CNBCfix review: Privacy is
so passé in Lester Holt’s
‘Facebook Obsession’

          Posted: Friday, January 7, 2011

Try as he might, Lester Holt just can't turn Mark Zuckerberg into a tear-jerker.

Holt's CNBC documentary, "The Facebook Obsession," belongs on the Hallmark Channel.

There's an evident female theme to the program. That does not make it light, or bad. What's most telling about the program is what's not in it. After the first 10 minutes, you wonder if Holt completely forgot that many are expecting him to chronicle a Machiavellian Harvard schemer.

"The Facebook Obsession" will and should be compared with last year's splash CNBC tech documentary, "Inside the Mind of Google," hosted by Maria Bartiromo. That Google program, while struggling for enough relevant material to fill an hour, did succeed on 2 fronts: Headline-making interviews with company brass, and a well-done breakdown of exactly how Google AdWords make money.

Holt either realizes he doesn't have that kind of material or simply doesn't want it and instead milks the Facebook brand for run-of-the-mill, potentially heart-tugging human-interest stories that have little in common save for a computer.

The all-important first 10 minutes are not about a sizzling tech company, but a birth mother reunion that could've just as easily happened on "Dateline NBC." If you were in tears, great, but that shouldn't be the goal of a Facebook examination.

Later we get a longtime school administrator who wrote the wrong thing on the Internet, and cops who supposedly (we never do get the end of the story) figured out when a fugitive was coming to town for a class reunion.

Throughout, there is a theme of privacy concerns. This was the major fumble by Holt. He had the chance to put together newsmaking material, if only he would get some VIPs on the record. He gets none. No legislators, no police, no influential privacy advocates (think Drudge).

He doesn't even make reference to Google CEO Eric Schmidt's provocative August 2010 comment about today's youth maybe requiring 1 free name change in their lifetime because of all the embarrassing stuff they're bound to leave behind on social media sites.

If anything, Holt's utter lack of authority figures questioning Facebook policies indicate what the real point here is — there really is no national concern over Facebook privacy.

If that conclusion sounds surprising to some, it shouldn't. Holt could do the same program about an as-yet-still-untested CNBC subject,, a private company that knows not only everything you've bought, everything you've searched for and when you've searched for it, your e-mail address, home address and mailing address, people you've sent items and their addresses, but also ... drum roll ... your credit card number, expiration and handy 3-digit security code.

And nobody cares.

The best Holt can do with Facebook is a pop-culture-phenomenon story built around the mere number of people using it. This is difficult if not impossible to visually depict. Curiously, he never questions the 500-million-user figure and how it's verified. Nor does he offer a demographics breakdown, female vs. male users, and age groups. No one doubts an enormous number of people use the site, but the actual number of real, regular users would be of great interest to Silicon Valley and Wall Street alike.

There is a great statement that should be made here about critical mass. Facebook has much in common with, for example, financial exchanges. Every user wants the greatest amount of liquidity. If half of your friends are not using Facebook but another site, that does you no good. In the early stages, you will join both, but gradually everyone will gravitate to a single winner. When even Zuckerberg's most bitter rivals admit they use Facebook (Holt's best moment in the program), the domination is understood to be complete.

So Facebook is an all-or-nothing story: Either everybody's on it, or nobody is. Like Troy, its rivals face a massive barrier to entry, but if ever breached, would likely result in downfall. This figures, at present time, to make the company a candidate for spectacular growth as well as spectacular flop.

But what kind of business is occurring here? And how, in fact, does Facebook make any money? Holt says the company's 2010 revenue is being estimated at $1.4 billion, a number that may be low given new figures tossed around just this week on the news of Goldman Sachs' investment. The latter question he comes tantalizingly close to answering (in the form of how an author can target a specific market), but doesn't.

One wonders, in fact, how Holt came to be the host of this production and why CNBC didn't give the helm of this highly publicized documentary vehicle to one of its stars. Holt is a fine anchor, but not a business anchor and not a CNBC personality. It's likely that CNBC's long-form programming unit realized there isn't enough of a business story to tell.

In Holt's defense, Facebook makes about as much daily news as Google, and the Goldman Sachs investment he referenced, which became known just this week of the premiere, might seem like ancient history in a few months, when this program will undoubtedly be re-aired. If the company goes public in 2011, as many suggest, there will be far more information available on revenue streams and business models. For now, Holt is stuck telling nighttime news mag dramas, something which he is undoubtedly as well qualified for as CNBC anchors.

There is the happy birth mother-daughter reunion, the fired professional, the jilted would-be business partners, the savvy detective, the skeptical professor. Unfortunately these tend to be remarkably incomplete stories.

In the category of We All Tend to End Up Where We're Supposed to Be, we have June Talvitie-Siple, the 50-something math and science honcho at Cohasset high school in Massachusetts. Or at least she was. Her story is that she got fired for negative posts on Facebook, which she claims deceived her as to the privacy settings she was using; her comments about students being "germ bags" and parents being "snobby" and "arrogant" were only supposed to be seen by friends.

