The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal
Ben Mezrich’s Accidental Billionaires, the basis for the film, The Social Network, tells the story of the creation of Facebook, the characters involved, their motives and actions and the outcomes. The book takes us from Harvard and the creation of Facebook as a student project, to Silicon Valley and the multi-billion dollar company that Facebook is today. Accidental Billionaires is in large part a record of personalities and their interaction: Mark Zuckerberg, founder, primary owner and CEO of Facebook, who remains something of a mystery; Eduardo Saverin, his initial partner and co-founder, who takes legal action against Zuckerberg for later exclusion from the company; the Winklevoss twins, who sue Zuckerberg for alleged theft of their idea; and Sean Parker, Silicon Valley celebrity who connects Zuckerberg with venture capital and is himself later excluded from involvement with Facebook. The cast is virtually all male, with women present on the margins merely as sex objects.
In its narrative technique, Accidental Billionaires constantly switches viewpoint from one character to another, so that no one has the whole picture, the perfect, all-knowing overview. There is no omniscient narrator who decides among the competing viewpoints, an omission that allows the author to attribute criticism or condemnation of others to characters within the drama, but makes it difficult for the reader to reach a definitive conclusion about the events. Did Mark Zuckerberg steal someone else’s idea and get mega-rich on it, or was he a computer genius who developed an idea way beyond its origin and made that idea his own? The issue remains undecideable.
One aspect of the book’s appeal is that it gives the reader vicarious entry into a world of privilege, a series of exclusive subcultures: Harvard and its elite societies, the influential billionaires of Silicon Valley and the insiders to Facebook itself. Accidental Billionaires is partly a story of “lifestyles of the rich and famous” at a barely post-adolescent stage of their careers. This aspect, the exclusivity, is in tension with the “here comes everybody” ethos of the internet. Ostensibly, Facebook was always going to oppose and exceed that exclusivity, either sexually, where geeks could hope to hook up with hot girls, or on a much wider scale, where anyone with access to the internet could connect with and “friend” anyone else. Of course, Facebook has produced its own hierarchy and elite, where a few people are plethorically wealthy and control huge amounts of information about the rest of us.
Generically, there are large issues involved in Facebook and the internet as a whole: the relationship of private to public, individuals to institutions, elites to masses, security to risk, order to disorder, information and its ownership and so on. This is why reading about Facebook is interesting and useful, not so much for the details of its creation, or who stole what from whom or didn’t, but as a prompt to consideration of major issues that affect all of us: our relation as individuals to society, government, politics and power, to freedoms and restrictions, issues that go way beyond Facebook. The thoughtful reader will look past Mezrich’s enjoyable account of Facebook’s creation to consider these wider questions.