Mark Zuckerberg and the Art History Connection: A Lesson in Elegant Organization

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook Founder and CEO 
Last night I sat down to watch 60 Minutes (a time honoured ritual inherited from Mom and Dad) and take in a fascinating interview with Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook (see full clips of the episode below). Like many of you, I was curious to learn more details about the “New Facebook” profile set to launch today—an attempt in Zuckerberg’s words to more effectively “tell the story of who you are” to friends and acqaintances. But more importantly I wanted to find out more about who Mark Zuckerberg was and what he had to say about the broader vision for his social network. Notably, the much more visually intensive version of the new profile settings with an emphasis on incorporating photographs and images to help navigate a person’s connections “at a glance” is connected to Facebook’s goal of facilitating users’ high rate of interest in image uploading and sharing. This was one of the unexpected outcomes of Facebook’s popularity according to Zuckerberg-- the way people want to be seen and see one another through visual means.

One of many scenes in The Social Network when students
are shown looking to connect online.
Having attended a screening of the recent docudrama movie The Social Network about the founding and rise of Facebook, I was especially struck with the idea of the visual discussed in last night's interview in connection to one significant scene in the movie where Zuckerberg, played so brilliantly by Jesse Eisenberg, effectively passes an art history exam without attending a single class. And although the movie did not fully reveal the process through which he managed to do this (it only hinted at how he used online information), I did research and tracked down a full description of the events from Jeff Jarvis’s fascinating book What Would Google Do? In a section discussing Facebook specifically, the author describes how Zuckerberg’s argument for establishing social networks emerged in connection to the art history exam episode with the concept of “elegant organization”--  a method to help groups of connected people do what they do, but BETTER. Jarvis goes on to describe how Zuckerberg latched onto this idea while trying to figure out how to study for the visually intensive class he had not attended (because of his work and involvement on his Facebook project):

"The final exam was a week away and he was in a panic. It’s one thing to drop out of Harvard to start a gigantic, world-changing company; it’s another to flunk.

Zuckerberg did what comes naturally to a native of the web. He went to the internet and downloaded images of art he knew would be covered in the exam. He put them on a web page and added blank boxes under each. Then he emailed the address of this page to his class-mates, telling them he’d just put up a study guide. Think Tom Sawyer’s fence. The class dutifully came along and filled in the blanks with the essential knowledge about each piece of art, editing each other as they went, collaborating to get it just right. This being Harvard, they did a good job of it.

You can predict the punch line: Zuckerberg aced the exam. But here’s the real kicker: The professor said the class as a whole got better grades than usual. They captured the wisdom of their crowd and helped each other. Zuckerberg had created the means for the class to collaborate. He brought them elegant organization."

What I love about this story is how the art history professor not only applauded the efforts of Zuckerberg (however selfish the original reasons were), but also recognized how the student collaboration had raised the collective grade point average for the exam. In this sense, elegant organization has a critical potential to transform how and through what means we learn and share information. But it can also work in new, unexpected, and unintended way. This is the potential I hope exists with my use of Facebook, especially associated with this blog, and I just love that art history and the mediation of images had a role to play in getting to that important realization.

And so yes, I still remain ambivalent about Facebook and yes, I have an account (I even tried the new profile today and actually kind of like it), but I am hoping that this story helps inspire more critical thought about elegant organization and perhaps inspires students with final exams looming to study in groups-- it really does work-- or better yet, figure out how to do what Zuckerberg did. I dare you!