The idea that governs Facebook was created, then shut down, at Stanford years before Mark Zuckerberg appeared
Silicon Valley’s Sun Microsystems, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo, Google and Facebook are some of the largest technology companies in the world. Stanford alumni founded the first five. But if things had turned out a bit differently in the fall of 1999, would we have been able to attribute the creation of Facebook to Stanford as well?
It was in 1999 that three Stanford seniors, Tuyen Truong ’00, Lawrence Gentilello ’00 and Aaron Bell ’00 founded their start-up Steamtunnels.net, a social networking website that paired information from the 1999 version of Stanford Who, called WhoIs, with the photos in Stanford’s printed Facebook. Steamtunnels is seen by some as a separate but early form of the Facebook that exists today.
In addition to the Facebook component, Steamtunnels also featured a restaurant guide, events calendar, bulletin board, online radio stations, a textbook price comparison feature and maps of Stanford’s physical steam tunnels on campus, the founders said in a recent interview with The Daily.
“We were always thinking of ways to liven up the scene here,” Truong said of the then-seniors’ desire to enhance the social life for students.
Bell and Gentilello met during their freshman year as residents in Branner, which was an all-freshman dorm at the time, known affectionately as a boisterous “freshman mansion.” All three later joined Theta Delta Chi.
Their last years of college coincided with the dot-com explosion.
“There was some ridiculous number like eight legitimate startups and $50 million raised in venture capital in Theta Delt during the three years that we were there,” Gentilello said.
The trio was inspired to put the printed Facebook in an online format because students and fraternities asked to borrow the trio’s copies so frequently.
Bell, a computer science major who began working at Microsoft when he was 15 years old, did most of the programming for the site, which he said was difficult without open-source code.
Truong posted students’ photos on the site by scanning the print Stanford Facebooks in Meyer Library, where he was supposed to be working on his honors thesis in biology.
They never had a single, official launch, as the trio first spread word of the site on an e-mail list they sent to friends about bar nights and social events. So the website already had users before freshmen arrived in the fall.
Gentilello recalled the trio’s early plans for expansion.
“Our vision for Steamtunnels, when we started it, was to expand it to colleges across the country,” Gentilello said.
They configured the site to restrict access to only those with an IP address on campus and a Stanford e-mail address. They also had a feature on the site where users could accept or deny the posting of their photo.
“We thought, ‘How awesome would it be if you met a John at a party and go on and type in John and find every John, Jonathan, Johnny, and their info, what dorm they’re in, what classes they’re taking?’” Truong said.
As the site’s “About Us” page stated in 1999, “Let’s face it, the Facebook is an integral part of Stanford’s social structure: you poured over it freshman year getting to know your class, and now it remains a desktop reference more cherished and abused than your Webster’s Dictionary…we put the Facebook online.”
However, only a week after the release of the beta version of the site, the trio said the University pushed for Steamtunnels to shut down, citing potential Honor Code violations and removing Gentilello and Truong from academic advising positions. They recalled a meeting with administrators who confronted them about shutting the site down.
“We were like ‘Woah, woah, these pictures are public. Every student on campus has these,” Truong said.
“They really scared us,” Gentilello said, adding: “We weren’t prepared to be kicked out of school for this, so we folded.”
Nadira Hira ’02, who wrote the original articles about Steamtunnels for The Daily and now writes for Fortune magazine, believes that the success of Steamtunnels was hindered by its timing.
“I think the fact that it was so ahead of its time put the administration on the defensive,” she said. “I don’t think that was a function of them trying to stifle innovation. I think they just were not prepared for something like this to happen just yet.”
In an e-mail to The Daily, Marc Wais, who was dean of students at the time, defended the administration’s actions.
“In my meetings with students that I can recall, everyone acted in a polite, professional and respectful fashion. At the end of the day, though, I realize that the students were not happy that we were asking them not to go forward as they had planned,” he said. “We were concerned primarily about student privacy and safety. We were not comfortable in having any student’s Stanford ‘Facebook’ picture on the Web without that student providing prior consent or choosing to opt in.”
The trio kept a private, password-protected version of the website open for the remainder of their senior year (steamtunnels.net/backdoor), and they believe the University never discovered the second site. The founders say that they would have kept trying much harder at the Facebook component if they knew how huge a similar site would become.
The website still made waves across the country and caught the attention of two entrepreneurs in Boston. They flew Bell, Gentilello and Truong out to Las Vegas and put them up in a suite in the Venetian, convincing them to join them in making Steamtunnels Magazine, the founders said.
“In retrospect, it was a big mistake,” Gentilello said. “We had a killer app and those are rare and we should have stuck with it. But we got tempted by being whisked off to Vegas and given fat salaries, so we started pursuing this magazine.”
The magazine was a weekly insert, like Parade magazine, and was distributed to more than 230 college newspapers, but the company folded after the dot-com bubble because of high overhead costs.
The founders do not appear to harbor any ill will toward Wais or the administration, but they believe the University pressured The Daily to remove Hira’s stories from the newspaper’s website when Facebook became popular. No stories dated before 2001 appear on The Daily’s site now, though the print archives still exist at the newspaper’s office and in the Media Microtext Center in Green Library.
Several former editors in chief who worked at The Daily between 2004 and 2006 responded to questions for this story; they and Hira say they were not involved in any discussions to remove the stories. Several did mention technical difficulties with the website over the years as possible explanations for the stories’ alleged disappearances.
At the end of his interview with The Daily, Bell tried to convince the rest of the trio to watch The Social Network with him in Mountain View. One can only surmise that if fate had twisted slightly differently, maybe the new film would have been about them.