Did Mark Zuckerberg really “invent” Facebook?

So Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, has been named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. That is great and certainly not undeserved, but there is one thing in the media coverage that I just can’t resist commenting on. A lot of people say and write that Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook. I do not think that that is true.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to spin any conspiracy theories about how Facebook was in fact conceived by aliens or Freemasons or whoever in a bid for world domination. My argument is harmlessly linguistic. To say that Zuckerberg (or anyone, for that matter) invented the Facebook social-networking site is like saying that somebody invented the Osram light-bulb or the Nokia telephone. Nobody invented those things. Edison invented the light-bulb, Bell invented the telephone, and then other people came along and improved on those inventions and created the branded products known as Osram and Nokia.

Similarly, Zuckerberg, for all his genius, did not invent the generic idea of a social-networking site. That invention had already been made; there were other such sites out there before Facebook came along, the likes of Friendster, MySpace and Bebo. What Zuckerberg did was improve and expand the idea, and his efforts were what finally tipped the balance and brought the original invention to the place where it is now – which is everywhere.

My point is this: you do not invent specific branded products. That’s not how people usually use the verb to invent. As I’m sure you can see yourself from my examples about light-bulbs and telephones, it feels odd to say that someone invented Osram or Nokia. To speak lexicologically, the verb to invent does not have specific branded products in its selectional preference. It only has a selectional preference for generic ideas, for prototypes. But what baffles me is this: if people don’t normally say that someone invented Osram or Nokia, why does everybody keep saying that Zuckerberg invented Facebook? Even Time itself, in the “Person of the Year” issue, contains this collocation twice. It is frequent enough in common parlance, too: just google it.

Perhaps the reason is that, because social-networking sites are such a new phenomenon, people are failing to appreciate the distinction between the generic idea (the “invention”, if you will) and the specific implementation (Facebook itself). For many people, Facebook was the first time they ever engaged with on-line social networking, and so in their minds, the invention and the implementation are conflated, coextensive. Another possible explanation is that people think so highly of the improvement Zuckerberg made to the original idea that, in their opinion, it constitutes a separate invention in its own right: when people say “Zuckerberg invented Facebook” they actually mean something along the lines of “Zuckerberg invented a new type of social-networking sites, of which Facebook is the first (and so far only) implementation”. And yet another candidate for an explanation is that people mean it not literally but as an aggrandizing, celebratory exaggeration – a bit like saying that a king built a castle or that a general won a war.

Either way, I think it’s an interesting psycholinguistic observation: an anomaly in people’s use of one particular verb (to invent) with respect to one particular object (Facebook) reveals a deeper confusion in people’s understanding of what exactly this “Facebook thing” is, where it came from and what its significance is.

3 thoughts on “Did Mark Zuckerberg really “invent” Facebook?

  1. I think the term “invention” regarding Facebook, cannot be compared to Nokia. Telephone is an invention, not Nokia, right. But what if with a Nokia telephone you could *see* the person you are talking to, what if you could *surf* on the web while talking. This would be a revolution, and this would be called iphone. Wouldn’t you say that Iphone is an invention ? I would. But Facebook has specifics that did not exist in “myspace”. The “likes”, the registered time when you post, for instance, the ads nearby, the “status”, the “wall” concepts, all are real “inventions” that make the media unique and specific, and can rightly be called an invention.

  2. If what you said is true then the invention of the telephone is also NOT an invention. The telephone would never have been created if it were not for the invention of microphones, speakers, and the wires that connect them (a poor example but you get my point). The same applies for Einsteins theory of relativity or every idea every thought of by mankind. Yes it is unfair all of the steps don’t get a proportional piece of the credit but that is just the way things are.

  3. I would go so far as to say that social networking sites were not invented either. There are just HTML interfaces with a database attached. Zuckerberg invented nothing, he created.

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