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'Accidental Billionaires' is deliberately careful

A scandalous tell-all about Facebook's early days? Alas, Ben Mezrich's tale isn't so titillating. That's either because of the threat of lawsuits, or Mark Zuckerberg isn't exactly tabloid-caliber to begin with.

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
7 min read

This review contains some spoilers about the plot of "The Accidental Billionaires," but most of them are common knowledge to people familiar with Facebook's history.


There's a reason why there aren't more lurid tell-all books about Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial elite: Generally, their lives are kind of a yawn.

Author Ben Mezrich attempts to prove that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is an exception to the rule in "The Accidental Billionaires," a testosterone-flavored tome of beach reading that hits stores on July 14. CNET News obtained an advance copy.

Telling the tale of Facebook's origins from late-night Harvard dorm room project to Silicon Valley start-up hotshot, "Accidental Billionaires" is neither a hard-hitting analysis nor a shocking expose of Facebook's origins. It also, um, isn't great literature. ("The thing that would drive this social network was the same thing that drove life at college--sex. Even at Harvard, the most exclusive school in the world, it was all really about sex. Getting it, or not getting it.")

And for digital-media enthusiasts who have been following Facebook's drama over the years--from the lawsuit on behalf of rival social network ConnectU, to the company's early days courting investors in Silicon Valley--there isn't a whole lot that will be particularly surprising. Most of the scandal in "Accidental Billionaires" was already in print, either thanks to court documents or investigative reports like the one on behalf of the now-defunct Harvard alumni magazine "02138."

But none of that really matters: "The Accidental Billionaires" is one of those books that exists to be turned into a movie. And the film adaptation of this one has been in development since before Doubleday was willing to confirm itself as the book's publisher. Mezrich's previous book, "Bringing Down The House," a similar tale of brilliance and treachery among students at an elite university, was turned into the hit movie "21." For the as-yet-untitled adaptation of "The Accidental Billionaires," "Fight Club" director David Fincher is reportedly on board to direct, and "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin has been charged with the screenplay. Sorkin is known for deft dialogue, which is good: "Billionaires" contains very little.

That's because Mezrich, himself a Harvard alumnus, was working mostly with second-hand sources: Zuckerberg and the rest of Facebook did not sanction or cooperate with the production of the book.

This is most obvious when you pick up on the fact that the narrative almost never depicts Zuckerberg alone, and is told primarily from the perspectives of three people who dealt with him during Facebook's early days--schoolmate and co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and eventual Facebook exec Sean Parker, and ConnectU co-founder Tyler Winklevoss. Scenes relying heavily on Zuckerberg's own actions tend to be bolstered by actual e-mails or blog posts written by the young CEO. Whenever Zuckerberg is actually doing something lascivious, be it hooking up with a girl or hacking into Harvard servers, it's laced with the language of disclaimers and speculation. ("Eduardo was pretty sure he'd just watched Mark Zuckerberg go home with a Victoria's Secret model.")

Zuckerberg: Evil nerd or dreamy visionary?
Is it at least entertaining? That depends on your literary proclivities--and your penchant for scandal. It's a colorful book, but those who were hoping that Zuckerberg would come across as an evil, conniving nerd will be a tad disappointed. He's portrayed as a dreamy visionary who devolves into a my-way-or-the-highway megalomaniac, at least from the perspectives of Saverin, Parker, and Winklevoss. But that megalomania is given the kid-glove treatment, likely because Mezrich was dealing with so much second-hand information, and the author even states in one chapter told from Saverin's perspective that "Mark didn't have the capacity, or the interest, to hate anyone."

It's fluffy "lad lit," so character depth isn't particularly front-and-center. The Winklevoss twins, who were in talks to employ Zuckerberg as a programmer and then alleged that he stole their business plan and code when he developed Facebook on his own, are rarely depicted in a setting that doesn't involve training for crew (remember, the two eventually went to the Olympics last year) or stuffing their faces in the dining hall after practice. Rowing is depicted with more than a slight hint of eroticism, with the adjective "phallic" applied to the Winklevosses' two-man boat, and Tyler Winklevoss described at the end of a race as "body sagging as he leaned forward, exhausted, his callused hands loosening against the now impotent oars." Oh, my.

