And the pond stares back

The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal

The concept of narcissism is ancient and abiding. What is new, ever-evolving and abetting the spread of narcissism is technology. The Internet has given everyone the possibility of being self-published. The next, natural outgrowth of that impulse is self-promotion, and no application has been more successful in that pursuit than the creation of Facebook.

Facebook, for those who have been living in a cave for the last five years, is a privately owned social-networking Web site with better bells and whistles than any of its competition. Users have personal profiles with photos to use as “bait” to attract new “friends” and send them messages, and can update their personal profiles to notify friends about themselves. Users can also be more selective and join networks organized by city, workplace, school and region.

The original concept was the 2004 invention of a handful of genius male geeks at Harvard University. The goal was simple: to get these socially challenged young guys laid by as many pretty women as possible.

Ben Mezrich’s new book, The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal, tracks the rise and fall and sometime rise again of the young men who conceived of Facebook.

The title is nicely fulfilled by Mezrich’s account, which is almost a Greek myth unto itself. There is a villainous, über-self-involved computer mastermind credited with creating the program and code, Mark Zuckerberg, who is founder and CEO of Facebook. There is his former best friend/ business partner, Eduardo Saverin, who was cruelly screwed out of his share of the company by Zuckerberg once Facebook took off as a business. And there are a variety of Zuckerberg’s fanatical hangers-on and acolytes, who supplicated their way to fortune as the company started making milllions, then billions.

Saverin is the main source; as the wronged man, his version obviously has to be taken with a few grains of salt. Unfortunately, Zuckerberg declined to be interviewed for the book. But the author also interviewed dozens of witnesses and used hundreds of sources and thousands of documents, including court records, which allowed him to believably recreate the events that produced, as the book’s title promises, a swashbuckling “tale of sex, money, genius and betrayal.”

As it turns out, the tagline for the book, “They just wanted to meet some girls,” is exactly right.

At Harvard, Zuckerberg and Saverin did not have the money or savoir-faire to gain access to the hottest girls on campus. Zuckerberg, a pure computer geek, had almost no social cache at all. But he figured out a way to turn his computer skills into a portal to a world of babes and money. The more socialized Saverin teamed with Zuckerberg to create Facemash, which was initially a tool to get photos of attractive Harvard female undergrads online and have users “rate” the girls on their level of attractiveness. That controversial idea crashed and burned for obvious reasons. Zuckerberg was roundly criticized, but curiously, that censuring brought him a level of attention he’d never had before.

The rest of the story is both predictable and riveting: Zuckerberg, spurred on by his newfound “fame,” starts fanatically writing the code for a more politically correct version of Facemash. Fueled by Saverin’s seed money, Facebook spreads like a virus. Zuckerberg drops out of Harvard, moves to Silicon Valley, dumps his old life and Saverin on the way, attracts investors like Microsoft and recreates himself as a techno god.

In the end, we’re left with the image of billionaire Zuckerberg alone with his computer, staring at his face and his beloved creation on his screen, like Narcissus at his pond.