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

Ben Mezrich

(Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; US: May 2010)

Facebook is really a virtual country—and not a small one, either. Over 400 million people worldwide have a Facebook page, and Facebook fanatics spend (or perhaps waste) 500 billion minutes per month on Facebook. Well, who wouldn’t want to spend time on Facebook? People can connect with friends, relatives, and friends of friends. People can “like” their favorite businesses or causes and get updates from blogs, magazines, and news outlets. People can play Farmville and Yoville, take quizzes, or join groups like “I Bet We Can Get One Million Sunderland Fans Before Newcastle”. What’s not to love?


Yet did you ever wonder how all this social media fun got started? There are definitely some curiosities surrounding its creation. For example, why did someone think Thefacebook was a better name than Facebook? How did Facebook go from primarily being a tool for college kids to meet other college kids to a hotspot for 50-something women to play Farmville? How could Facebook start as a “little dorm-room production” and then, in only three years, grow to have over 150 million dollars in annual revenue? These are good questions, and it’s no wonder that someone chose to write a book about the founding of Facebook.


The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook—A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal by Ben Mezrich tells one possible way Facebook may have come into being. Mezrich used multiple secondary sources and also states “this book could not have been written without the generous, if sometimes reluctant, help of my numerous inside sources; though these sources have asked to remain anonymous, I have done my best to honor their cooperation by telling this story as honestly and respectfully as possible.”


However, Mark Zuckerberg, the driving force behind Facebook, did not participate in this book, and rarely is Zuckerberg presented sympathetically. In the beginning of the book, his character is introduced as “painfully awkward”. In the middle of the story, Zuckerberg creates a website called Facemash that lets male students rate the physical appearance, or “hotness”, of female students and then doesn’t understand why people get upset. By the end, at least according to Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg has “screwed” over basically everyone in the book.


Of course Eduardo Saverin, Facebook’s co-founder, was interviewed by Mezrich, and he doesn’t always seem like that great of a guy, either. We are introduced to Saverin at a fraternity party, where he is explaining his “dating” philosophy: “It’s not that guys like me are generally attracted to Asian girls,” he explains. “It’s that Asian girls are generally attracted to guys like me. And if I’m trying to optimize my chances of scoring with the hottest girl possible, I’ve got to stock my pond with the type of girls who are the most likely to be interested.” That’s right, for most of the book, Saverin’s primary concern seems to be “getting laid”.


So unless you just like somewhat selfish or immature people, most likely you aren’t going to fall in love with any of the main characters in this book. It’s possible the prose isn’t going to sweep you away, either. There’s nothing wrong with it, really. The book is very clearly written, and the pace of the story is brisk; occasionally there is even an interesting description. Often, though, the writing is a little clichéd with phrases like “I shit you not”, “he stuck out like a sore thumb”, and “Mark… looked like a terrified animal caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck”.


To recap, then, Accidental Billionaires might not be completely accurate. Even Mezrich admits “There are a number of different—and often contentious—opinions about some of the events that took place. Trying to paint a scene from the memories of dozens of sources—some direct witnesses, some indirect—can often lead to discrepancies.” This is particularly true if Saverin, one of the primary sources, drank even half as much as the book indicated he did. Additionally (continuing to recap), the characters aren’t particularly likable nor is the book that cleverly written. 


So why couldn’t I put it down?


This book is the literary equivalent of Mountain Dew. Lots of caffeine and sugar but not a lot else. Still, nothing really tastes quite as good on a hot summer’s day as an ice cold Mountain Dew.


Despite the book’s flaws, there is something immensely readable about it. It’s action packed and almost written for the big screen (the film adaptation is currently scheduled to be released in the fall of 2010). 


Even the possibility that it might not be completely accurate didn’t really bother me that much. After all, it’s about Facebook. Facebook—where people “friend” people they may not actually know or like, secretly use profile pictures that are over a decade old, and list serious films, books with literary merit, and PBS as their “favorites”—even if they never watch or read them. At the end of the day, I didn’t particularly care whether or not Zuckerberg is a great guy because, even though I know he is a real person, he doesn’t seem particularly “real”, here. He seems like a somewhat flat character in a plot-driven story.


The Accidental Billionaires, much like Facebook itself, is a guilty pleasure. It’s like eating ice cream sundaes for dinner or watching Dancing with the Stars. Reading it may not be something to brag about, and most likely the book won’t change anyone’s life, but it’s still kind of fun.

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