It was probably the third cocktail that did the trick,” starts Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires. That, and the pair of shapely legs in golden stilettos on its cover, and you would be forgiven for assuming it is the latest lad-lit title to hit the stores. A male Bridget Jones perhaps, getting drunk and embarrassing himself.
But this is the story of Facebook, a non-fiction account of how the Internet phenomenon started— late one evening, by a Harvard geek who was drunk and trying to land a girlfriend.
Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin meet as freshmen in a Harvard Jewish mixer. Zuckerberg is the typical pasty geek, more comfortable with computer algorithms than social soirees. Saverin had made $300,000 (around Rs1.44 crore now) trading oil futures prior to joining Harvard. Together they obsess about finding girls—hot girls; hot Asian girls. At least Saverin does, and the author assumes Zuckerberg must have too. Why else would he hack into Harvard’s computer systems, download photographs of all the girls and write a program that allows fellow students to vote these girls as “Hot or Not”?
Site specifics: The book is written like a thriller.
In 30 minutes, the site, Facemash, gets 400 visitors and 22,000 votes. The Harvard newspaper reports it the next day and some campus women’s groups send letters of protest. Zuckerberg escapes expulsion from college, but the idea that would eventually become Facebook is born.
At the same time, campus jocks and identical twins, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, are looking for a programmer to help them with the Harvard Connection, a website that would help Harvard students socialize, connect and date. When Zuckerberg’s Facemash story hits the campus paper, they decide he is the man for the job. They meet and
Zuckerberg agrees to write the code for this “interesting idea”. Three months later, Zuckerberg launches Thefacebook.com, a site that allows Harvard students to search for people in the school, to look up what courses they are taking and check out friends’ friends. The website is funded by Saverin, who invests $1,000 of his oil hedging money. They divvy up the share— 70% to Zuckerberg whose idea it is and who creates it, and 30% to Saverin, and the twins are nowhere in the picture.
Mezrich suggests that the origin of Facebook was only about sex. Then he reiterates it, just in case you missed the first dozen references. And since this is non-fiction written in a fictional style, he even throws in imaginary sex scenes whenever the story veers towards the technical process of making a social network website or later, the financial and business complexity involved in running one.
Zuckerberg moves west to Silicon Valley to a world of fast cars, venture capitalists, koala meat and Victoria’s Secret models. Saverin stays back on the East Coast and eventually finds himself diluted of his share in the company and denuded of his status as co-founder of Facebook. He joins the Winklevoss twins as people who “were screwed” and are suing Zuckerberg.
The Accidental Billionaires is written like a thriller—with re-created dialogues, descriptions and imaginary situations. Facebook and Zuckerberg did not meet the author and the book is worse off for this. What Mezrich didn’t know, he imagined.
In the post-James Frey world, this means there is a near 300-word “Author’s Note” at the beginning of the book explaining the fictitiousness. And that stays with you through the 250 pages that follow—that while Facebook is Zuckerberg’s baby, The Accidental Billionaires is the story of Saverin.