"It never occurred to me that Facebook had done some changes to their privacy policies," Talvitie-Siple tells Holt.

But then she also says, "I regret my stupidity. I really do." And Talvitie-Siple actually told ABCNews at the time of her dismissal that the superintendent made the right call: "I embarrassed her, I embarrassed the school district and, you know, if I were her, I probably would have done the same thing. It was not a surprise."

Furthermore, the article quotes Talvitie-Siple as saying, "When I took this job, I knew I was risking the possibility that I would be exposed to kids again in a concentrated form and that I might get sick. And, sure enough, I ended the year with pneumonia."

One of her damning Facebook posts was, "I'm so not looking forward to another year at Cohasset Schools."

So she's not healthy enough to be around kids to educate them. She doesn't like their parents. She didn't want to return to this school.

And so the fact she is no longer teaching at this school is bad because ...?

In an almost pathetic example of Facebook's influence, Holt tries to show how the site leads a trail of evidence for cops. Taos, N.M., Police Chief Rick Anglata and Detective Nick Ault seem savvy enough, but Holt's backstory about this parole violation of a woman in a drug case is so scrambled, one's jaw drops at the thought of police combing through Facebook merely to hopefully catch a woman at a class reunion under an assumed name. Worst of all, Holt never says if they actually caught her.

What figured to be a prize of the program, an interview with Zuckerberg's spurned Harvard collaborators, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss and Divya Narendra, never gains any traction and is given minimal time, with Holt conceding most of that drama to film clips of "The Social Network," Aaron Sorkin's very impressive 2010 account of Zuckerberg's rise. The "Winklevi" (as Zuckerberg calls them in the film) merely complain, as they have for years in the courts and in public appearances, that they turned over their sensitive business information only to have Zuckerberg exploit it for himself.

Holt says he tried to talk to Mark Zuckerberg but the offer was declined. The company, in a sign of how seriously it took this production, apparently provided no one in current executive ranks to talk to Holt. He embarrassingly admits, "Our request was declined. We were directed to Facebook's privacy page." Holt does get a few comments from early Zuckerberg associate Chris Hughes, as well as a former Facebook honcho, Jeff Hammerbacher, but this production seems to try its darnedest to avoid biography material.

Sometimes, the basics are compelling. Holt's premise is that everyone knows what Facebook is. In fact, a lot of people don't have an account. Holt should be taking viewers through the opening of an account and show how privacy settings are handled, how photos and/or video can be displayed, how people are "friended." He doesn't need a Facebook salesman to do this but could ask a critic.

In the end, it seems, no one is really getting screwed; even the Winklevi seem poised to add to their $65 million settlement with Zuckerberg. The "obsession" isn't about what people do on Facebook, only that so many are quietly using it. For better or worse, the only thing Holt had going here was the birth mother reunion. Surely there's a backstory there that's every bit as good as "The Social Network."

"The Facebook Obsession" (2011)

Featuring: Kari Tridle, Bob and Dee, Shelly Rodenbaugh, Jennifer Kolb Reder, Chris Hughes, Dustin Moskovitz, Tyler Winklevoss, Cameron Winklevoss, Divya Narendra, David Kirkpatrick, Jeff Hammerbacher, June Talvitie-Siple, Chris Hoofnagle, Alana Joy, Patrick Barbanes, Macon Phillips, Rick Anglata, Nick Ault, Christian McMahon, Kara Swisher

Senior executive producer: Mitch Weitzner
Writer and senior producer: Lori Gordon-Logan
Associate producer: Michael Beyman
Lead editor: Patrick Ahearn
Editors: Joyce Haverkamp, Lisa Orlando
Camera: Plummer Crawley, Joe DeWitt, Jerry Frasier, William Irmscher, Gim Lay, Raul Marin, Marco Mastrorilli, Gerard Miller, Oscar Molina, Mark Neuling, Roger Prehoda, Andy Rover, William Sims, Ashley Stringer, Mike Vaughn
Audio: David Foerder, David Grogan, David Schumacher, Charles Slie, Robin Stewart, Peter Williams, Everett Wong
Manager & chief photographer: Angel Perez
Director of post production: Vito Tattoli
Additional camera: David Grogan
Global creative director: Victoria Todis
Senior designer/animator: Jacqueline Dessel
Graphic designer: Nick O'Connor
Production manager: Tracy Lawrence
Media coordinator: Richard Marko
Broadcast associate: Kimberly Saunders
Unit manager: Pamela Gaskins
Archivists: Larry Beer, David Evans
Music librarians: Salvatore Carosone, Lauren Ricci-Horn
Interns: Tana Ferris, Carrie Hojnicki, Rita Warkov
Vice president, long form programming: Ray Borelli

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