Friday, September 24, 2010

The Accidental Billionaires - by Ben Mezrich

There is a good chance you have seen the trailer from, an advertisement for, or a story about the upcoming Facebook movie "The Social Network". That movie is based upon this book. In it, Ben Mezrich presents a story about the very beginnings of Facebook, the the social networking giant that, today, has over 500 million active users.

This is the tale of how Mark Zuckerberg, as a Harvard undergraduate, envisioned and created Facebook. It is equally a story, however, about how several others with an early affiliation to Zuckerberg and Facebook were left behind. For example, Eduardo Saverin was a good friend and founding business partner who was eventually pushed aside. Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Divya Narendra, who approached Zuckerberg to help them with a social networking site of their own, believe he stole their idea. Sean Parker, the cofounder Napster advised Mark helped Facebook get a foothold in Silicon Valley, but also was forced to leave after being arrested for drug possession.

Mr. Mezrich, himself a Harvard graduate, does a very good job of depicting college life and traditions at this Ivy League campus. He also stresses the message that the social acceptance and sex were key incentives and drivers for the college aged male developers of Facebook.

In an Author's Note, Mr. Mezrich describes this book as a dramatic, narrative account. I am paraphrasing, but he explains that he did a lot of research and portrayed the history and timeline as correctly as possible. In the case of discrepencies, however, he used his best judgement. He also imagined some details of settings or descriptions where they were missing information and similarly changed details about some of the people to protect their privacy. He employs the technique of recreated dialogue. Mark Zuckerberg refused his requests to contibute to the content of this book. This reminded me of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, (a very good book) which employed similar techniques. In that case, however, as John Berendt was writing about many of his own conversations and interactions, it seemed more credible. My biggest doubts with The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayalstem from the fact that, in this book, Mezrich is documenting implications about Mark Zuckerburg's thoughts, motives, and intentions, without ever even talking to him about it.

When I picked up the book, I thought, with a title like Accidental Billionaires, that this would be a story of nerds triumphing over the cooler social crowd. After reading it, though, I not sure what I think. One interpretation is that Mark Zuckerberg was a manipulative nerd. Another is that he had a brilliant vision for a social networking site and the necessary commitment and skill to make it such a dominant commercial product. I would not consider this a great read, but I don't regret the time I have spent on it either. Now I will definitely have the see the movie.

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