Aaron Greenspan was a Harvard junior while Facebook CEO and cofounder Mark Zuckerberg was a sophomore.
For years, Greenspan has been trying to tell media outlets that Zuckberg’s orginal idea for Facebook, a social network for Harvard students, was essentially a ripoff of a product Greenspan had put together at Harvard.
In one alleged conversation, Zuckerberg approaches Greenspan to see if he’d like work with him on a project – a project that would turn out to be Facebook.
Zuckerberg says he would like Greenspan to work on this project because he thinks it will be similar to a “facebook” site that Greenspan has already been working on – a Harvard-sanctioned Website called “Housesystem.”
Zuckerberg tells Greenspan his project is “basically” a “souped of version of one thing Housesystem does.”
“But,” writes Zuckerberg, “It’s not like I took the idea from you.”
He says, “mine’s not a straight facebook. It has a bunch of cool features which I don’t think I should really mention right now.”
Zuckerberg says the reason he wants Greenspan to work wit him is that his own project “may compete with the facebook you’re trying to implement.”
“l really I just want to make sure that we’re not doing the same thing. Because then neither of us would succeed I think.”
“You have good ideas clearly,” Zuckerberg tells Greenspan.
Greenspan does not immediately accept Zuckerberg’s offer. Instead, he tries to convince Zuckerberg to build his project on top of Housesystem.
Zuckerberg listens to the idea, but, without declining yet, seems down on it. He says “it’s just the atmosphere of housesystem isn’t right I think.”
Reading these IMs it seems to us that Zuckerbeg may have been inspired by a feature that was a part of another person’s product when he created Facebook. But clearly Zuckerberg had ideas for what would make Facebook a unique product, for what would give it “atmosphere.” This language reminds us of how most product innovation occurs. At the same time, Greenspan does deserve credit for having a feature that inspired Zuckerberg.
We have reached out to Facebook for comment and will update this story as soon as we hear back.
Here is the conversation, from Greenspan’s site:
berg02: i have a question
zberg02: are you interested in doing other things besides the housesystem venture?
ThinkComp: in what context
zberg02: like would you be interested in possibly partnering up to make a site if it would not be incorporated into housesystem
ThinkComp: for the sec? think? or separate
zberg02: separate i guess
ThinkComp: depends on the site i guess
zberg02: well it would be on the new thing i’m working on
zberg02: i could let you know exactly what i was thinking about it, but i’m a little worried that you might just be inclined to want to incorporate it into housesystem
zberg02: which isn’t something i want right off the bat, and maybe not at all
ThinkComp: i guess i’d need to see the advantage of starting on something new
ThinkComp: since i’ve already sort of got a lot going on…
ThinkComp: it’s much easier to just incorporate things where they fit from my perspective
zberg02: well i agree
zberg02: but we disagree on whether or not it would fit into housesystem
zberg02: well really i just want to make sure that we’re not doing the same thing
zberg02: because then neither of us would succeed i think
ThinkComp: that’s fair enough, but i don’t understand why it wouldn’t fit and why you wouldn’t want to take advantage of the existing user base
ThinkComp: especially since i don’t know how much people will trust sites you make on your own at this point
ThinkComp: just because of the previous negative publicity
zberg02: yea i hear that
zberg02: i think that house system is a much more professional app
zberg02: and people know it as that
ThinkComp: i really don’t think you will get in trouble for being too professional
zberg02: well yea
zberg02: but that sort of makes it less interesting i guess
ThinkComp: i don’t think so
zberg02: but it’s made up for by its utility
zberg02: like i don’t think i’d go to housesystem to procrastinate
ThinkComp: because it looks too nice?
ThinkComp: that seems sort of silly
zberg02: well just because of the functionality that’s there presently
zberg02: and people’s opinion of it based on that and how it’s been marketed
ThinkComp: in that case more time-wasting stuff would balance it out nicely
zberg02: but i really just want to make sure there’s not a lot of overhead
zberg02: i am worried that registration for housesystem requires a lot of info
ThinkComp: yeah, it does
ThinkComp: but if 1200 people have filled it out so far, i’m not too worried…
ThinkComp: the most frequent reason i’ve heard for people not signing up for it is that they don’t think anyone else is
ThinkComp: not that registration is hard
zberg02: i’m also a little sceptical about the culture of the site and people’s willingness to give information about themselves
ThinkComp: or that it’s too functional
zberg02: yea i agree…it is too functional
zberg02: like it’s almost overwhelming
ThinkComp: well, but it’s supposed to be
zberg02: like in a site where people give personal information for one thing, it then takes a lot of work and precaution to use that information for something else
zberg02: well it’s good that it’s functional
zberg02: it’s just a little overwhelming for some people i think’
ThinkComp: in any case, why do you want me to work on your project then if the stuff i do is at odds with the atmosphere you’re trying to create?
