People who have panned this book are mostly missing the point in my judgment. Author Ben Mezrich is raconteur with a story to tell, and he doesn't expect us to accept it as business history or even serious journalism. He offers the necessary disclaimers in his introduction, acknowledging that he did the best he could with fragmentary sources and connected the dots where necessary with a fair amount of probabilistic imagining. One senses he captures the gist of this story pretty well, in much the way a talented sketch artist can draw an uncanny portrait despite distortion and a lack of details. Allowing for such limitations, this is quite a good book.
The digital economy has spawned a series of meteoric companies and overnight billionaires over the past three decades. And just when it seemed this phenomenon had passed its zenith, along came Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. Yet another geeky kid with a high IQ and anarchistic tendencies, Zuckerberg created the precursor to Facebook as a hacker's prank during his short stint as a Harvard undergraduate. When the prank "went viral" literally overnight within the Harvard community, Zuckerberg knew he was onto something much bigger than he bargained for.
There were other ideas for online social networks being explored at the time. At Harvard itself, a couple of wealthy six-foot-five crew champions - identical twins - had a similar notion. The Winklevoss brothers knew little about computers, however, and had hired a programmer for the project, who dawdled with it for a while and then quit suddenly. To complete the task, the twins turned to Mark Zuckerberg, who was miles beneath them in social status at Harvard but had become an instant campus celebrity when he hacked the University computers. Everyone at Harvard, including the Winklevosses, knew who he was and recognized his technical prowess. Zuckerman too appeared to doddle with the project, but was in fact moving at lightning speed in secret to build his own social networking site. When he launched the surprise attack, the Winklevosses were stunned and accused him of stealing their idea and their code. In reality, the slow-footed twins had nothing worth stealing, since Zuckerman already had the idea and probably viewed the code as child's play. What he was guilty of was stalling the two brothers long enough for him to gain the first-mover's advantage.
Zuckerberg never looked back afterwards. After "the facebook" pervaded Harvard, he quickly introduced it to one college campus after another as the wild viral phenomenon fed on itself. With thousands, then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of new users flocking to the site, Zuckerberg was building a potential gold mine. However, a true-blue hacker to the core, he seemed to care little about business matters or even money. For this stuff, he partnered with his best friend, Eduardo Saverin. Saverin was also something of an outsider at Harvard, but he was more polished than Zuckerberg and had some business credentials. He had managed a small hedge fund one summer, and his father was a successful businessman. Saverin put his own money into the project and in yeoman-like fashion set about finding advertisers for Facebook.
In the meantime, Zuckerberg had made contact with Sean Parker, the buccaneering and hyperactive young co-founder of Napster. Parker had flamed out with Napster and all of his other business ventures to date, but he still saw himself as a player and had ties to serious venture capital money. He introduced Zuckerberg to Peter Theil, a man with very deep pockets, who opened them up to set Facebook on its way as big business. Glibly jettisoning his Harvard career, Zuckerberg moved to California, while Eduardo Saverin chose to continue plodding along back in Cambridge. Sensing correctly that he had become superfluous to the operation and was being phased out, Saverin in a fit of pique tried to short-circuit the young business by closing its bank accounts, which he still controlled. Zuckerberg and his new partners struck back mercilessly by conspiring to drive Saverin out of the company. Zuckerman lured him out to California to review as set of re-incorporation documents, which amazingly Saverin signed without comprehending. Shortly afterwards, Facebook issued a ton of new equity that diluted Saverin's share of the soon-to-be multibillion-dollar company down to virtually nothing. He was out of a job and a fortune, and friendship was out the door.
In his epilogue Ben Mezrich describes himself as an "enormous fan of all the characters in this book", forcing us to wonder how he might write about people for whom he feels less enthusiasm. No one comes off well here. Zuckerberg himself, who didn't cooperate with the author, is a dark enigma. Like most compulsive hackers, he probably has a diagnosable psychological disorder. He could be a schizoid personality, or even suffer from Asperger's syndrome or one of the other mild variants of autism. None of these conditions preclude brilliance, and some can even enhance a person's ability to focus monomaniacally on technical problem-solving.
Eduardo Saverin appears a likeable enough person, but a patsy for whom it's hard to sympathize. For the guy for fancied himself the business brain behind Facebook, the fact that he would blindly sign a legal document authorizing his own destruction seems proof he needed to find another job anyway. Sean Parker, who also was later expelled by Zuckerberg and his new team, seems a stoned-out narcissist, albeit talented and engaging. The Winklevoss twins appear as privileged and rather dim-witted jocks. None of these characterizations are likely to be quite fair, but in a quick sketch, it's how they come across.
Mezrich writes in a style that's reminiscent of early Tom Wolfe and certain other authors whose work constituted what was called "new journalism" back in the 1960's. Like Mezrich, these writers were highly entertaining and easy to read, but they also generally sought to illustrate social themes. In Mezrich's case, his theme is the impact of progressive technology and mega-money on people's lives in twenty-first century America. Whether Mezrich is a "fan" of his characters or not, they don't come across as very happy people. They're engaged in socially useful business, and while not truly corrupt as people, they're self-centered and generally amoral. One gets the impression that mega-money is likely only to make these problems worse for them as their young lives progress.
Mezrich's limited purpose with this book is to entertain us and to illustrate these motifs. I think he succeeds, and I can recommend the book to people who don't expect from it more than it has to offer.