A Harvard homecoming for Facebook tell-all

Several days after the debut of "The Accidental Billionaires," author Ben Mezrich holds an event in the book's setting and talks to CNET News about casting for the film adaptation.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
8 min read

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Ben Mezrich's new book "The Accidental Billionaires," a dramatic and contested account of the early days of social network Facebook, is on the fast track to Hollywood.

But Thursday night's inaugural public event for the book, which first hit stores on Tuesday, was a humble affair well suited to this relatively quiet university town. Held in the Brattle Theatre, a basement-level space in a 120-year-old brick building just off Harvard Square, Mezrich was interviewed on a small stage by Scott Stossel, managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly, his onetime roommate, and a fellow Harvard alumnus.

"It's kind of cool, because the book is about two geeky, gawky kids who couldn't meet girls at Harvard, and we were two geeky, gawky kids who couldn't meet girls at Harvard," Mezrich joked to the audience. But the two writers have a crucial difference: Mezrich, whose last book "Bringing Down The House" was adapted into the movie "21," is inspired more by Hollywood thrillers than by the tactics of investigative journalism. Stossel's brethren in the media world, meanwhile, have been some of Mezrich's harshest critics.

"I believe clearly (that) what I do is nonfiction," Mezrich asserted onstage. "I interview sources, I get thousands of pages of court documents, I learn everything about the scene I'm going to write...it infuriates certain types of old-school journalists. They don't understand my style. My readers understand my style."

Criticism of Mezrich runs the gamut from disapproval over his penchant for scandal to outright accusations of fabricating the truth. "I think they're angry people," Mezrich said of his critics on Thursday. "Of course the industry's tough right now."

If you ask him, he says he's never had to "admit" to the use of composite characters and reconstructed dialogue and scenes because he's always disclosed them in the forewords of his books. "Accidental Billionaires" was under particular scrutiny long before its publication, largely because it's a book about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg told from the perspective of the people who have some of the most public beef with him.

"I knew Eduardo had an axe to grind," he says of Eduardo Saverin, the Facebook co-founder who had a legal falling-out with Zuckerberg and then served as one of the primary sources for "Accidental Billionaires" (and the only one whom Mezrich will confirm as a source). "It was easy to see right away that Eduardo was very angry with Mark, but I was fascinated."

One thing's for sure: it's all perfect fodder for the film industry. The book was optioned into a movie before Mezrich had written any more than a proposal, and he says he was literally handing chapters to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin as they were completed.

"I won't write a book that I don't think has movie potential," Mezrich said on Thursday evening. "If a book can't be a movie, it's very hard to make a living out of it."

Now, with director David Fincher ("Fight Club") reportedly at the helm, and production slated to begin later this year, it's all about the movie, which has the working title of "The Social Network." Mezrich says he believes the movie will be shot on location in Boston--tax laws passed recently in Massachusetts make it very friendly to filmmakers--but said he's not sure if Harvard will consent to let the film crew on campus. The 2007 Denzel Washington film "The Great Debaters" was the first movie in nearly two decades for which Harvard permitted on-campus filming; the previous one, 1979's "A Small Circle of Friends," was kicked off in mid-filming because it caused a commotion.

Walking around Harvard Square on Thursday, Cambridge wasn't visibly captivated by either the book or the movie. Harvard, after all, is an elite institution with countless notable alumni and dozens of movies set on its campus. And it's not clear just how much of a hit "Accidental Billionaires" has been in its first few days, since publisher Doubleday is not yet disclosing sales data. But the book briefly rocketed into Amazon's top 100, and on Friday morning "Accidental Billionaires" was hovering somewhere between 125 and 175 on the charts.

And bookstores near Harvard Square say it's been a fast local success. "It's selling well. Very well," chirped the woman who was staffing the information desk at "the Coop," the Harvard and MIT bookstore cooperative, when asked on Thursday afternoon. "There's local interest. Facebook is big, and it was two Harvard guys right here." She speculated that other local bookstores would have similar results to report.

A few blocks away, at the independent Harvard Book Store, an attendant behind the information desk stressed that "Accidental Billionaires" had only been in stores for a few days, but said "it's definitely selling." The Harvard Book Store was the host for Mezrich's event later that evening at Brattle Theatre, and the bookstore employee surmised, "I expect we'll sell a lot tonight."

Next to him, a second Harvard Book Store employee was on the phone, fielding one phone call after another from people who were interested in purchasing last-minute tickets for Mezrich's reading that night.

