Facebook tell-all shines harsh light on friendship

Book review: Ben Mezrich's 'The Accidental Billionaires: The founding of Facebook; a tale of sex, money, genius, and betrayal'

The moral I took away from Ben Mezrich's new book about social network site Facebook, The Accidental Billionaires, is that it's pretty darn hard these days to figure out who your real friends are. That's only fitting since Facebook, along with MySpace and other social networks, has popularized the concept of "friending" people you don't always know so well.

The moral I took away from Ben Mezrich's new book about social network site Facebook, The Accidental Billionaires, is that it's pretty darn hard these days to figure out who your real friends are. That's only fitting since Facebook, along with MySpace and other social networks, has popularized the concept of "friending" people you don't always know so well.

Mezrich's story documents the rise of Facebook from a geeky dorm room project at Harvard University in 2004 inspired by hard-to-penetrate social clubs to its current state as a gathering place for a couple hundred million people and a business that Facebook board member Marc Andreessen recently said could generate $1 billion in revenue this year if it pushed harder on selling ads.

The story is told largely via Eduardo Saverin, who befriended Mark Zuckerberg during their days at Harvard in 2003 and helped the tech brainiac behind Facebook (then called "thefacebook") get the Web site off the ground in 2004. Saverin handled the business side and provided initial funding. By the end of the book, Saverin has been pushed out of the company and is suing Zuckerberg.

In large part, the falling out between Zuckerberg and Saverin is blamed on Napster and Plaxo co-founder and larger-than-life character Sean Parker, who wows Zuckerberg in Silicon Valley and helps hook him up with venture funding. Parker too, though, is on the outs with Zuckerberg by the end of the book, after getting arrested at a party.

The story also includes a pair of hunky identical twin rowers at Harvard. They're never described as Zuckerberg's friends, but they did try to get him to work with them on a dating-oriented social network project while at Harvard. They argue Zuckerberg agreed to do so and then stalled their project so he could get thefacebook off the ground. They ended up taking legal action against him.  

Unfortunately for Mezrich, Zuckerberg didn't agree to be interviewed for the book. To compensate, Mezrich takes plenty of liberties in conveying the rest of the story, clearly stating at the outset of the book that he "re-created the scenes " based on his multiple interviews with direct and indirect witnesses. He uses his imagination to describe wild party scenes and sexual encounters in bathroom stalls that back up the book's subtitle ("The founding of Facebook: A tale of sex, money, genius and betrayal").

Mezrich goes light on technology details in the book, though does dip into some of the server issues related to supporting Facebook and re-imagines an all-night hackfest by a Bill Gates-worshipping Zuckerberg that gets him in hot water at Harvard before thefacebook concept even emerges.

Other memorable sections of the book include a tense meeting involving ex-Harvard President Larry Summers (described as the first to have a computer – a Dell – in his office) and a behind-the-scenes look at Harvard's private clubs.

The book does get repetitive (yes, we get that Zuckerberg is a geek and have his catchphrase "That could be interesting" pounded into our heads). And I cringed at overwrought descriptions of Facebook adversaries Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss rowing on the Charles River (as an ex-rower, I'm hypersensitive to authors' inability to write about the sport without getting flowery).

Having said that, I found the 260-or-so page book a quick read, consuming it over the weekend. And this despite the fact that I can't claim to be among the most aggressive of Facebook users.  Mezrich had an earlier book – "Bringing Down the House," about Massachusetts Institute of Technology students/card counters who won big in Vegas -- converted into the Kevin Spacey movie called "21." He already has a deal in place, also involving Spacey, to get this book made into a movie, probably for release in 2011 as "The Social Network." I do question whether it's really going to fly as a movie though, especially in light of how fast the whole world of social networking is changing. There could be far more interesting stories to tell by then.

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