07.16.09

Accidental Billionaires

The idea for Facebook made Mark Zuckerberg rich for life, but a new book by Ben Mezrich argues he did it the old-fashioned way—he stole it.

I first met Facebook co-creator Eduardo Saverin the fall of my first year of college at Harvard. He cut a Gatsby-ish figure. His penchant for formalwear helped, but it had more to do with him pulling a party together and then retreating from it. I liked him because he let me into the social club he belonged to when the most common sight for a new freshman tended to be a closing door.

Why did Saverin and Zuckerberg start Facebook? For the same reason anyone does anything in this book—to get laid.

For that, Saverin seemed like a good guy, so I did what you did then in college: I friended him on Facebook. He accepted. I didn’t know it at the time, but it turns out Saverin was being rejected by his other Facebook friends at the same time.

There was whispering in the fall of 2005 that was loud enough even for a clueless freshman to pick up.

“That's the Facebook guy,” someone would say.

“No, it’s not. Didn't they all just leave school and move out to California?”

“Yeah, but he stayed.”

“Oh. Weird.”

Here’s where Ben Mezrich, author of 2002’s bestseller Bringing Down the House, steps in. With his new book, Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal, he attempts to explain why one Facebook guy was hovering around the edges of parties in Cambridge, rather than living it up at Casa Facebook in Palo Alto and building the most exciting company to come out of a dorm room in a long time. The book is an extension of his now-trademarked brand—a combination of youth, money, prestige, and risk all set to a peppy soundtrack. It's his second successful Hollywood vehicle (the book comes complete with press clippings describing its progress toward becoming a movie). Accidental Billionaires, as bloggers and early reviewers have suggested, is also another round of the Boston author's game of hide-and-go-seek with truth.

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Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook. By Ben Mezrich. 272 pages. Doubleday. $25. ()

At its bottom though, the story is about one kid feeling betrayed by another and trying to reclaim the attention he feels he deserves.

Mark Zuckerberg may be Facebook’s best-known creator, but Eduardo Saverin was an integral player from the start. He was the first person Zuckerberg talked to about the idea. He was there when the site launched. He gave Zuckerberg and a few others the seed money to start Facebook: $18,000 the first summer the Web site’s original employees set to work in California. Then, he slowly moved out of the picture. This was partly, it seems, due to his own desire to finish school and his hesitancy to move out to Palo Alto. It also seems partly plain-old poor decision-making. As Facebook picked up steam, Saverin wasn’t consulted. His advice was ignored. Ultimately, he saw his stake in the company (he originally boasted more than one-third ownership) watered down to nothing. Of course, as these things go, a lawsuit and countersuit followed. Last summer, according to Luke O’Brien, who has written extensively about the company, the two sides reached an agreement. The terms haven’t been disclosed.

It must have stung, and the fact that this book even exists suggests how much. It’s clear Saverin was a major source for the book, and his own sense of betrayal becomes its central device. In Mezrich’s telling, Zuckerberg turned his back on everyone in favor of growing Facebook into the juggernaut it is today. Mezrich’s Zuckerberg is inscrutable—a kind of machine, only at home among his computers, who is at his most expressive when summoning the will to describe things as “interesting.”

“Sometimes,” Mezrich tells us, talking to Mark “was like talking to a computer.” (Zuckerberg wouldn’t talk to Mezrich for the book, which drains significant credibility from Mezrich’s cyborg-cum-chief executive portrayal.)

Back to Saverin, who Mezrich tells us “hadn't gotten into this for the fame. He didn't really care if people knew he had been in that dorm room, that he owned more than 30 percent of the company….He only cared that…people loved the site, and that it was turning into one of the biggest businesses in Internet history.”

Except, of course, this isn’t true. Saverin cared very much. So much that he sat down with Mezrich and made his case—much of the book is told from Saverin’s point of view. How much Saverin told the author is unclear, and Mezrich encourages this ambiguity, though he admits in his author note that without Saverin “this story could not be written.” It’s likely that at some point Saverin’s cooperation lagged—perhaps when he reconciled with Facebook last summer—because some of the book’s crucial scenes involving him lose their flavor of certitude and become things that likely happened; moves that were probably made.

That he’s decided to tell his story in such a public way seems appropriate for a founding member of the Facebook generation. Facebook has been one of the primary tools that have helped the world under 30 turn private moments into everlasting public ones. Saverin may already regret his decision to make this information public, much like a misbegotten late-night message left on the Facebook wall of the cute girl down the hall. Did he really want his ex-girlfriend called “crazy” over and over again in print? Do we really need to know that Saverin found himself between the “long, bare legs” of a “tall, slender Asian girl” in a bathroom stall as an apparent reward for his new Facebook fame? Of course, what we need to know has never been the point of Facebook, and isn’t the point here—just the overwhelming desire to reveal and display.

It’s for better-informed others to examine the claims Mezrich makes about corporate dealings in Silicon Valley. His take on turn-of-the-century Harvard seems cribbed from Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. Everywhere we turn, there are loamy loins and torrents of testosterone. Why did Saverin and Zuckerberg start Facebook? For the same reason anyone does anything in this book: to get laid. Never mind that a recent campus survey found that more than half the Class of 2009 graduated having had zero or one sexual partner and that less than a third of seniors said they had sex with more than two students. The soul of undergraduate life is not located in Saverin’s exclusive social club, its hot center is not the bedrooms on the club’s third floor, as Mezrich claims, but up the street, at the café which serves the undergraduate library. What Mezrich misses in his heavy-breathing portrait of today’s Harvard elite is that the school is much more Red Bull and Adderall than vodka and soda.

For me, what's troubling isn’t Mezrich's penchant for fabulism—he's written a 285-word forward ensuring his right to be fast and loose with facts. As his publisher has said, “This book isn’t reportage. It’s big juicy fun.” More disturbing is Mezrich’s outright laziness when it comes to the facts he chooses to deploy.

Mezrich globs on information—dates, locations, proper names—in order to give Accidental Billionaires a sheen of authenticity. Why else tell us the exact street address of the social club Saverin frequented? But if you're going to do that, you might as well get it right. (Don't want those young readers in the Class of 2013 getting lost this fall.) Mezrich botches the name of another social club. He bungles the name of a Harvard Square restaurant. He changes the gender of the author of one of the few secondary sources he cites. The writer's name is Bari, not Barry. Of course, why sweat the small stuff when Aaron Sorkin is already working on the screenplay?

These errors may be worse than whatever composite characters or fabricated scenes Mezrich creates because he can make no claim to any kind of fidelity to higher narrative truth or even lowly fun. Mezrich likes to clear his throat before potential concoctions with phrases like, "we can imagine," "we can picture," "we can surmise." Some things take no imagination at all, as the tech whiz kids who he portrays might have told him. All it takes is a little Googling.

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Samuel P. Jacobs has written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.