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The book on Facebook

Mezrich’s Billionaires proves his talent for snapping up a juicy topic

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Rick Lax

Even Ben Mezrich’s fiercest critics have to admit, the guy knows how to pick a good story. In 2003 Mezrich grew famous after writing about the MIT blackjack team (Bringing Down the House), and this year he’s found an even bigger story to tell: the creation of Facebook.

Maybe “found” isn’t the right word; the story was up for grabs. But Mezrich was the one who grabbed it, and now he’s reaping the benefits. Kevin Spacey snapped up the movie rights before the author had even completed his first draft. And having read the book, I can see why; The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook—A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal has the makings of a summer blockbuster: swank Silicon Valley parties, gorgeous Ivy League coeds and an unlikely hero: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

In Accidental Billionaires, Mezrich reveals that Facebook began as a website that simply allowed Harvard students to vote on which of their female classmates was hottest. According to Mezrich, the first, second and third hottest girls at Harvard all lived together. The last four digits of their room’s phone number were 3-8-2-5 (F-U-C-K). “The Harvard housing office,” explains Mezrich, “was notorious for bizarre little pranks like that. Putting kids with similar names in the same room … there was a Burger and Fries, and at least two Blacks and Whites … Someone probably needed to get fired.”

The Details

Accidental Billionaires
Three and a half stars
Ben Mezrich
Doubleday, $25.
Amazon: Accidental Billionaires

Along with funny anecdotes like that one, Accidental Billionaires offers everything from pop sociology (“To the Epsilon Pi kids, a Jewish girlfriend might be nice, because it would make Mom and Dad happy. But, in reality, an Asian girlfriend was much more likely”) to technological criticism (“You didn’t go on MySpace to communicate, you went there to show yourself off. It was like one big narcissistic playground. Look at me! Look at me! Look at my Garage Band, Comedy Routine, Acting Reel, Modeling Portfolio and on and on and on”). But the one thing the book doesn’t offer is abundant firsthand knowledge.

In the book’s preface, Mezrich concedes that Zuckerberg turned down all interview requests. So Mezrich was forced to do a bit of literary dot-connecting in the form of imagined scenes. Mezrich begins certain passages with phrases like, “We can imagine him …” and “We can picture what must have happened next …” It’s frustrating, but at least Mezrich admits what he doesn’t know. That’s more than you can say about a lot of narrative nonfictionists.

The thing that upset me about Mezrich’s speculations is that, throughout the bulk of the book, I’d assumed the author had done extensive interviews with the two secondary players (student financier Eduardo Saverin and Napster co-founder Sean Parker). But late in the book, Mezrich has imagined scenes involving both of them. So either he didn’t interview them after all, or he didn’t do so as thoroughly as I would have liked.

My other complaint is that Mezrich tries to be clever at the wrong times. For instance, when describing the music that played at a 2003 Alpha Epsilon Pi Meet & Greet, Mezrich writes, “The iPod was churning away, filling the air with a mixture of pop and anachronistic folk rock—either the result of a schizophrenic’s playlist or some bickering committee members’ poorly thought-out compromise.” Suddenly music genre juxtaposition suggests bureaucracy or mental disorder? Come on, Ben.

Mezrich is best when he keeps the editorialization to a minimum and action at a maximum. The part when Zuckerberg hacks into Harvard’s computer system and steals the names and photos of the undergrads is fantastic. If Mezrich can keep writing scenes like that one, if he can keep finding the right stories to tell and if he can keep expanding his brand of populist narrative nonfiction, he’ll be in good position to become the Washington Irving of the 21st century.

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