And much ado is made of Sean Parker's bad-boy reputation while Mezrich's narrative simultaneously refutes it (he's portrayed as a skinny high school dropout with severe food allergies who happens to wind up at the wrong parties on a regular basis), as when the book implies that his arrest for cocaine possession was not only "a misunderstanding," as Parker has claimed, but goes through Parker's thought process as he considers that Zuckerberg may have set the whole thing up in order to oust him from his post as president of Facebook. Parker has declined to comment on whether he was one of Mezrich's sources for the book, but its treatment of him is rather exonerative. If Parker wasn't a source, someone very close to him was.

Beyond that, few players in Facebook's history have much of a role in the book. Early employees like Chris Hughes (who went on to be the Obama campaign's digital guru), Dustin Moskowitz, and Andrew McCollum make brief appearances, as does investor Peter Thiel. Aaron Greenspan, a Harvard alum who founded another social-networking project around the same time and has had legal issues with Zuckerberg over the rights to the use of the word "facebook," is given a few mentions. There's also a cameo by Bill Gates, who really did speak at Harvard in February 2004--that wasn't just a plot device.

Early rumors about "The Accidental Billionaires" suggested that Mezrich was particularly liberal with fact-checking, and while it looks like some of this was constrained by, you know, laws, there are a few obvious inaccuracies. A scene set in 2004 has Sean Parker griping to himself about Valleywag, the Silicon Valley gossip blog that didn't exist until 2006. And while Zuckerberg's longtime girlfriend, Priscilla Chan, is alluded to a few times, it's implied (though not explicitly stated) that she didn't start dating Zuckerberg until Facebook had made him an on-campus celebrity; Facebook insiders say the two were already dating well before Zuckerberg founded Facebook.

In his introduction, Mezrich acknowledges that he's dealing with "a number of different--and often contentious--opinions about some of the events that took place." And it's clear he was careful with the handling of those situations, much in the way that a celebrity gossip magazine can report on the latest reports of Brangelina's demise without facing the Hollywood couple's legal team. On the bright side, that means the book probably isn't as factually dubious as it could have been, but it also means that Zuckerberg and Saverin aren't the world's most compelling protagonists. There's a reason there aren't more bestsellers about computer geeks.

"A James Bond villain"
If any legal action does stem from "The Accidental Billionaires," I'm guessing it won't come from Zuckerberg. There are few characters portrayed with legitimate, all-out negativity, but one of them is Sequoia Capital investor Michael Moritz, against whom Sean Parker is depicted as having a personal vendetta. Sequoia had invested in Parker's previous company, Plaxo, from which Parker departed under unfavorable terms; several chapters told from Parker's perspective describe Moritz as "a James Bond villain" who pushed Parker out of Plaxo's executive ranks after (it's implied) hiring a private investigator to stalk him and hunt down dirt.

In Mezrich's narrative, Parker imagines Moritz "stewing in his secluded lair, shouting at his peons in that bizarre, villainous Welsh accent," and allegedly sets up Zuckerberg's now-infamous Sequoia pitch meeting (in which Zuckerberg showed up late wearing pajamas) specifically to botch any chance that the venture firm would have to invest in Facebook.

Whether that's true or not, one can imagine Sequoia may not be too thrilled.

But as for Facebook? Undoubtedly, the social network has lawyers at the ready, but going after "Accidental Billionaires" would probably be a waste of time: Nothing in this book could come close to ruining Mark Zuckerberg, a young man who has already made more than a name for himself in Silicon Valley. Maybe we've all grown so immune to the presence of rampant celebrity gossip and speculation that it simply isn't that easy to drop a real character bomb. Or maybe it's just that, no matter how hard an author may try, the lives of Silicon Valley's glitterati simply aren't as salacious as those of Hollywood or D.C.

Eduardo Saverin, whom Mezrich thanks in his introduction for being crucial to the development of the book, has been on shaky terms with Facebook for years, and some of the conflict between Saverin and Zuckerberg that "Accidental Billionaires" details can be confirmed through courtroom documents. But Facebook, as Mezrich notes in his epilogue, now has returned Saverin to the official list of company co-founders on its Web site, and Saverin has also invested in at least one start-up based on the Facebook developer platform.

"Some of the writing about Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook is more accurate than others," a statement released by Facebook about the book read. "This book appears to fall in the 'others' category. We think future efforts will tell a better and more accurate story."

That said, it probably won't have hilariously over-the-top narrative gems like this one: "What happens when the guy next to you catches a lightning bolt? Does it carry you up to the stratosphere along with him? Or do you simply get charred trying to hold on?"

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen...the soaring heights of Silicon Valley drama.