As the title of Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires reports, the story of Facebook’s origin features elements of sex, money, genius, and betrayal. These elements are woven together to describe a wild and entertaining journey while achieving success and fame. The factional accounts presented throughout the book are summarized within these four categories. However, there is another aspect to the book than these four categories. As mentioned twice already the term factional is used. Factional is a combination of factual and fictional. Within Mezrich’s book, there are facts, based on court depositions and interviews, to describe the events that led to Facebook’s founding. Mezrich’s book also contains fictional accounts that embellish mundane events. The result weaves in genius and betrayal to turn a tedious timeline of events, over 18 months, into a best seller.
Mezrich’s book chronicles how a Harvard student, Mark Zuckerberg, rapidly develops the concept of social networking. While similar websites are in operation at the time, none had the capabilities that Zuckerberg provided. Zuckerberg manages, in one evening, to create facemash.com, a website to rate Harvard co-eds. Facemash.com was developed in retaliation from a failed date with a girl. Facemash.com is created through identity theft of data residing on Harvard servers. Facemash.com goes viral, shuts down the Harvard network, and causes Zuckerberg to be called before the Harvard disciplinary board. Zuckerberg’s mea culpa garners probation. Jena McGregor (2018) argues that apologies for privacy breaches are repetitious for Zuckerberg and involve little or no accountability. This activity catches the attention of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Winklevi), who want Zuckerberg to finalize the programming of a social networking site, Connect U, which the Winklevoss’ had started. Zuckerberg sparked by the Facemash and ConnectU experience to creates Thefacebook.com. Zuckerberg delays the launch of Winklevoss’ ConnectU in favor of Thefacebook.com. The first half of the Mezrich’s book provides a dramatization of the creation of Thefacebook.com and the second half describes what happened, through court depositions and more dramatization, the launch of Facebook.com.
In Facebook’s startup and post-launch phases, Zuckerberg removes key personnel, Eduardo Saverin and Sean Parker, after he learns their skill set and determines he can better perform their jobs. Saverin is ousted when his initial funding can’t fulfill all of the costs that Facebook accumulates. Parker is banished after teaching Zuckerberg how to find investors and the tactics for rapid growth, which leads Zuckerberg to believe that he could run Facebook all on his own.
The brilliance of Facebook results from the combination of the coding and the Internet. In combination, they break the barrier of distance between people. The downside is Facebook’s continual clash with user data and privacy concerns.
Mezrich’s notes in the prolog (2009) acknowledges an attempt to keep an accurate timeline of events. In the fourth paragraph, he points out that “some conversations scenes were re-created and compressed” (p. 1). Paul Harris, a writer of Guardian, notes two timeline discrepancies. First, in March 2004, Sean Parker mentions Valleywag, a gossip blog, that launched in February 2006. Second, in June 2005, Eduardo Saverin Harvard recalls Harvard degree conferral occurred on a stage. However, Harvard commencement events note that degrees are given individually in the residence halls (https://commencement.harvard.edu/events-schedule). The last discrepancy seems odd given that Mezrich is a Harvard graduate and would have gone through the same commencement activities as Saverin. Why change a unique event to something mundane?
Several reviews have questioned Mezrich’s work for inaccuracy. Mezrich’s previous books had recreated dialogue and compressed scenes. Mezrich does explain these situations. However, his books continue to be portrayed as non-fiction. James Hirsen, a media law expert, noted ‘Inventing characters is against the ideal of non-fiction, the key word being ‘inventing’ … there has been a blurring of non-fiction and fantasy’ (as cited in Harris, 2009).
Given the success of Mezrich’s previous works and the acclaim of Accidental Billionaires, Zuckerberg and Facebook did not agree with Mezrich’s handling of its founding. Elliot Schrage, a former Facebook spokesman, commented that ‘Ben Mezrich clearly aspires to be the Jackie Collins or Danielle Steele of Silicon Valley. In fact, his own publisher put it best. ‘The book isn’t reportage. It’s big juicy fun.’” (Harris, 2009; Rosenthal, 2009). In the end, it seems as though everyone was able to benefit. Facebook got publicity, even if negative, it didn’t hurt their ability to attract applicants. Random House sold books and made money. The Social Network, adapted from The Accidental Billionaires, won an Academy Award (Best Adapted Screenplay) and Mezrich became a best-selling author again.
