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Zuckerberg, who grew up in the New York suburb of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., in a hilltop house where his father still runs a first-floor dental practice, was a programming prodigy. He began writing code at 10 on an Atari computer his dad bought, devising games and having friends do the graphics. As a senior at Phillips Exeter Academy, he and a friend created a web tool called Synapse that built personalized music playlists by automatically determining listener’s preferences. Microsoft reportedly offered the pair nearly $1 million, but they turned it down.

Exactly what happened after he got to Harvard in 2003 depends on who’s doing the recounting. Soon after he arrived, Zuckerberg created a site called Coursematch that allowed students to choose classes by showing what their classmates were doing. Then, in the fall of his sophomore year, he hacked into the online “facebooks” of Harvard’s residential halls to create Fashmash.

“The Kirkland facebook is open on my computer desktop and some of these people have pretty horrendous facebook pics. I almost want to put some of these faces next to pictures of farm animals and have people vote on which is more attractive,” Zuckerberg wrote at the time, in his online journal.

The university’s Administrative Board called him in for a hearing, but let him remain at the school. Zuckerberg told the Harvard Crimson student newspaper that criticism of the site had made him rethink its viability.

“Issues about violating people’s privacy don’t seem to be surmountable,” he said in an e-mail to the Crimson. “I’m not willing to risk insulting anyone.”

In early 2004, former classmates say, the normally sociable Zuckerberg all but vanished for a week, emerging from his room to urge his friends to join a new creation called The Facebook.

Stephanie Camaglia Reznick, then a freshman at Harvard who was the 92nd to sign up, says Zuckerberg fast gained notoriety. When she arrived for the first day of a discussion group for an introductory psychology class, eyebrows went up when Zuckerberg’s turn came to introduce himself.

“Someone said, ‘Great, you’re the Facebook guy!’ And he was so embarrassed,” says Reznick, now a medical student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “He really played it down.”

Classmate James Oliver recalls a conversation in the dorm soon after, when Zuckerberg _ he and others still refer to him as “Zuck” _ explained that he had worked to launch Facebook quickly to show up a Harvard administrator who had said a university-wide online directory would take two years to create. By the end of the semester, Facebook had nearly 160,000 users.

Oliver, who now lives in Los Angeles, calls Zuckerberg the smartest person he met at Harvard.

“People were making jokes in freshman and sophomore years that all the humanities majors were going to ask to be Zuck’s gardeners when he became rich and famous,” he said.

But three fellow Harvard students quickly took issue with Zuckerberg’s creation. Identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and friend Divya Narendra said they had hired Zuckerberg to write computer code for their own social networking site in November 2003, and that he had stolen their idea.

“I worked with the expectation that I would be included in the overall development of the project but found that I was being subjected to demands on my time without truly being made a part of the development team,” Zuckerberg wrote Cameron Winklevoss in a February 2004 e-mail at the time, later quoted in a lawsuit filed by the trio.

The dispute over Facebook’s beginnings _ which the company settled by paying the trio $65 million _ is far from unique. Inventors have been fighting to take credit for technology’s biggest ideas since at least the telephone, says Paul Saffo, a longtime Silicon Valley forecaster.

“Being first is heavily overrated in the technology space because all really good ideas end up being collaborative,” says Saffo, of the San Francisco analysis firm Discern. “Ideas are cheap. It’s the execution that matters. And if you look at where Facebook is now compared to where it started, it’s a very difficult comparison. … I wouldn’t give a whole lot of credence to people who are showing up and claiming credit.”

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