Facing Off Over The Facebook

ConnectU's unfortunate lawsuit ignores the lack of originality in both sites

There’s been far too much fuss about faces lately. The craggy, Neanderthal-esque Winklevoss twins, co-founders of the college-geared Friendster knockoff ConnectU with their business partner Divya Narendra, are pitted against the (pleasant-looking) Mark Zuckerberg, whose own face hauntingly graces thefacebook.com’s Matrix-esque top banner bar. The Winklevoss twins have been featured in New York Magazine, modeling $700 blazers. Zuckerberg’s face has been featured on hundreds of thousands of internet browsers, modeling a cheap collared shirt. Still, if ConnectU’s recent lawsuit against thefacebook is any evidence, it seems like the Winklevosses wouldn’t mind trading places.

The founders of ConnectU allege that Zuckerberg stole their idea for a networking site while he was doing unpaid work for them. Zuckerberg then coded on overdrive, releasing thefacebook long before ConnectU came online. By the time Winklevoss and company’s offering was ready, Zuckerberg had already earned the allegiance of practically the entire College clientele. This being Harvard, ConnectU decided to sue.

For his part, Zuckerberg is only following in the footsteps of another famous Harvard coder. Zuckerberg’s face may merit a seven where Bill Gates’ merited a two, but otherwise the similarities are unmistakable. Both were Harvard students, both left school during their sophomore year (although Zuckerberg has not confirmed his absence is permanent) and both were accused of stealing many of their ideas.

If Zuckerberg really is heir to Gates’ throne, then the Winklevoss-Narendra tri-fecta doesn’t seem to stand a chance, in court or on the net. Thefacebook is successful because it filled a void, it filled it well and it filled it first. Students at Harvard and elsewhere needed a system to make it easy to form study groups; they needed a way to block out non-college-educated rabble from their buddy list. But as ConnectU’s lackluster debut has shown, they only needed one way. ConnectU accuses Zuckerberg of stealing aspects of their business model. It’s good he didn’t steal the part that said: “Launch site in May.” Thief or not, Zuckerberg correctly recognized that the first college facebook site would be the one to succeed. Thefacebook started in February with one school. ConnectU came packed full of features and schools. Too bad it came three months too late.

But perhaps all of this is beside the point, since after all, the plaintiffs allege that it was their idea all along. Shame on Zuckerberg for taking their grand plans and making them happen first. Setting aside the legal questions of whether Zuckerberg fulfilled his vague quasi-contractual duties, what the plaintiffs are forgetting by starting this tiff is that neither ConnectU nor thefacebook are new ideas. Poking aside, both are Friendster knockoffs made unique by their exclusivity and a few, college-centric features. (And Friendster itself was an imitation of other sites before it.) Though thefacebook and ConnectU boast improvements like multiple profiles and the ability to display class schedules to facilitate study group formation, the bottom line is that neither is very original. Zuckerberg had the know-how and put in the time to make thefacebook happen when it did. And nobody else can take credit for that.

It’s time for the cyber-networking-clone wars to stop. These sites were supposed to be about building community. Unfortunately, when there is money to be made, that fact is so easily overlooked.