Who Is Sean Parker?
Beginning as a rogue computer hacker in his teens, Sean Parker showed his early genius as co-founder of the file-sharing computer service Napster. Later, he became the founding president of Facebook.
Internet entrepreneur and tech maverick, Sean Parker was born December 3, 1979, in Herndon, Virginia. His childhood was shaped by struggles in school and asthma attacks that were sometimes so severe he'd have to go the hospital.
Even with his frustration in the classroom, Parker's intelligence was hard to miss. He was a voracious reader, and when he was 7, his father, a U.S. government oceanographer, started teaching him computer programming on an Atari 800.
Parker quickly took to the digital world. By his teens, Parker was hacking his way into the computer networks of companies and other organizations around the world.
When Parker was 15, his hacking drew the attention of the FBI, and he was forced to do community service with other teenage offenders at the local library. Around this time, he met Shawn Fanning, who was also 15 and, like Parker, an adept hacker. With some others, they launched an Internet-security company, Crosswalk, which helped firms stymie hacker attacks. The business didn't take off, but a friendship and a future partnership were forged.
On his own Parker developed an early version of a Web crawler, a project that earned him top honors at a Virginia state computer science fair and drew the notice of the CIA, which lauded him for the work.
Spurning a CIA internship, Parker chose to work instead for a series of companies, including an early Internet service provider, pocketing $80,000 for his work in his senior year of high school. Able to convince his parents he should put off college, Parker joined friend Fanning and started the file-sharing service Napster in 1999.
Napster's popularity among music lovers quickly escalated. Within its first year, the service attracted tens of millions of users but also became a target of the music industry, which saw the start-up as a huge threat to its business. The company was eventually ordered to shut its service down, but not before Parker, who'd fallen out of favor with Napster's older partners, was forced out.
Parker, who retreated to a beach house in North Carolina, found himself at a crossroads. "I had no home," he recalled. "I was totally broke. I would stay at a friend’s house for two weeks, then move because I didn’t want to become this permanent mooch.” His then-girlfriend argued he should leave the computer world behind and get a job at Starbucks. Parker, though, had other plans.
Long before the term "Web 2.0" came into vogue, Parker was fascinated by the power and potential of social networking. With some partners, he launched a new company called Plaxo, an online service that kept users' address books up-to-date. The idea had been Parker's brainchild, but when the daily grind of running the company started to set in, the founder bristled and was soon exiled by the firm's other managers.
It was around this time, however, that Parker discovered Facebook, a still-new online service that catered specifically to college students. Sucked in by its potential, Parker met with the company's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, who soon named the 24-year-old entrepreneur the company's founding president.
Early on, it was a marriage that benefited both sides. The oldest member of Facebook's young executive team, Parker helped Zuckerberg navigate Silicon Valley's complicated venture-capital landscape.
However, in 2005, Parker, whose history of partying was not a well-kept Silicon Valley secret, was arrested on suspicion of cocaine possession. Charges were never filed, but the incident largely contributed to his exit from Facebook. Parker's role at Facebook was played out in the 2010 movie The Social Network, which told the story of the company's founding. Parker, who was portrayed by Justin Timberlake in the film, has called the movie "fiction."
In the years since, Parker has continued to show an uncanny eye for the next big thing. He worked diligently to bring the Swedish music platform Spotify to the United States and assisted in its integration with Facebook. He has also reunited with Fanning to create a new live-video site called Airtime.
In 2017, Parker expressed some regrets about his contributions to the state of social media while speaking to the news website Axios.
"The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them ... was all about: 'How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?'" he said. "And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. ... It's a social-validation feedback loop ... exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.
"The inventors, creators — it's me, it's Mark [Zuckerberg], it's Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it's all of these people — understood this consciously," he added. "And we did it anyway."
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