In his book, Chaos Monkeys (HarperCollins, 2016), author Antonio Garcia Martinez seeks to paint an authentic portrait of what it's like to live inside the Silicon Valley tech bubble. In this edited excerpt, Garcia Martinez describes an epic battle between Facebook and Google.
In June 2011, Google launched an obvious Facebook copy called Google Plus. Obnoxiously wired into other Google products like Gmail and YouTube, it was meant to join all users of Google services into one online identity, much as Facebook did for the internet as a whole. Given you had a Google Plus sign-up button practically everywhere in your Google user experience, the possibility of its network growing exponentially was very real indeed. Also, the product itself was pretty good, in some ways better than Facebook. The photo sharing was better, and more geared to serious photographers, and much of the design cleaner and more minimalist. An additional plus for Google Plus: It had no ads, as Google could subsidize it with AdWords, its paid search gold mine. This was the classic one-hand-washing-the-other tactic of the ruthless monopolist, like Microsoft using the revenue from Windows to crush Netscape Navigator with Explorer back in the '90s. By owning search, Google would bankroll taking over social media as well.
This sudden move was somewhat surprising. For years Google had been famously dismissive of Facebook, the fortified redoubts of its search monopoly making it feel untouchable. But as the one-way parade of expensive talent from Google to Facebook continued with no end in sight, Google got nervous. Companies are like countries: The populations really vote only with their feet, either coming or going. Google instituted a policy whereby any desirable Googler who got a Facebook offer would have it beaten instantly by a heaping Google counteroffer. This, of course, caused a rush of Googlers to interview at Facebook, only to use the resulting offer as a bargaining chip to improve their Google pay. But many were legitimately leaving. The Googlers at Facebook were a bit like the Greeks during the rise of the Roman Empire: They brought lots of civilization and tech culture with them, but it was clear who was going to run the world in the near future.
Google Plus was Google finally taking note of Facebook and confronting the company head-on, rather than via cloak-and-dagger recruitment shenanigans and catty disses at tech conferences. It hit Facebook like a bomb. Zuck took it as an existential threat comparable to the Soviets placing nukes on Cuba in 1961. This was the great enemy's sally into our own hemisphere, and it gripped Zuck like nothing else. He declared "Lockdown," the first and only one during my time there. As was duly explained to the more recent employees, Lockdown was a state of war that dated to Facebook's earliest days, when no one could leave the building while the company confronted some threat, either competitive or technical.
How, might you ask, was Lockdown officially announced? We received an email at 1:45 p.m. the day Google Plus launched, instructing us to gather around the Aquarium. Actually, it technically instructed us to gather around the Lockdown sign. This was a neon sign bolted to the upper reaches of the Aquarium, above the cube of glass, almost like the No Vacancy sign on a highway motel. By the time the company had gathered itself around, that sign was illuminated, tipping us off to what was coming.
Zuckerberg was usually a poor speaker. His speech came at the rapid clip of someone accustomed to analyzing language for content only, and at the speed of a very agile mind that didn't have time for rhetorical flourishes. It was geek-speak basically, the English language as spoken by people who had four screens of computer code open at once. His bearing was aloof and disconnected from his audience, and yet he maintained that intense stare that bordered on the psychopathic. It was an unnerving look that irrevocably rattled more than one interlocutor, typically some poor employee undergoing a withering product review, and it stared out from every Fortune or Time cover he graced. It was easy to project a creepy persona onto that gaze. That unfortunate first impression, plus the mischaracterization in the film The Social Network, was probably responsible for half of the ever-present suspicion and paranoia surrounding Facebook's motives. But occasionally, Zuck would have a charismatic moment of lucid greatness, and it would be stunning.
The 2011 Lockdown speech didn't promise to be one of those moments. It was delivered completely impromptu from the open space next to the stretch of desks where the executive staff sat. All of Facebook's engineers, designers, and product managers gathered around him in a rapt throng; the scene brought to mind a general addressing his troops in the field.
