Friday, January 08, 2010

Ben Mezrich's "Accidental Billionaires": a short history of Facebook


Author: Ben Mezrich
Title: "The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal"
Publication: Doubleday, 2009, ISBN 978-0-385-52937-2, 260 pages, hardcover, 34 chapters and Epilogue.  Amazon link.

The author, himself a Harvard graduate, has ten other books to his credit, and it’s not immediately apparent how close he was to the “real story” of the founding of Facebook (aka Facemash, etc.) at Harvard.

The white cover of the book gives away its flavor: there is a champagne cordial and red accoutrements, and the back cover reads “they just wanted to meet some girls.”

The book does give a clear picture of how the site evolved from a campus “experiment” (of sorts) to a billionaire’s Silicone Valley company quickly, with personalities evolving quickly.

Before getting into the legal controversies at all, let me point out one critical fact. Mark Zuckerberg, as did others, envisioned the site as that would help people who already knew each other stay connected online. Originally, each campus was to have its own Facebook. At the same time, Myspace (by late 2004) was already seen as a vehicle for self-promotion, just as Blogger and Wordpress as well as shared hosting sites came to be viewed as vehicles for self-publication.
Even so, by mid 2006 Facebook had become a centerpoint in the discussion of “online reputation”, a development that Zuckerberg and others never intended. By way of comparison, Myspace still looks much more like a “self-broadcasting” platform to me, but all the career counselors say that Facebook has wound up in the center of how many job candidates look. Indeed, some people have not gotten jobs or internships because of “inappropriate” pictures specifically on Facebook.

Mezrick paints Zuckerberg as the geek who slid into fame in flipflops and cargo shorts, the brilliant but socially reclined kid to whom other turned in schemes to help them meet girls – it’s using your brain to get a biological reproductive advantage. First were the Winklevoss twins, rowing team athletes who had asked Mark to help them develop a “ConnectU”, then Eduardo Saverin, the business man and investor point person of sorts, Sean Parker (a partner of Shawn Fanning and Napster at one time), Peter Thiel, and Aaron Greenspan (whose book I reviewed here July 5, 2008) . The legal conflict with the Winklevoss brothers is interesting, whether it could fall within an academic honor code (at Harvard) or whether it involves real intellectual property infringement. Generally, you can’t copyright ideas, but you can protect trade secrets; this case seems to be in a gray never-never land. The book depicts the ultimate treatment of Saverun and then Parker as relentless and as a betrayal. But "It's not personal, it's just business," as Trump would have said on "The Apprentice."

Mezrick's narrative is lively enough to suggest that the story of Facebook would make an interesting indie film. If so, I'd be game to take part in making it.

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