If you’ve been following the Aaron Greenspan story you probably know by now that Aaron claims he was the true inventor of Facebook, and Mark Zuckerberg just stole the idea from him. But if you’re like me, you’ve probably never actually heard the story of how and why Aaron first made this claim.
That’s because Greenspan works relentlessly to hide information that reveals his true colors, which includes deleting old posts of his that he doesn’t want anyone to see anymore. Unfortunately for Greenspan, the internet is forever. We’ve obtained a copy of the original “open letter” to Mark Zuckerberg that Aaron Greenspan wrote, sent to Mark, and posted online –– before he deleted it out of embarrassment once it aged very poorly.
In this blog post we’ll give you some background on the situation, show you the letters, annotate it with our comments, and then take a look at how the media reacted.
Aaron Greenspan started a website called houseSYSTEM in college, which Harvard asked him to shut down because it was asking for students’ usernames and passwords. There was one section called “The Universal Facebook” which had students names and pictures, but no social networking features. After Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook at Harvard and it started gaining traction, Greenspan followed up with a copycat feature called FaceNet that attempted to compete with Facebook. FaceNet and houseSYSTEM completely failed, with almost no one using the site.
After the failure of houseSYSTEM, Greenspan called Mark Zuckerberg and demanded Mark hire him as VP Engineering of Facebook –– a position that was listed as open on Facebook’s website. When Zuck told Greenspan that they were looking for someone with more experience, Greenspan lost his shit. He tried to blackmail Mark, telling him he had grounds to sue both Mark and the Winklevoss twins for stealing Facebook from him.
Of course, if Mark would just hire Aaron… then suddenly there wouldn’t be any more legal problem, and Aaron would even help Mark with his other lawsuits. After Mark made the wise decision not to hire Greenspan, Aaron made good on his threat to take legal action and filed a petition to cancel Facebook’s trademarks. Because this legal action jeopardized a $200 million investment, Greenspan was able to extort $250,000 from Facebook to make the problem go away. For Facebook, it was still a better deal than having to hire him.
But now, on to the letter. This was published right around the time Yahoo offered $900 million to buy the two-year-old Facebook, and just as Facebook was planning to open their website to the public for the first time. The public letter was shared to promote Greenspan’s latest Facebook copycat, CommonRoom. The whole claim of inventing Facebook was basically a shitty marketing stunt that Greenspan hoped would rope in a ton of press and help make his business a success. By this point, Greenspan had become obsessed with manipulating the media, mentioning in interviews that he saw it as the best, most cost-effective way to get free advertising for your products.
Greenspan hated paying for things that he could get for free, so he loved word of mouth and press coverage –– even if he had to lie, cheat, or hurt someone else to get it. His recent focus on manipulating mainstream media outlets as well as what people read and see on social media is just the inevitable insane extrapolation of his childhood obsession. That obsession with the media reached new heights in college as Greenspan grew increasingly frustrated with all the positive media coverage Mark Zuckerberg got in the Crimson, while he only received negative coverage. (Probably because he tried to steal all the students’ passwords).
In “Authoritas,” [Aaron Greenspan] described his collision with Harvard authorities when he first started his system. He also explained his frustration in getting the student paper, The Harvard Crimson, to write about houseSYSTEM, which was then being used by about 100 students.
Mr. Zuckerberg, by way of contrast, had no difficulty attracting the interest of the paper, Mr. Greenspan said. It wrote about him first because he had developed MP3-playing software, called Synapse, as a high school student. The paper then published frequent follow-up articles.The New York Times
Greenspan had been trying to use the press to promote his business since he was 15, but the irrational hatred and bitterness over what happened with Facebook –– this delusion that he had been the true inventor of Facebook, but Zuck was able to steal the idea just because of better press coverage –– truly took his obsession with manipulating the media to new heights. Greenspan’s “open letter” to Zuckerburg (which was really just complete media bait and not actually a message to Zuckerberg at all) was the start of a new era in Greenspan’s media manipulation ambitions. The media of course took the bait and gave him a massive amount of press, but that didn’t stop CommonRoom from failing just like the rest of Greenspan’s Facebook copycat sites.
Let’s go through this line by line so we can laugh at it together.
It’s been almost a year since we sat down to dinner in Kirkland House.Aaron Greenspan
This is why you never sit down for a meal with Aaron Greenspan. He will make you regret it. Stay away at all costs. If he sends you a message, don’t even open it.
