Zuckerberg: Facebook founder, Harvard dropout...and koala-eating jet-setter?

Screenshots leaked to Gawker indicate that a tell-all about young tech billionaire has been greenlit. But enough inaccuracies in the text indicate that they might be fake.

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
5 min read

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, the youngest person ever to score a spot on Forbes magazine's annual list of billionaires, is known as a quiet, businesslike fellow.

Self-confident, definitely. Arrogant, possibly. It'd still be a stretch to imagine him partying on yachts, scheming his way into secret societies, and creating popular Web projects so that he could hook up with more girls. But according to a tipster to media gossip blog Gawker, that's what's detailed in Face Off, a forthcoming book that purports to be written by Bringing Down The House author Ben Mezrich.

"They dined with royalty, partied with rock stars at clubs in Paris, Rome, and London," a screenshot from Face Off's book proposal read. "They went from all-night parties at the Playboy Club in L.A. to eating koala on the yacht of the CEO of Sun Microsystems, somewhere outside of Monte Carlo."

Sun Microsystems chairman Scott McNealy, who was CEO of the company from 1984 until 2006, told CNET News.com in an e-mail Thursday, "Never owned a boat in my life."

That just about sums up the fanciful snippets we've seen of Face Off, a tawdry tell-all about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's early days at Harvard University. There's plenty of conflicting evidence and eyebrow-raising "fact" that makes all of this seem more than a little bit too absurd to be true.

There's also money: if Gawker's tipster is accurate, Mezrich, best known for thrillers about young gambling prodigies (Bringing Down The House was crafted into the recent movie 21) netted more than a million dollars for the deal.

But who knows if Mezrich even wrote the proposal?

Facebook representatives declined to comment on the matter. Neither Mezrich nor his publicist was immediately available for comment. A representative from William Morrow, the Harper Collins imprint that published Mezrich's most recent book, said Mezrich's next book will be published by the Random House-owned Doubleday but couldn't provide further detail. A Doubleday representative did not return calls.

Here's a run-down. The book proposal details a plot that reads quite a bit like Revenge of the Nerds meets The Skulls: Zuckerberg and early Facebook employee Eduardo Saverin, allegedly the chief source for the book, were two nerds who wanted to climb the ivy-covered social ladder at Harvard by earning spots in the Phoenix, one of its exclusive fraternitylike "final clubs." That'd earn them gobs of street cred, or the preppy, Harvard Square variety thereof, and more importantly, score them women.

The rest of the plot goes equally dramatically: They created Facebook, it spread like wildfire, the Valley caught note, and Facebook's founders (only Zuckerberg and Saverin are named in the proposal) fell into a life of Valley excess. It wasn't until (allegedly) Saverin had a fight with his girlfriend that resulted in a dorm room fire that he straightened his life out, and in a cinema-worthy denouement, he still got to be the cool guy.

"Along the way, Eduardo lost his best friend, and nearly his sanity; got insanely wealthy, and partied all over the world," the reported book proposal reads, "but he also found his way back, finished (at) Harvard, and still spends his weekends at the Phoenix, surrounded by the coolest kids and hottest girls on campus." A "major sequence of betrayals" between the two, per the screenshots, is reportedly too salacious even for the book proposal.

Saverin's apparent central role in this is a red flag. He really did gain admission to the Phoenix, a source close to Facebook's Harvard days confirmed to CNET News.com, but another source said Facebook's origins weren't anywhere near as intertwined with the final-club scene than the proposal indicates they were.

More troubling is the fact that Saverin, no longer at Facebook, has since had quite a falling-out with CEO Zuckerberg: court documents unearthed by an article in 02138, a magazine geared toward Harvard alumni, revealed that Zuckerberg sued Saverin for allegedly trying to freeze the company's bank account. Saverin responded with a countersuit.

So they're not exactly friends, and the narrative arc sounds not only suspiciously aggrandizing of Saverin, but just too much like a geeks-to-gods fiction plot for it to possibly be true.

One of the screenshots on Gawker detailed their alleged woes: "Of course, kids like Eduardo and Mark didn't get asked to join final clubs; although both had gone to good high schools, their family names weren't on campus buildings, and neither one of them had ever held a lacrosse stick or even knew anyone who had ever rowed crew."

Except Zuckerberg hadn't just gone to a "good high school"; he'd attended the elite Phillips Exeter Academy, a New Hampshire prep school where it's pretty impossible to not know anyone on the crew team. And at Harvard, Zuckerberg ended up collaborating with two heavyweight rowers, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, when they hired him as a programmer for their ConnectU social-networking project. Later, they famously sued Facebook, claiming that Zuckerberg had nabbed their code and business plan.

And according to the screenshots, Saverin and Zuckerberg collaborated on a "Hot or Not"-esque project called FaceSmash. This has been well-documented. But there's a problem: A 2003 article in the Harvard Crimson confirms that it was called FaceMash, not FaceSmash, and it was "created entirely by Zuckerberg," though a friend (who was not named by the Crimson) gave him the idea.

FaceMash ended up facing disciplinary action when several women's groups at Harvard took offense. But then Zuckerberg--and according to the book proposal, Saverin--ended up creating Facebook instead. The rest is history, provided that it's true. Which it very well may not be.

Right off the bat, no one affiliated with Mezrich has even confirmed the proposal's authenticity. And in a scant few screenshots, there are enough inaccuracies and vague points (a call has been made to the Australian Koala Foundation to ask if the poor little critters are even edible, let alone a Silicon Valley delicacy) to raise quite a few eyebrows.

There are plenty of shady questions about Facebook's past as a Harvard dorm room project, but let's face it, even billion-dollar companies often aren't quite this titillating.

Scandalphiles, I'm afraid you may be disappointed here.

CNET News.com's Jim Kerstetter and Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.