Ex Facebook board member: I knew 20-year-old Mark Zuckerberg. He's not a bad person

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Mark Zuckerberg has been under intense scrutiny, testifying Tuesday and Wednesday to Congressional lawmakers about Facebook's privacy practices in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

Former Facebook board member, Don Graham, spoke out Monday, defending Zuckerberg against those who think the Facebook CEO is a "bad person" or believe he's more interested in profits than users — and also to recall what Zuckerberg was like as a 20-year-old on the verge of something huge.

Graham, who was on the board of Facebook for six years until 2015, first says he met Zuckerberg in January 2005. At the time, Facebook was only nine months old and Graham had never seen the site because it was only available to college students.

Zuckerberg was shy and pensive, Graham writes in a Facebook post.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. 
Photo courtesy Bloomberg

"The youngest of my four children was two years older than Mark; through my kids and their friends, I had an extensive experience of shy, awkward 20-year olds. Mark was, by a mile, the shyest, most awkward 20-year-old I had ever met," writes Graham.

"When I asked a question, there was sometimes a long, long pause before he answered. I wondered: had I somehow offended him? Did he not hear?

"Actually, he was thinking. I'm from Washington, where opinions are on the tip of people's tongues," writes Graham, a former journalist and ex-executive of his family business, The Washington Post. "Listening — and thinking before answering — wasn't something I was used to seeing."

Graham, who attended Harvard like Zuckerberg, commented to the young founder that the rise of Facebook (95 percent of Harvard's students were on the platform at the time, Zuckerberg informed him) would be the downfall of the Crimson, the university newspaper.

"Mark, wiser than I, laughed and said yes, Facebook could pause and pick up some ad revenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But it was much, much more important to reach other colleges before similar products could arise there and get entrenched.

"Users before revenue," writes Graham. "We talked a little bit about Facebook as a business. The future tech titan did not then know the difference between revenues and profits."

Don Graham
Photo by The Washington Post

Graham says he tried to invest in Facebook, but Zuckerberg turned him down for a better offer. Then Zuckerberg revealed a "moral dilemma," remembers Graham. "He worried he had been too encouraging in our earlier conversations. I was disappointed but quite impressed by the maturity with which he handled the matter—pretty good for a 20-year old," he writes.

Two years later, Graham says he met with Zuckerberg in Palo Alto and noticed the tech titan's spartan accommodations.

"We met at his apartment, in which there were four pieces of furniture: a mattress (on the floor), a kitchen table and two wooden chairs. It was about at this time that Mark turned down a billion-dollar offer for Facebook. I noted that he wasn't letting success go to his head," says Graham. (In July of 2006, Zuckerberg rejected a $1 billion buyout offer from Yahoo.)

Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, shared the post by Graham on her own Facebook page, noting Graham has been a trusted advisor. "Don's recommendation of Mark was a big part of why I joined Facebook," Sandberg wrote.

Graham is not an impartial observer of Zuckerberg: "Watching him close up, I came to believe he is someone of great decency and good character," he writes.

But Graham does acknowledge the lack of foresight that caused the Facebook privacy breach.

"Why was Cambridge Analytica permitted to make off with so much user data? Does Facebook tilt us towards polarization and political intransigence?" Graham writes.

"There's much more. Slowly and patiently, Mark, Sheryl and their team will make Facebook much better. Should they have acted sooner? Of course. Do they understand how angry many of their users are? I would bet a lot that the answer is yes. Watch the changes they will make," says Graham.

See also:

Tim Cook on Facebook's data leak scandal: 'I wouldn't be in this position'