Mark Zuckerberg is 29 and sitting on $29 billion. The Facebook chairman and CEO, who famously created one of the single most paradigm-shifting, Internet-defining sensations of the modern world in a Harvard dorm room in the early aughts, did the unimaginable by taking the site from college campus pastime to global phenomenon. Ten years later, Facebook is not just the first major social network, but the largest and the one that commands the most engagement from its users. It’s a sustained success, and despite his characterization as a petulant and arrogant leader, much of its continued survival is thanks to the stewardship of the tersely single-minded Zuckerberg.

As Facebook morphed into its current status as the Internet’s most comprehensive directory, its trajectory has followed that of its founder, directly mirroring Zuckerberg’s own coming-of-age and shift from coder to Silicon Valley luminary. Just as it withstood trials and tribulations in its transition from one-man startup to established legacy firm, so too did Zuckerberg, who is finally beginning to outpace the harsh reputation most memorably crystallized in Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s blockbuster The Social Network.

When Facebook first launched for college students in 2004, the site was a free-for-all, a messy but fun bacchanal that was more reactionary than prescient. Zuckerberg was a college dropout and the site’s launch proved to be a baptism of fire that he navigated brashly. Through it all he has been an accurate gauge of the site’s moves, vacillating between genius, tonedeaf, and just lucky. 

When Facebook first launched for college students in 2004, the site was a free-for-all, a messy but fun bacchanal that was more reactionary than prescient. Zuckerberg was a college dropout and the site’s launch proved to be a baptism of fire that he navigated brashly. Through it all he has been an accurate gauge of the site’s moves, vacillating between genius, tonedeaf, and just lucky.

As its membership swelled, crossing geography and generation to eventually reach some 1.3 billion active users, Facebook became a defining and increasingly indispensable part of life online. At Zuckerberg’s behest, real names were required, giving Facebook a gravitas that other social networking sites lacked.  Its notion of presenting a full, official self on the Internet was novel and built on the initial maelstrom of random thoughts, quotes, and photos that defined its early years.

Zuckerberg’s genius, and his path to both profit and power, is the precise incarnation of the saying, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” Facebook’s advertising-based business model necessitates the exploitation of users’ personal data and Zuckerberg’s bullish, naive take on privacy—that it is a concept of the past and that we must stop seeking it—has defined much of Facebook’s identity. For years, he has dictated the acceptable norms that determine how we share and interact online.

A series of private IMs between Zuckerberg and friends that materialized during legal proceedings in 2006 best sums up his young and cruel approach to having a wealth of others’ data at his fingertips:

ZUCKERBERG: yea so if you ever need info about anyone at harvard
ZUCKERBERG: just ask
ZUCKERBERG: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns
FRIEND: what!? how’d you manage that one?
ZUCKERBERG: people just submitted it
ZUCKERBERG: i don’t know why
ZUCKERBERG: they “trust me”
ZUCKERBERG: dumb fucks

Zuckerberg has since expressed regret about the IMs, but he has operated his business with the same sentiment, offering advertisers info about any of its users if they “just ask.” Both his and Facebook’s reputation have been marred by a string of aggressive, sneaky changes to its privacy terms that contravene what many believe to be Faceook’s responsibility to its users and to safeguarding their personal information. But Zuckerberg was consistent in his commitment to annihilating privacy as a reasonable expectation for Internet users, and he leveraged the position as a means through which to fuel his and Facebook’s rise.

“The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly. Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” he told David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect in 2010. He also declared that “the age of privacy is over” and that the world would be a better place if people shared more online. Still, it was more than just rhetoric; Zuckerberg’s billions were built on the backs of our vacation photos and restaurant recommendations.

But more recently, like its founder, Facebook seems to have matured, realizing perhaps that its success amidst what has been described as a mass exodus requires gaining and sustaining its users’ trust. In a recent interview with Business Week, Zuckerberg admitted, “I don’t know if the balance has swung too far, but I definitely think we’re at the point where we don’t need to keep on only doing real identity thing. If you’re always under the pressure of real identity, I think that is somewhat of a burden.” He also added that Facebook would soon allow users to join anonymously—a reversal of ideals so steep and swift that it is difficult to conceptualize.

No doubt, Facebook is still interested in monetizing your personal information, but the softening of Zuckerberg’s stance on privacy betrays his and Facebook’s reckoning with the possibility of irrelevance. Principled stubbornness guided his first decade of Facebook; perhaps fair-mindedness will define the next.

Rawiya Kameir is a regular contributor to Complex, and has written elsewhere for The Toronto Standard, Thought Catalog, and The Daily Beast. She tweets often at @rawiya.

GENERATION FACEBOOK WEEK CONTINUES HERE