Mezrich was working mostly with secondary sources. Zuckerberg and the rest of Facebook did not sanction or cooperate with the production of the book. The one commodity that would have made Mezrich’s account credible was Zuckerberg who developed the Facebook algorithms and is at the heart of the Facebook story (Maslin, 2009).
Recently, Mezrich released a new book entitled Bitcoin Billionaires. One can foresee that just like his previous works, Bringing Down the House and The Accidental Billionaires, which resulted in movies 21 and The Social Network respectively, this new book will result in a movie. Richard Walters, a writer for the Financial Times, noted ”Some books aren’t really books at all: they’re thinly disguised movie pitches that have been fleshed out to sit between hard covers”. Given the tension between the Zuckerberg and the Winklevi, one can foresee that a sequel to The Social Network will eventually occur. Rob Doyle, of the Irish Times, notes “Bitcoin Billionaires feels like a draft of the screenplay for the film that Mezrich wills into being on every page (the rights have already been sold) “.
Mezrich’s new work follows the Winklevoss twins after they receive the $65 Million Facebook settlement. Wanting to invest their money, they spend $11 Million to purchase 1% of the bitcoin market in 2011 when bitcoins were trading at $120. Late in 2017, bitcoins traded at $10,000, and that initial investment appreciated to $2 Billion making the Winklevi the first bitcoin billionaires.
The style of the book follows Mezrich’s earlier offerings: geeks who are geniuses make billions, encounter betrayal and party hard. Steven Poole, a writer for The Guardian, notes that the book is “structured as a sequence of dramatic scenes”. The one difference between The Accidental Billionaires and Bitcoin Billionaires is that Mezrich has access to the Winklevi and can get a first-hand account their bitcoin experience and a more exact chronology; this alone moves the new effort toward non-fiction. Mezrich prefaces Bitcoin Billionaires with “There are a number of different and often contentious opinions about some of the events in the story; to the best of my ability, I recreated the scenes in the book based on the information I uncovered from documents and interviews” (p.1). The dramatic scenes of this book may again overshadow the actual events.
As an aside, the Winklevi launched Gemini, a regulated exchange for cryptocurrencies. The exchange sets Bitcoin spot prices for futures contracts at the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE). The Winklevi also applied to set up a Bitcoin Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) to attract mainstream investors. However, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has denied the application (https://www.investopedia.com/articles/people/083016/who-are-top-5-bitcoin-millionaires.asp).
Facebook is building a cryptocurrency called Libra. The Libra can be used for Facebook transactions and will not belong to Facebook but the Libra Association. The Libra Association has many participants, including Mastercard, Visa, PayPal, eBay, and Uber. A joint company white paper describes the intentions with a rollout of Libra scheduled for the first half of 2020.
The competition between Zuckerberg and the Winklevoss twins seems to endure as new technological developments involving complex algorithms come into existence. Mezrich probably will chronical the events and offer a glimpse into the dramatic, perhaps fictional, scenes that occur.
- Doyle, R. (2019, May 25). Bitcoin Billionaires review: an ideological struggle. The Irish Times. Retrieved from https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/bitcoin-billionaires-review-an-ideological-struggle-1.3887889
- Harris, P. (2009, July 5). A sexy saga of Facebook’s birth – but is it fantasy?. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/jul/05/facebook-accidental-billionaires-zuckerberg
- Maslin, P. (2009, July 19). Harvard Pals Grow Rich: Chronicling Facebook Without Face Time. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/20/books/20maslin.html .
- McGregor, J. (2018, April 11). Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has apologized – again. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/on-leadership/wp/2018/04/10/facebook-ceo-mark-zuckerberg-is-apologizing-again/?utm_term=.4eb6f386db0c
- Mezrich, B. (2009). The Accidental Billionaires. New York, NY: Doubleday.
- Mezrich, B. (2019). Bitcoin Billionaires. New York, NY: Flatiron Books.
- Poole, S. (2019, May 16). Bitcoin Billionaires by Ben Mezrich review – the
- tale of the Winklevoss twins. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/may/16/bitcoin-billionaires-by-ben-mezrich-review
- Rosenthal, D. (2009, July 19). Inside Ben Mezrich’s Accidental Billionaires. The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved from http://www.baltimoresun.com/bs-mtblog-2009-07-inside_ben_mezrichs_accidental-story.html
- Walters, R. (2019, May 30). Bitcoin Billionaires — return of the Winklevoss twins. Financial Times. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/fad513ec-81f9-11e9-b592-5fe435b57a3b