Finding Zuckerberg: How FRONTLINE Amassed an Archive of the Facebook Founder
Megan Robertson, a co-producer on "The Facebook Dilemma," helped to amass nearly 7,000 pieces of archival material about Facebook throughout the making of the documentary. (Credit: Pierre Takal)
Megan Robertson has tracked down archival video, audio, headlines, photos and screenshots for documentaries on everything from how Scott Pruitt came to lead the EPA, to the future of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, to the battle over online fantasy sports.
Typically, she’s amassed hundreds of files per film, maxing out around 2,000 for the EPA documentary. But Robertson’s work to research, gather and catalogue archival material as a co-producer on The Facebook Dilemma, FRONTLINE’s investigation of Facebook’s impact on privacy and democracy, was an effort on an entirely different scale.
In fact, by the time the two-hour documentary was complete, Robertson and her team had amassed a 447-gigabyte folder containing nearly 7,000 archive files — a meticulously organized, multimedia record spanning the decade-plus between Facebook’s founding and its current trials, focused in large part on chronicling what Mark Zuckerberg had to say about his plans and dreams for the company all along the way.
Zuckerberg’s stated vision, practically from the start? To make the world more open and connected: “Mark would make a lot of big statements about the future and what he wanted Facebook to be,” says Robertson, who graduated from New York University with a degree in journalism. “And looking at it from where we are now, we have this 14-year archive of what he wanted it to be.”
But as The Facebook Dilemma explores, Zuckerberg’s vision would come with what Robertson calls “unintended consequences.” As it unspools onscreen and forms the connective tissue of The Facebook Dilemma, the footage Robertson and her team gathered of Zuckerberg offers a unique, firsthand look at his rise from college student to the leader of a more-than-$400-billion company whose platform has more than 2.5 billion users — and that has been at the center of repeated firestorms over false news, privacy breaches, and fomenting real-world harm everywhere from Myanmar to the Philippines.
“What you find when you spend a lot of time watching tape on Mark Zuckerberg is that there is this period of time where the media training kind of kicks in,” Robertson says. “It’s around the time of the IPO [initial public offering, in May of 2012]. He stops giving these really long interviews.” At that point, Robertson observes, he also became far more polished, and began speaking in terms of the “service” Facebook provides to its community.
But overall, Robertson says, Zuckerberg’s stated mission and vision has been remarkably consistent: “He has not changed a lot in the years. He has been consistently a techno-optimist,” Robertson says. “And we said it in the film: He views his invention not as part of the problem, but as part of the solution, and the answer to the problems of Facebook is more Facebook.”
As Robertson found when she joined the film team in February, Zuckerberg’s rise has been richly documented. The Zuckerberg Files, a project run by the Center for Information Policy Research at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, was a helpful jumping-off point. She would also turn to YouTube, archive.org, traditional sources like Getty and the Associated Press — and the Facebook platform itself.
“Mark, he’s got a tremendous archive of himself on his Facebook page,” says Robertson, who at 34 years old is the same age as the Facebook founder, and who was an early user of the platform starting back in 2004. “I pulled a lot of video, a lot of his keynotes are up there, a lot of interviews that he has given in public are up there, photographs for sure are up there.”
And that wasn’t just the case for Zuckerberg alone: Robertson pulled many of the photos that appear at the start of the film from various early Facebook employees’ accounts.
“They’ve always prided themselves on having a lean staff, so the people who worked there were working all the time and they were very close, and they posted a lot of pictures of each other,” she says.
While director James Jacoby and producer Anya Bourg were out in the field conducting interviews (including with more than a dozen current or former Facebook employees), Robertson and her team — which also included associate producer Gini Richards and researcher Talia Acosta — were hard at work in New York City. They were tracking down material, stringing together highlight reels of footage by theme or by date depending on their editors’ needs, and swapping sequences in search of the perfect piece of archive. What they found would at times help to propel the film’s story forward for the rest of the team.
“Whenever we had a moment when we were stuck in our narrative and we just needed a bridge, we could always go to Mark and say, ‘What was Mark saying at this time? What were the goals of Facebook at this time?’” Robertson says, adding that Zuckerberg’s speeches at Facebook’s annual developer conference, F8, were a rich resource.
Ultimately, Robertson watched and listened to so many hours of comments, speeches, and interviews with Zuckerberg that she began to catch herself mirroring the Facebook founder’s speech patterns — for example, responding to some questions by inverting them: “When he’s asked a question about anything that might be a negative on Facebook, he’s like, ‘No, actually, I think it’s the opposite,’” she says.
As far as keeping track of the vast amount of materials she, Richards, and Acosta assembled? “I love a good spreadsheet,” Robertson says, laughing, adding that the key to success was “really just leaving yourself a trail.”
“As long as we were leaving each other the same types of clues and trail to follow, it worked out that we could be supporting three edit rooms at a time, finding footage, and it was all accessible to everybody,” Robertson says. “Starting off from an organized place pays off hugely in the end, especially with a project like this one.”
Though the documentary has now aired, Robertson’s time immersed in archive materials related to Facebook hasn’t ended. As part of FRONTLINE’s Transparency Project, an ongoing effort to open up the series’ journalism, she’s drawing on what she amassed to build an interactive timeline of Zuckerberg’s public comments and key moments in Facebook’s history that’s expected to go live in 2019.
She’s grateful, she says, that working with FRONTLINE has afforded her the time to dive into this subject in such depth.
“It feels like at this point in time, there is a rich, accessible video archive on any public figure,” Robertson says. “It’s just out there, if you want to gather it and spend the time looking at it.”