Things were quite different on Thursday afternoon at the Cambridge, 1 pizzeria on Church Street, a high-ceilinged, wood-paneled space that overlooks a cemetery and was playing songs by the Clash and Phoenix over its speakers. The restaurant features prominently in "Accidental Billionaires" as the restaurant where Zuckerberg originally tells Saverin about his idea for Facebook, but the staff wasn't yet aware of "Accidental Billionaires," let alone had they heard anything about movie location scouts poking their noses around.

"Of the 250 million people who use Facebook, 249 million of them know nothing of its origins. Silicon Valley is a very small, insulated community."
--Ben Mezrich, author

"Accidental Billionaires" has caused less of a splash in Silicon Valley, too, than some expected, likely because most of the scandal and gossip concerning Facebook's origins was already common knowledge to anyone who followed the course of the ConnectU v. Facebook legal battle over the site's intellectual property.

"There were definitely things that were told to me that I decided not to put in there," Mezrich told CNET News by phone on Friday, mentioning specifically the scene that depicts the events leading to Facebook executive Sean Parker's arrest for alleged cocaine possession, which Parker has called a "misunderstanding." "There were a couple things, certainly the Sean Parker scene where he's at the party...you don't really know what's going on there, and you might get sources telling you what went on there, and you've got to be careful with a scene like that."

Mezrich isn't concerned that the content of the book and movie won't be new and juicy enough for audiences. "Of the 250 million people who use Facebook, 249 million of them know nothing of its origins," he told CNET News. "Silicon Valley is a very small, insulated community."

And the real focus of "Accidental Billionaires" isn't Silicon Valley, it's the aspirational boy-genius narrative that has repeatedly captivated the author. Perhaps the most interesting part of Mezrich's onstage discussion with Stossel on Thursday night was how deep his interest in Facebook is ("I've been going on news programs and saying Facebook is the next step in human evolution," he told CNET News the next day). Mezrich speaks with passion and admiration for his protagonists because, as a self-professed "geeky, gawky kid who couldn't meet girls at Harvard," he sees their narratives as vicarious--a word he used multiple times in the event at Brattle Theatre--as the sort of dream he wished he could have lived at their age.

"If I see a young 22-year-old who has a Ferrari, I'm always wanting to hang out with him to find out why he has a Ferrari," Mezrich, who says he has wanted to be a writer since the age of 12 and used to display "hundreds" of publisher rejection letters on his wall, explained onstage at the interview.

But in his uber-meta quest to fulfill his professional dream by writing accounts of other nerdy outsiders achieving fortune and notoriety, Mezrich admits he has burned bridges--and not just with journalists who consider his tactics to be shady. While he has stayed very close with some of the subjects of his past books, he says that he is on shaky terms with others, and that contact with Eduardo Saverin was cut off a quarter of the way into the production of "Accidental Billionaires."

'"He was telling me the story, telling me the story, and then abruptly stopped telling me the story," Mezrich said, adding that it was right around when gossip blog Gawker posted leaked screenshots from his book proposal that effectively outed Saverin as one of his sources. "(Saverin and Facebook) were in the midst of a massive lawsuit, and I'm sure there were reasons he stopped talking to me...I got a letter from his lawyer (saying) that he's not talking to me anymore."

Then there's Mark Zuckerberg.

"I did not talk to Mark Zuckerberg," Mezrich told the audience at the Brattle Theatre on Thursday, reiterating the point that he makes in the introduction to "Accidental Billionaires." "I tried for a year. It was like 'Waiting for Godot,' almost talking to Mark and almost talking to Mark and in the end he was terrified of what I was going to write. He's very protective of himself, and he didn't have control of the story, and in a way I think the story is better this way."

He said that he has not heard from Zuckerberg, or from Facebook beyond its standard statements ("Every time I do a news event...they've already sent over their statement") but said very explicitly that neither Zuckerberg nor Facebook ever tried to pay him off to stop work on the book after an audience member at the Brattle Theatre reading asked if that had happened. He hasn't heard reactions from the ConnectU founders or Sean Parker, and he also told CNET News that he hasn't heard anything from Michael Moritz, the Sequoia Partners venture capitalist whom Parker, in Mezrich's narrative, likens to "a James Bond villain."

Meanwhile, he says he hasn't yet read Sorkin's screenplay or been privy to any details about casting. But with regard to the two young actors whose names have been whispered about as possible choices to play Zuckerberg, the author says he'd like to see them both cast.

"Personally, I think Michael Cera would make an awesome Mark Zuckerberg," Mezrich told CNET News on Friday, "and Shia LaBeouf would make an awesome Sean Parker."