- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE FOUNDING OF FACEBOOK — A TALE OF SEX, MONEY, GENIUS AND BETRAYAL

By Ben Mezrich

Doubleday, $25, 258 pages

Reviewed by Katie Wendy

“What happens when the guy standing next to you catches a lightning bolt? Does it carry you to the stratosphere along with him? Or do you simply get charred trying to hold on?”

This is the very question best-selling author Ben Mezrich addresses in his facetiously well-written new book “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal.” Mr. Mezrich’s account, as mostly told to him by Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, is stimulating enough to keep even an unmedicated narcoleptic awake.

It is also more than the typical tale of college hijinks, hedonism and purported backstabbing. It is the story about an introverted Ivy-League outcast who hacked his way into Internet infamy, becoming one of the wealthiest and most famous Web site creators — ironically one year shy of being legally old enough to order anything much stronger than a Shirley Temple at a Silicon Valley watering hole.

Accompanying this indisputable techno-genius’ journey from his electronic-gadget-cluttered dorm room at Harvard, throughout the trials and tribulations associated with his ultimate success at inventing one of the world’s most popular cyber social sites is an amusing cast of characters, some of whom would ultimately be “defriended.”

In the fall of 2003, Harvard junior Mr. Saverin had no idea that the friendship he formed with the socially inept, pale faced, curly haired sophomore from Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., would dramatically change his life. Though the two met at an Epsilon Pi fraternity party, no one could have guessed that the polished, upper class Mr. Saverin, who had made a small fortune investing in oil futures, would add Mark Zuckerberg to the top of his “friends list.” After all, Eduardo was in the process of following in the footsteps of former politicians and Wall Street phenoms by joining Harvard’s exclusive Phoenix Club.

Mr. Zuckerberg, whose idea of high fashion consisted of wearing cargo pants, fleece hoodies and flip-flops, wasn’t interested in social status or money. So unconcerned with money was he that he had walked away from a million-dollar job offer from Microsoft in high school after creating his Synapse program for easy MP3 downloading. While that impressed Eduardo, they certainly were an unlikely pair with one thing in common: they weren’t exactly chick magnets.

Mr. Zuckerberg had the solution to the lack of attention from the opposite sex. He morphed into some goofball version of James Bond. By way of stealthy maneuvers known only to computer nerds, Mr. Zuckerberg was able to tap into the private databases of each house on campus. “It was hacking at its most fundamental — like a cryptographer working out of some cave to defeat the Nazi’s code.”

The result was called Harvard Facemash, a site comprised from the profile pictures of female students that he clandestinely retrieved. It was immediately made available for undergrads to join and rate each woman’s looks by comparing them to barnyard animals. Facemash was an instant hit. For the few hours it was up and running, students signed on in droves.

What Mr. Zuckerberg didn’t take into account was that the rapid influx of Facemash activity would cause the entire Harvard network to freeze. Ever the clever little twinkle-toes, Mr. Zuckerberg would avoid disciplinary action by explaining to administrators that his juvenile joke was really just a harmless experiment meant to detect “serious security flaws in the university’s system.”

The advantages of Mr. Zuckerberg’s prank-gone-wild were numerous. He was now recognized all over Harvard Yard, thanks to unflattering reports of his sneaky adventures as written in the Harvard Crimson. However, his spy-like activities and the site it produced caught the attention of three other students, in need of a computer whiz for the start-up of a networking site known as the Harvard Connection, later renamed ConnectU. Divya Narendra and 6-foot-5-inch identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Harvard’s “Neanderthal” Olympic rowing trainers), approached Mr. Zuckerberg to be an integral part of their Web site’s launch.

While Mr. Zuckerberg seemed to agree to play the part of “team leader,” he never followed through with Mr. Narendra or the Winklevosses. After stalling for months, he seemed to have forgotten any verbal commitment he might have made to them. Given the fact that Mr. Zuckerberg’s personality was almost automaton-like; with his beloved computer as a sort of nonhuman twin, it is unlikely that he would not have saved informal contractual agreements in some memory file in that brilliant brain of his.

Instead, he had plans of his own: to form what would become the international sensation called Facebook. According to Mr. Saverin, Mr. Zuckerberg scoffed at lawsuits that inevitably followed, based on the Olympic twins’ accusations that he had stolen their social site idea.

With the commercial potential Eduardo saw in this new project, he funded Mr. Zuckerberg’s move to California’s Silicon Valley (along with Harvard roomies Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes), playing Daddy Warbucks to Mr. Zuckerberg’s pseudo-Orphan Annie. Eduardo stayed behind in the East to find New York investors and advertisers they would need to further finance their new venture’s increasing expenses.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s rented “casa Facebook” on the West Coast — with its scuzzy decor characterized as “IKEA meets The Salvation Army” — also had a new opportunistic resident: the slick and flashy ladies’ man Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster and Plaxo, who never made a dime off his own pursuits, but surely made his way around town. Mr. Parker introduced Mr. Zuckerberg into the sleazy world of trendy nightclubs, complete with high-priced booze, fast cars and faster women. He schmoozed his way into Mr. Zuckerberg’s universe, by bringing in PayPal’s Peter Thiel.

With Mr. Thiel’s $500,000 investment, Mr. Zuckerberg removed Eduardo from his role as CFO. Mr. Parker, whose salacious partying led to an arrest, resulted in Mr. Zuckerberg “defriending” him and eventually “refriending” Eduardo, the one person who had stuck by Mr. Zuckerberg through thick and thin; the one who believed in his awkward friend’s initial dorm room disaster and championed the newly tweaked Facebook’s way to cyberspace stardom — thus turning a few college kiddies into “The Accidental Billionaires.”

Mr. Mezrich (“Bringing Down the House”) acknowledges that certain key players in this book refused to cooperate and disagree with his depiction. This is often the case with works of nonfiction. Nevertheless, those who enjoy Mr. Mezrich’s uproarious tell-all can look forward to an upcoming fictionalized film version, to be directed by Aaron Sorkin and co-produced by actor Kevin Spacey, called “The Social Network.”

Katie Wendy is a writer living in Boca Raton, Fla.

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