The Writing on the Wall

The Accidental Billionaires / The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal, by Ben Mezrich


Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaking in California

Every large firm in Silicon Valley, at least every self-respecting firm, has a legend about its origins. Every such firm has a founder, or a number of founders, whose story is transmitted through the company’s DNA, as oral tradition, and occasionally in written form as well, until the legend becomes a reality. Thus the young Bill Gates vanquished the giant IBM by founding Microsoft; Steve Jobs conquered the world with an Apple; and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin crashed the communications network at Stanford with the demanding requirements of their student project.

The founders are always young and brilliant people who suffer from a mild social awkwardness that only sharpens the spark of genius that characterizes them. Ben Mezrich, the author of “The Accidental Billionaires,” wants to do for Facebook what others did earlier for other large firms: to turn the story of their founding into a legend. In this case, however, there’s a difference: The legend of Facebook is based on scheming and perhaps even theft.

There is no question Facebook is a global phenomenon. With 400 million users, ‏(including 2.6 million in Israel‏), it is the greatest threat to Google’s domination of the Internet. The fact that it is headed by Mark Zuckerberg, who only just turned 26, makes it particularly interesting and deserving of a work that researches its origin. There is only one problem: Mezrich’s story is more suited to an article in a weekend supplement of a daily newspaper than to a book.

Here is that story in a paragraph: At Harvard, Zuckerberg met a student named Eduardo Saverin. Neither was successful with girls. Zuckerberg had an idea, which may have come from two other Harvard students, twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, who despite being tall and talented hunks ‏(they later rowed for the United States in the Beijing Olympic Games), couldn’t get girls either. Zuckerberg promised them that he would work on a social network the twins had set up, something that was very similar to what would become Facebook. But instead of doing so, he created his own Web site: the earliest version of Facebook. That helped him to get girls. After all, as the book says, “The thing that would drive this social network was the same thing that drove life at college − sex.” After Facebook had grown, Zuckerberg’s true face was exposed: He dumped Saverin, was unwilling to acknowledge the fact that he had ‏(or hadn’t‏) stolen the idea from the Winklevoss twins, and became the unquestioned ruler of Facebook on the way to becoming a billionaire.

The question of how one writes a book of over 250 pages from one such paragraph was not the only challenge faced by Mezrich (the bestselling author of the 2002 book “Bringing Down the House”). The more complicated problem is that Zuckerberg refused to cooperate with him. In truth, they didn’t exchange a word. This is reflected in the fact that much of the testimony about what happened during the early days of Facebook comes from Saverin’s stories, and even Saverin stopped cooperating with Mezrich after Zuckerberg threw a few million dollars his way. Also missing are the roles played by several others who worked on the site at its inception, after they were ordered not to cooperate with the writer.

The result is a work that combines fact and fiction in a manner that is sometimes absurd. Mezrich declares at the outset that the book is a dramatic description and admits that “There are a number of different − and often contentious − opinions about some of the events that took place ... I have tried to keep the chronology as close to exact as possible. In some instances, details of settings and descriptions have been changed or imagined.” After this declaration he scatters sentences like the following throughout the book: “At some point that night, or maybe even the next day, Mark Zuckerberg likely received a phone call.”

No way of knowing

Likely. Maybe it was an e-mail. Maybe he didn’t receive a phone call at all. But he might have. There’s no way of knowing. Another sentence describes Zuckerberg leaving a club with a model, but maybe not. Maybe he just went to the bathroom. Maybe he went to give her a lesson on HTML. There’s simply no way of knowing.

A more serious problem is that the figure of Zuckerberg that emerges from the book is enigmatic and for the most part hollow. Mezrich portrays him as a genius, but there is no clear evidence that this is the case. Because Zuckerberg didn’t speak to Mezrich, he is never presented in the book alone, but always in the company of people whom Mezrich quotes. It’s impossible to know what Zuckerberg is thinking ‏(unless it is the interpretation of someone observing him‏), it’s impossible to know what makes him tick or what he may think of everyone making serious accusations against him. The story is one-sided. The readers know Saverin is angry at Zuckerberg, but they don’t know what Zuckerberg thinks about this or whether he considers it justified.

Mezrich hints that Zuckerberg set a trap for one of the company’s partners ‏(Sean Parker‏) at a later stage, by organizing a party at which cocaine was used, in order to expel him from the firm, but that’s all there is here − a hint.

Additional problems, in parts of the book, include lukewarm writing, loaded with hormones and youthful horniness. That may be what drove the people behind the social networking site initially, but reading about it is not particularly convincing or attractive. If that is the background to the founding of Facebook, it’s a boring and banal one.

Finally, there is the issue of the book’s name. It is by no means clear what is accidental about Zuckerberg’s billionaire status. Although nobody may have expected Facebook to turn into such an empire, was it really an accident? The social network that Zuckerberg founded ‏(or stole‏) meets a genuine need for many people by providing social support as well as a way of wasting a lot of time. If anything, the book succeeds in convincing readers that there is nothing accidental about the founder’s success. This is a talented young man who, in spite of an absence of social graces, knew what he wanted and behaved in a cold and businesslike manner even with those close to him, in order to vault to the top. Or not. There’s no way of knowing.

Dr. Yuval Dror teaches in the Science, Technology and Society Program at Bar-Ilan University.