiltrate” merely to provide the insider story, but rather drank the Kool-aide and was brought into the cult for a time.
The title gives everything away with regard to how the author felt about working at Facebook. It was a bastion of boyhood, complete with the requisite adolescent fantasy of refrigerators filled with sugary, caffeinated beverages and bins of every kind of snack food and candy an eleven year old might dream of. She was the lone seeker of fresh fruit, which she describes as most often rotting before it was consumed. Then, there were the cartoon-graffiti pictures on the walls, including those exaggerating the female form for the male gaze. It is as if Ms. Losse saw herself as the Wendy to the lost boys. She not only describes her “female” suggestion of real food but also remarks at one point, “You can’t run a successful company with boys alone,” referring to her role as one of the few females in the office. Facebook is described as a gadget-filled, bed-time-less and far from wholesome Neverland, and Losse is the stand-in mother.
The more obvious things about Facebook that we all likely know already (or suspect) are included in the book, as well. Facts and figures about time women spend studying other women’s profiles and pictures versus the lack of time spent by men pursuing such activities are provided. The more esoteric information Losse shares includes Facebook’s policy around group pages, and how they determine whether a group is a hate group or not. We don’t have to wonder about why teens and twenty-somethings post drunken photos on Facebook; the activity is something Facebook employees do, and, well, they have good jobs, right? The “fun” it seems everyone is having working at Facebook is also debunked as it becomes clear that more often than not the male employees have fun, and the women do the menial, hourly paid work. Additionally, everyone is expected to wear company shirts for photo ops, and there is never, ever a company event or even normal work day when photos and videos are not taken for posting on the site. Employees were encouraged to not just blur, but rather erase the line between their personal lives and professional lives.
Like Losse, this is my criticism of Facebook. My college freshman daughter believes that because her friends from high school (who are at other colleges) are posting pictures and status’ depicting “fun, fun, fun,” that she’s the only one of her friends who has rough days being far away from home on her own for the first time. I asked her whether she ever posted anything authentic and genuine or that might demonstrate emotions such as insecurity or sadness (or anything other than sarcasm or utter joy). She realized that since she never admits to any of these human, emerging-adult kinds of emotions, that it is likely her friends also feel them and don’t post them. Losse actually experimented with posting less-than-ecstatic snippets of thoughts, and found that no one noticed, or that they brushed it off. While their comments were good-natured, they were still snide and didn’t address the actual emotional content of her original message.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I closed my Facebook account months ago. And, yes, I know how to really close out an account “for real” and completely. I also know now, too, that Facebook may still retain certain pieces of information about me even though I deleted information from every category and “unfriended” everyone in my list before closing the account. Oh, and Facebook employees can (and do) access any account they want, including what you might have thought were “private” e-mails through the site.)
Some portions of this review sound negative and like I’m harping on the author. This is not my intention, as I think Losse’s book is a memoir that speaks significantly about important issues related to social networks and our on-line lives today. She points out the sexism rampant at Facebook, especially in its early days. Today, (we can hope) that the teams of lawyers have at least included a sexual harassment policy in an employee handbook. I’m sure stockholders wouldn’t be too happy if this wasn’t something that was not only included, but also enforced to some degree. Maybe a few more of the paintings have been retired to men’s restrooms (as if that makes it any better). While writers (and reviewers) certainly aim for clarity, the “loss of the true intention” is something that digital communication (e-mail, Facebook posts, texts and Tweets) has brought to our world. Losse shares a valid and poignant view of what this means to an individual person, which I believe is her over-arching point: the loss of the meaning of and value of whole, real, complicated human friendship and interaction and what this means for our individual and collective futures. Eventually, as biological creatures, we all need sleep and nutritious food. We must determine for ourselves whether we want a boy king running things or whether we’re actually ready for the “wild rumpus” to end.
The Boy Kings: A Journey Into the Heart of the Social Network by Katherine Losse, 2012, is available from Free Press(a division of Simon and Schuster)