A lot has happened since then, and I’ve been following your progress closely. It’s hard not to –– you’re in the newspaper almost daily now!Aaron Greenspan
Translation: I’ve been bitterly stalking you every waking moment of my sad life because I’m obsessed with you, and will be for decades to come. I moved to Silicon Valley to follow you. The fact that you’re in the newspaper makes me angry because I have narcissistic personality disorder and I think they should have put ME in the newspaper.
The controversy surrounding Facebook’s news feed feature, and now your plans to make the site accessible to the general public have both piqued my interest.Aaron Greenspan
Hilarious how he comes out against the newsfeed and opening Facebook to the public: two of the most important and defining moments in Facebook’s history, that made the product what we know today. Aaron claims he is the inventor of Facebook, despite the fact that houseSYSTEM failed, FaceNet failed, CommonRoom failed, Qubescape failed, and FaceCash failed too. He should be ecstatic that Mark Zuckerberg “stole” his idea and made it successful. The business stood no chance of surviving as long as he was involved. He would have run it straight into the ground.
Over dinner that night at Harvard, I expressed my concern that you might end up having a privacy nightmare on your hands. How foolish I was not to realize what one of those nightmares is worth! So, while you’re making up your mind about whether to accept Yahoo’s $900 million offer, I thought I’d write to you on behalf of your users, the nine million or so high school students, college students, and recent graduates who use facebook.com on daily basis (as least according to your own public relations staff), with some unsolicited advice.Aaron Greenspn
So much bitterness. Yes, it was absolutely foolish of you to not realize how much Facebook could be worth and stay hung up on privacy issues. Mark Zuckerberg offered you the chance to start Facebook with him and you turned down that opportunity. You could have been rich, successful, and famous but your pride got in the way and now you have nothing except bitterness and anger gradually consuming your heart.
The general concern now is that the value of your service will become diluted when you open up the site to regions throughout the globe, which based on my understanding, will lack any requirement for authentication. Coupled with pervasive unease surrounding the direction you decided to go by tracking everyone’s every move, I think the resulting dissatisfaction with Facebook could end up being harmful to your company, or whoever you choose to sell it to.Aaron Greenspan
Yes, we all know what a terrible decision opening Facebook up to the world ended up being. Great advice Aaron.
How cute. He thought Facebook was going to sell. Mark Zuckerberg was thinking big while Aaron was thinking small.
You are making decisions, so far as I can tell, as any good executive would, based on logical desires: to become consistently profitable, to compete with News Corp’s MySpace, and to make the site as efficient as possible. You attracted the cool crowd by building a cool site, one that catered to what students wanted, not what investors wanted. It follows that if you re-align your interests, your users will re-align theirs. This shift may eventually reveal a flaw in your business model, which is specifically that hype can only feed a business in lieu of revenue so long as people believe that it will.Aaron Greenspan
Yes, we all know what a serious threat MySpace turned out to be. In 2019, Facebook recorded $70 billion of revenue. That’s with a B.
What can one do to remedy such a situation? You must find some way to become highly profitable—without caving into the raw economic interests that I would have to guess are steadily exerting increasing pressure on your ability to make decisions.
If I were in your place, I would take the money from Yahoo while I still had the option, and use it to build something bigger and better later on. After all, it is remarkable that Yahoo is willing to pay a full $100 for every one of your users! I imagine, if you were to ask the typical Facebook user, most of whom have almost no purchasing power, “what was the last thing you bought that you saw on Facebook?”, what might they say? As a user of your service since its first day, I can’t think of anything to answer that question, let alone anything worth $100. You shouldn’t let this opportunity pass you by.Aaron Greenspan
As of today, the market capitalization of Facebook is $792 billion. That’s approaching a thousand times more than Yahoo had offered. Only a complete moron would have taken the offer.
As usual, Aaron Greenspan showcases his complete lack of imagination by failing to understand that a Facebook user is worth far more than $100. How can someone who clearly failed to grasp Facebook’s potential and would have sold at the first chance claim to be the inventor of Facebook with a straight face? Basically, it was all a marketing stunt to generate free publicity for his latest shitty Facebook copycat:
After all, the open market will take care of your users—who will take care of you? Remember that web site you signed up for at Harvard two days before we met in January, 2004, called houseSYSTEM—the one I made with the Universal Face Book that pre-dated your site by four months? (You left it out of your speech at Stanford, which is why I ask.) Well, I’ve re-launched it as CommonRoom (http://www.commonroom.com), and just like its predecessor, it has all sorts of features that might seem familiar: birthday reminders, an event calendar, RSVPs, how you know someone, photo albums, courses, posters… After all, when you saw all of those features in houseSYSTEM three years ago, you called them “too useful,” but I stood by them as valuable. Fortunately, even though I shut down houseSYSTEM, I can still use those same features on Facebook—and I didn’t even have to write any more code!Aaron Greenspan
Just move on. Imagine smearing your classmate like this to promote a business venture that ends up completely failing anyway. There’s no need to be a jackasss. You can build your own business up without having to tear others down.