zberg02: you have good ideas clearly
zberg02: it’s not that what you do is at odds with the atmosphere i’m trying to create
zberg02: it’s just the atmosphere of housesystem isn’t right i think
ThinkComp: from what i can tell it sounds like your idea might again be controversial from the perspectives of other students and administrators
ThinkComp: i’m not afraid of controversy clearly
ThinkComp: but i might be able to keep in it check as part of housesystem
ThinkComp: i’m not so sure i could if i worked on something with you independently
ThinkComp: and there’s the very real risk that it could blow up in both of our faces, which i’d rather avoid
ThinkComp: i guess that’s basically how i feel
zberg02: yea i don’t think it’s that controversial actually
zberg02: but it’s tough for you to know that unless i tell you exactly what it is
zberg02: i guess basically it’s a souped of version of one thing housesystem does
zberg02: which i think didn’t do as well as it could have as a stand-alone site
zberg02: but it’s not like i took the idea from you
ThinkComp: sure, i understand
zberg02: so i guess the basic jist is that i feel as if it may compete with the facebook you’re trying to implement
ThinkComp: brb phone
ThinkComp: hey i’m on hold
ThinkComp: so you’re going to compete with the facebook?
zberg02: i think so
zberg02: like it will be slightly different audiences i think
ThinkComp: linking faces to courses?
zberg02: but in general i think most people won’t want to submit their facebook picture to more than one site, do you agree?
ThinkComp: i dunno
ThinkComp: most people haven’t even had the option of sending it to one
zberg02: really i see it as a problem of critical mass
zberg02: people won’t; do it unless other people do it
zberg02: and then it becomes a question of culture
zberg02: because it’s not about who’s actually doing it
ThinkComp: that’s why i’m going to be talking to the uc
zberg02: it’s about who people think are doing it
zberg02: i think it requires some hype
ThinkComp: how do you plan to go about that
zberg02: well mine’s not a straight facebook
zberg02: it has a bunch of cool features which i don’t think i should really mention right now
zberg02: beyond the course stuff
zberg02: and i just think in general people will respond to the next thing i make
zberg02: a crimson reporter called me today to ask if i was making anything new
ThinkComp: i won’t stop you then
zberg02: or planning on making anything new
zberg02: without hearing of anyting i was doing
zberg02: i thought that was interesting
zberg02: well i just think that if we compete neither of us will get the mass we need to make anything worthwhile
zberg02: or i don’t know
zberg02: mine is basically ready
zberg02: i just have some business stuff to work out
ThinkComp: i’m not too concerned.
ThinkComp: we’re doing ok
zberg02: well i know you have lots of users
zberg02: i’m just saying, in terms of either facebook getting used
ThinkComp: you said they were different purposes though…
zberg02: yea but people are lazy
zberg02: and i think will only want to upload stuff to one of them
ThinkComp: i guess i don’t know that that’s true
ThinkComp: what if you made a separate site that drew on the housesystem database in the background
ThinkComp: under the sec
ThinkComp: one upload, one login
zberg02: what is it going to draw from the database?
zberg02: so both will have facebooks?
ThinkComp: put it would be a positive feedback loop rather than a negative one
ThinkComp: assuming the administration doesn’t take issue with your idea
zberg02: that’s an interesting idea
zberg02: what if people don’t want to do both sites?
ThinkComp: they dont have to
ThinkComp: but if they sign up for one, they’re automatically in the other.
zberg02: would it be possible to add something like that after the site is launched?
ThinkComp: why would you do it that way?
zberg02: i mean, are you planning on making changes to the housesystem facebook?
ThinkComp: of course
zberg02: so what data will the two draw from each other
zberg02: besides logins?
ThinkComp: member information and facebook information
ThinkComp: though neither site has to display all of it
ThinkComp: it would be sort of like how delta has song airlines
zberg02: delta owns song airlines
ThinkComp: your site would be an sec project
ThinkComp: both would benefit
zberg02: that sounds like it could work
zberg02: but it might be a lot of work to modify the stuff i’ve already done
ThinkComp: what did you write it ib
ThinkComp: er, in
zberg02: some perl, some php
zberg02: all the web stuff is in php
ThinkComp: might work then
zberg02: yea…how fast is your server
zberg02: for housesystem
ThinkComp: not too fast
zberg02: oh man
ThinkComp: but it works
zberg02: how much ram
zberg02: there are a lot of cool things that i wanted to do with coursematch that deal with graph theory
zberg02: but it’s all pretty computationally intensive
ThinkComp: i see
zberg02: would the sites run off the same server?
zberg02: or just share the database?
ThinkComp: same server
ThinkComp: unless you have a different one you could put it on
zberg02: we’ll see what i can do
zberg02: i need to go get some work done
zberg02: we’ll speak soon
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