The Untold History of Facebook’s Most Controversial Growth Tool

‘People You May Know’ helped the social media giant grow exponentially. One man made it happen. An exclusive excerpt from ‘Facebook: The Inside Story’

Steven Levy
Published in
11 min readFeb 25, 2020


Founder/CEO of Social Capital, Chamath Palihapitiya, speaks onstage during “The State of the Valley: Where’s the Juice?” at t
Chamath Palihapitiya. Photo: Mike Windle

Early in her career at Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg had a series of conversations with Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s vice president of operations.

Palihapitiya was at a crossroads. He had joined Facebook barely a year before, leaving a job as a venture capitalist. Previously, Palihapitiya had been a VP at AOL, the youngest person to hold that position at the company.

During his time there, AOL wound up doing a small deal with Facebook that linked AOL Instant Messenger to Facebook’s website. But the biggest outcome of the deal was the connection Palihapitiya formed with Mark Zuckerberg.

The boisterous Palihapitiya and the more introspective Zuckerberg had similar views about business and tech. Every couple of months or so, the two of them would get together. Inevitably the idea arose that Palihapitiya might join Facebook.

“Growth had plateaued around 90 million people,” Zuckerberg recalls. Palihapitiya came offering a solution.

When Palihapitiya finally joined the company in 2007, he was given considerable, if amorphous, duties under the umbrella of “product marketing and operations.”

For all his talent and bluster, Palihapitiya in his first few months was not a smashing success at Facebook. He was most associated with the recently withdrawn ad-targeting system Beacon, one of the company’s most traumatic moments.

By the end of 2007, Palihapitiya acknowledged he had done a miserable job. “If I were you, I’d fire me,” he told Zuckerberg. They agreed that he should figure out a more focused task for himself and take one last shot at things.

Now, in Sandberg’s office, Palihapitiya was about to throw a Hail Mary.

Facebook’s growth had slowed. “Growth had plateaued around 90 million people,” Zuckerberg recalls. “I remember people saying it’s not clear if it was ever going to get…



Steven Levy

Writing for Wired, Used to edit Backchannel here. Just wrote Facebook: The Inside Story.