The contest for users, he told us, would now be direct and zero-sum. Google had launched a competing product; whatever was gained by one side would be lost by the other. It was up to all of us to up our game while the world conducted live tests of Facebook versus Google's version of Facebook, and decided which it liked more. He hinted vaguely at product changes we would consider in light of this new competitor. The real point, however, was to have everyone aspire to a higher bar of reliability, user experience, and site performance.
In a company whose overarching mantras were "Done is better than perfect" and "Perfect is the enemy of the good," this represented a course correction, a shift to the concern for quality that typically lost out to the drive to ship. It was the sort of nagging paternal reminder to keep your room clean that Zuck occasionally dished out after Facebook had suffered some embarrassing bug or outage.
Rounding off another beaded string of platitudes, he changed gears and erupted with a burst of rhetoric referencing one of the ancient classics he had studied at Harvard and before. "You know, one of my favorite Roman orators ended every speech with the phrase Carthago delenda est. 'Carthage must be destroyed.' For some reason I think of that now." He paused as a wave of laughter tore through the crowd.
The aforementioned orator was, of course, Cato the Elder, a noted Roman senator and inveigher against the Carthaginians who clamored for the destruction of Rome's great challenger in what became the Third Punic War. Reputedly, he ended every speech with that phrase, no matter the topic.
Carthago delenda est. Carthage must be destroyed!
Zuckerberg's tone went from paternal lecture to martial exhortation, the drama mounting with every mention of the threat Google represented. The speech ended to a roar of cheering and applause. Everyone walked out of there ready to invade Poland if need be. It was a rousing performance. Carthage must be destroyed!
The Facebook Analog Research Laboratory jumped into action and produced a poster with Carthago delenda est splashed in imperative bold type over a stylized Roman centurion's helmet. This improvised print shop printed all manner of posters and ephemera, often distributed semi-furtively at night and on weekends, in a fashion reminiscent of Soviet samizdat. The art itself was always exceptional, evoking both the mechanical typography of WWII-era propaganda posters and contemporary internet design, complete with faux-vintage logos. This was Facebook's ministry of propaganda, and it was originally started with no official permission or budget, in an unused warehouse space. In many ways, it was the finest exemplar of Facebook values: irreverent yet bracing in its martial qualities.
The Carthago posters went up immediately all over the campus, and were stolen almost as fast. It was announced that the cafés would be open over the weekends, and the proposal was seriously floated to have the shuttles from Palo Alto and San Francisco run on the weekends too. This would make Facebook a fully seven-days-a-week company; by whatever means, employees were expected to be in and on duty. In what was perceived as a kindly concession to the few employees with families, it was also announced that families were welcome to visit on weekends and eat in the cafés, allowing the children to at least see Daddy (and yes, it was mostly Daddy) on weekend afternoons. My daughter Zoë and her mother came by, and we weren't the only family there, by any stretch. Common was the scene of the swamped Facebook employee with logo'ed hoodie spending an hour of quality time with his wife and two kids before going back to his desk.
Internal Facebook groups sprang up to dissect every element of the Google Plus product. On the day Plus launched, I noted an Ads product manager named Paul Adams in close conversation with Zuckerberg and a couple of members of the high command inside a small conference room. As was well known, before he defected to Facebook, Paul had been one of the product managers for Google Plus. Now that the product had launched, he was no longer restrained by his nondisclosure agreement with Google, and Facebook was having him walk the leadership through the public aspects of the product.
Facebook was not fucking around. This was total war.
I decided to do some reconnaissance. En route to work one Sunday morning, I skipped the Palo Alto exit on the 101, and got off in Mountain View instead. Down Shoreline I went, and into the sprawling Google campus. The multicolored Google logo was everywhere, and clunky Google-colored bikes littered the courtyards. I had visited friends here before, and knew where to find the engineering buildings. I made my way there, and contemplated the parking lot.
It was empty. Completely empty.
I got back on the 101 North and drove to Facebook.
At the California Avenue building, I had to hunt for a parking spot. The lot was full.
It was clear which company was fighting to the death.
Carthage must be destroyed!