So, please put Facebook back how it was, or take the money from Yahoo, even though it’s only half of what you’re truly looking for: merely $200 per user. They need your network, and you need their cash. Those pesky users who complain about privacy non-stop, or who don’t want to be associated with a huge company, or who want real features beyond just “poking” people? Just send them to CommonRoom. I’ll be more than happy to take them off your hands.
Yours sincerely,Aaron Greenspan
Right. Wonder if he lost more money on CommonRoom or shorting Tesla…
Screenshots of CommonRoom
Here’s what CommonRoom looked like:
It was a private social network that was only for Harvard and Stanford graduates. With 1354 members across 604 organizations, the average number of people per organization was about two. Sounds like a lot of fun!
After completely failing to gain any traction, CommonRoom was taken down for a redesign in 2008. By 2012 the redesign had launched, with a confusing tagline I don’t quite understand:
The funny thing is how there’s an “In the News” section on the homepage, but it’s blank and says “Not so much yet… We’re that new!”. But CommonRoom was not new. As you can see from the 2006 letter to Mark Zuckerberg, the site was at least six years old at this point. That’s a long time in Silicon Valley, and an even longer time in the world of digital social networking.
He also lied that CommonRoom had not been in the news. His letter to Mark Zuckerberg was all over the news, from the New York Times to TechCrunch to random blogs. It’s just that Aaron didn’t like what was being said, so he didn’t include it.
In the News
Greenspan even got the New York Times to weigh in, based on an existing relationship with a journalist he worked with on a previous story:
But by far the best blog post of all has to be this one, from a website called The Laboratorium. It’s hilarious, and you have to read it. The title is “How to Annoy Friends and Alienate People”, and it’s so spot-on in predicting the course of Greenspan’s life.
Dude, I couldn’t tell you how many Harvard and Stanford people there are whom I don’t trust. Based on what I’ve seen of CommonRoom, Aaron Greenspan (Harvard 2004) may belong on the list.The Laboratorium
There isn’t much inherently wrong with CommonRoom. I think it’s a me-too social networking site entering a painfully crowded space and offerling no significant innovation to differentiate itself. I expect it to fail, just as most of its competitors will. […]
No, what gets my dander up is the pretention involved. Yes, the networking is part of what makes your Stanford degree so valuable. But most of that networking is implicit. It comes out that you and a colleague both went there, so you fall to talking about professors and sports. One generally doesn’t go out looking solely to hire Harvard students (except perhaps for certain Wall Street firms, but that madness is another story). The degree is a recommendation, but it’s not the first or even the primary basis on which people develop contacts.
Selling a social networking service to Ivy League college students is one thing; like college students everywhere, they have rich social lives in a fairly well-defined universe. They may well appreciate school-specific customization. But selling a general-purpose Internet-replacement social networking service to Ivy League graduates is straining the concept past its reasonable limits. Even Ivy League dating services set off the weird alarms for a lot of people. A separate Ivy League Internet would be off the nuttiness charts.
Yes, there is a camaraderie among graduates. But the Internet is one of the great unviersalizing democratizing forces of our age. To think that we should turn our back on its values in favor of school spirit, to think that school spirit trumps the Internet … that’s the kind of snobbery that inspires people to crack Harvard jokes.The Laboratorium
“If you were the inventor of Facebook, you would have invented Facebook”
Did Zuck Want to Take It?
TechCrunch has an interesting anecdote on the subject from Peter Thiel:
But Zuckerberg said no. He “barely humored the idea of selling,” says Thiel. Which is about the same thing we heard back then: “At one point in the Yahoo negotiations, the talks extended into the weekend, says a person familiar with the matter. Mr. Zuckerberg, this account continues, said he couldn’t take part because his girlfriend was in town. Others pointed out they were closing in on a billion-dollar deal. Mr. Zuckerberg said it didn’t matter: his cellphone would be off.”TechCrunch
I wonder if Greenspan’s douchey letter to Zuck played any role in the fact that Mark wasn’t taking a billion dollar offer seriously. Probably not, since Mark was too important to be worried about Greenspan at all at this point, but wouldn’t that be hilarious? Greenspan writes a bitter, vengeful publicity stunt of an open letter that ends up convincing Mark Zuckerberg to make the unconventional decision that catapulted his wealth to the point where he became one of the richest men on Earth? Fate loves irony.