Sunday, 23 August 2009

“The Accidental Billionaires”, by Ben Mezrich (William Heinemann/Random House)

Mezrich-AccidentalBillionaires

They just wanted to meet girls…

In Accidental Billionaires, Mezrich (author of Bringing Down the House) tells us the story of Facebook – from its first steps all the way to world domination. It is the story of two guys at Harvard trying to improve their social standing, to meet girls – one, Eduardo Saverin, through “punching” a Final Club; the other, Mark Zuckerberg, by making a killer app.

From the first Harvard-based website Zuckerberg wrote – “Facemash”, a late-night reaction to a girl dumping him – to his limited work on a soon-to-be rival website, “HarvardConnection”, and on to Facebook’s incredible rise in the internet world, the story takes us through every step of Zuckerberg and Saverin’s journey – the highs, the lows, the betrayals and the attacks. Saverin was the businessman Zuckerberg turned to for help getting the site launched; arguably his best friend at Harvard. The story is also a refutation, in this age, of Saverin’s initial belief that “You didn’t get popular by writing computer code. A computer program couldn’t get you laid”. His partnership with Zuckerberg would change both of their lives forever, and make them far more popular and famous than they could have imagined.

Facemash had the unfortunate effect of crashing the university servers as 80% of Harvard students voted on who they believed was the hottest girl on campus (something that didn’t exactly endear its creator to the administration or feminists). Narrowly avoiding expulsion, Zuckerberg was approached by Divya Narendra and identical rowing twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss to help them with their own networking site (meant to make hooking up more time efficient). Zuckerberg agreed, but never really did any work for them, instead focusing on his own site, “thefacebook.com”. The Winklevosses and Divya saw thefacebook as a theft of their idea, and they eventually filed a lawsuit against Zuckerberg, obviously not succeeding in their aim of shutting Facebook down, which instead spread like wildfire through campuses across America, and then beyond.

To Mark, “it’s likely that the cool thing [about Facebook] was the math that was going to go into it – the computer science of the task, the code at the heart of the Web-site idea.” Zuckerberg comes across as a strange character – a true hacker-geek, somewhat disinterested in money, more interested in the world online than out in the real world. His character develops and changes as thefacebook grows – at times he comes across as cold, even ruthless when countering accusations of plagiarism in the site; other times he appears disconnected from the world, or mischievous. His is clearly a personality that is difficult to nail down or decipher – bizarre for the person who has created the ultimate online socialising tool. Equally ironic, and tragic, is the fact that, while their creation brought hundreds of thousands of people closer, their rapid and unprecedented success ultimately tore their friendship apart as a simple disagreement spiraled out of control into out-and-out war.

This narrative account (which the author admits to taking a pinch of authorial license to create a proper chronological flow) was drawn from hundreds of interviews, emails and conversations with some of those involved – most remain anonymous, though Eduardo Saverin and Tyler Winklevoss seem to have been considerable sources, while Zuckerberg declined to be interviewed for the book. The absence of Zuckerberg’s input is noticeable, and there’s no doubt that the book would have benefited from his perspective – especially with regards to the lawsuits, personal relationships, and those times when he was away from his colleagues and friends. Despite the bad blood between the Facebook founders, Saverin’s portrayal of Zuckerberg remains largely positive or neutral throughout the book – which is a good testament to Saverin’s character.

As well as the story of Facebook, Accidental Billionaires gives the reader an interesting window into Ivy League campus life and also the world of Harvard’s Final Clubs – the exclusive fraternities (with names like Phoenix and Porcellian), membership to which can change anyone’s life, both at college and after.

Mezrich shows how, in many ways, Facebook is just an online distillation of what defines college life: sex. Regardless of your social standing, the author posits, there is nothing that can’t be linked with this drive. “Even at Harvard, the most exclusive school in the world, it was all really about sex. Getting it, or not getting it.” Thefacebook would have an “undercurrent of sex”, while not being as explicit about it as other, existing networking sites (e.g. Match.com). The website’s “Looking For”, “Relationship Status” and “Interested Features” were basically “the résumé items that were at the heart of [the] college experience”.

Overall, Accidental Billionaires is a very well written, engaging book. Mezrich’s style is very accessible, conversational and manages to make the story of a website actually quite gripping. The book is a very fast read, Mezrich’s writing just pulls you along, with frequently funny and illuminating passages and anecdotes.

Mezrich has managed to write a book as addictively readable as its subject matter is usable. Accidental Billionaires is easily one of the most intriguing and enjoyable non-fiction books of the summer.

Highly recommended to all.

Also try: Scott Turow, One L (1997); Philip Delves-Broughton, What They Teach At Harvard Business School (2007); Tom Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons (2005); John Battelle, The Search (2008)

By the Same Author: Bringing Down the House, Ugly Americans, Busting Vegas, Rigged (and others)

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