Technology

New Book on Facebook: Fun Trumps Facts


In the The Accidental Billionaires, Ben Mezrich, author of MIT card-counting tale Bringing Down the House, brings his gossipy approach to Facebook's beginnings

It's tempting to chalk up to serendipity the stratospheric rise of Mark Zuckerberg and the social network he founded. In The Accidental Billionaires, a fictionalized account of the founding of Facebook, Ben Mezrich gives in to that temptation all too readily.

Based on interviews with Eduardo Saverin, one of the initial co-founders of the site, as well as "hundreds" of unnamed sources, Mezrich pieces together scenes using dialogue and perceptions based "on the recollection of participants," he says in an author's note. Zuckerberg was not interviewed.

What results is an often tawdry mishmash of depictions of various players and a chronological retelling of the events surrounding Facebook's earliest days that does little to place the social network in its larger context or shed much fresh light on its founding. Mezrich's attempts to re-create long stretches of dialogue leave the reader questioning the credibility of the account and the motives of the many unnamed sources.

The image of Zuckerberg that emerges is one of a stoic, curly haired wallflower who clings to his preferred uniform of flip-flops, cargo shorts, and fleece sweatshirts even through the harsh New England winter. He speaks little and is remembered instead for his icy gaze into a laptop while tapping out code for days on end.

In Mezrich's account, Zuckerberg is hungry for acceptance—a member of an underground fraternity depicted as awkward geeks who spend more time debating how to attract women than actually going to parties with them. Zuckerberg stays up nights tapping his keyboard, stung by rejection from members of the opposite sex. "He was going to create something that would give him back that control, show all of them what he could do," Mezrich writes.

The Winklevoss Twins' Harvard Connect

What results from those all-nighters are Zuckerberg's first social applications, "Facemash" and "thefacebook," which earn him campus notoriety, write-ups in the school paper, and a girlfriend. And as the Web site that would become Facebook begins to spread to other college campuses around the country, several characters find their fates intertwined with that of the hacker hero. Saverin, who invested the first capital in the company and acted as its first chief financial officer, hesitates to risk his career on the startup and then finds his influence ebbing as Zuckerberg brings on new advisers and investors.

Mezrich also devotes much space to Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, the twin Harvard jocks who claim Zuckerberg stole their idea after they hired him to do programming for their own site, Harvard Connect (which later became ConnectU). While Mezrich abstains from taking sides in this debate—Facebook settled the case for an undisclosed sum last year, but Mezrich indicates in the book's epilogue that the conflict may not be over—he depicts the Winklevoss brothers as capable entrepreneurs who missed out on being the next big thing by a hair: "Despite the fact that ConnectU was chock-full of features, had launched in a number of schools at the same time—it simply couldn't compete with the viral nature of thefacebook," he writes.

Then there's Sean Parker, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who sees Facebook as the potential gold mine that has always eluded him. After Zuckerberg moves to California, Parker takes the up-and-comer to parties with Victoria's Secret models and introduces him to venture capitalist Peter Thiel and Accel Partners, Facebook's first institutional investor.

Unfortunately, Mezrich spends too many pages detailing the lives and motives of these characters and offers little explanation for how Zuckerberg went from Harvard outsider to Silicon Valley darling—from awkward geek to a successful executive on a mission "to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected."

Too Much Left Out

The book also gives short shrift to several key players in the company's history, including co-founders Chris Hughes and Dustin Moskowitz, who are introduced only briefly. These and other omissions ultimately undercut the reliability of Mezrich's anonymous sources. If they couldn't relay specifics about two key members of the founding team, what else has been left out of the story?

Mezrich also put anonymous sources to work for his 2002 best seller Bringing Down the House (Freepress), the story of card-counting Massachusetts Institute of Technology students that was made into the 2008 movie 21. Some of the people Mezrich portrayed in that book have told the press it contained scenes that were flat-out made up, leading to criticism of the work and its classification as nonfiction.

Facebook spokesman Elliot Schrage says in a statement: "Ben Mezrich clearly aspires to be the Jackie Collins or Danielle Steele of Silicon Valley. In fact, his own publisher put it best: 'The book isn't reportage. It's big juicy fun.' We particularly agree with the first part of that and think any readers will concur."

However reliable the people interviewed for the book, Mezrich clearly pored over legal documents, blog entries, e-mails, and other documented history of Facebook. But even here, he unearths little that would be a revelation to people who have followed Facebook over the years. His book leaves the unsatisfying—and clearly fictitious—impression that maybe it was just luck that got Zuckerberg and Facebook this far.

Douglas MacMillan is a staff writer for BusinessWeek in New York.

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