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Capturing the Facebook Obsession

Ben Mezrich is the kind of nonfiction writer we used to call a hype artist. He takes relatively mundane subjects — counting cards in Vegas, derivatives trading, the New York Mercantile Exchange — and turns them into high-octane page-turners, replete with sex, skullduggery and plot twists worthy of James Patterson.

His protagonists — invariably young, testosterone-fueled men — are real, and he bases his books on true-life events, but he amps those events up to the point where the final product is an indistinguishable blend of fact and fiction. “In some instances,” he writes in a typical Ben Mezrichauthor’s note, “details of settings and descriptions have been changed or imagined.” The phrase “never let the facts get in the way of a good story” could have been coined to describe Mr. Mezrich’s approach.

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His most recent book is “The Accidental Billionaires,”which he describes on his Web site as “the high-energy tale of how two socially awkward Ivy Leaguers, trying to increase their chances with the opposite sex, ended up creating Facebook.” The two Ivy Leaguers are Mark Zuckerberg — widely hailed as the 26-year-old billionaire founder of Facebook — and Eduardo Saverin, his former Harvard classmate and Facebook co-founder, who originally owned 30 percent. The book is told through the prism of both Mr. Saverin and two other Harvard graduates, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, all of whom believe that Mr. Zuckerberg deprived them of their rightful share of Facebook’s billions.

“The Accidental Billionaires” also serves as the foundational document for the new movie “The Social Network.”Written by Aaron Sorkin, the creator of “The West Wing,” it is a brilliant film, possibly the finest movie about business ever made. (Sorry, Oliver Stone.) Although people associated with the film insist that Mr. Sorkin did his own research — and although his take on Facebook is far more sophisticated than Mr. Mezrich’s — he nonetheless aligns his script in most important ways with the facts as they’re presented by Mr. Mezrich. (Mr. Sorkin and I were unable to connect before my deadline.)

"It is testimony to the power of Hollywood and a well-crafted movie. It is disturbing." -Author, David Kirkpatrick

Mr. Saverinis by far the most sympathetic character in the movie. Mr. Zuckerberg is presented as an arrogant, aloof, socially inept computer nerd, who eventually tricks Mr. Saverin into signing documents that diminish his stake in Facebook to near-nothingness. Lots of dramatic license is taken, inevitable in a two-hour movie that spans a number of years.

All of which flies in the face of yet a third account of the origins of Facebook. “The Facebook Effect” is a book by an old Fortune magazine colleague of mine, David Kirkpatrick, written with the full cooperation of Mr. Zuckerberg, and published in June. Mr. Kirkpatrick, a business journalist of the old school, would never take the kind of dramatic liberties taken by Mr. Mezrich and Mr. Sorkin. In fact, they horrify him.

So Mr. Kirkpatrick has been waging a kind of war against “The Social Network,” decrying it in speeches, and in columns in The Daily Beast and elsewhere. “A lot of people come out of the movie believing they have seen the true take,” he complained to me the other day. He added, “It is testimony to the power of Hollywood and a well-crafted movie. It is disturbing.”

For his part, Mr. Kirkpatrick believes that Mr. Zuckerberg is a visionary, who started Facebook — at 19! — out of a “truly intellectual motivation about an impactful new form of communication.” Late in his book, he approvingly quotes Mr. Zuckerberg as saying that he built Facebook to create something “that actually makes a really big change in the world.”

Well, maybe. But after seeing “The Social Network” and reading the two books, I couldn’t help wondering whether Mr. Kirkpatrick, for all his emphasis on “the facts,” had really gotten any closer to the truth about Facebook’s beginnings than Mr. Mezrich and Mr. Sorkin. I have my doubts.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK AND OBSESSION

At bottom, “The Social Network” is a movie about obsession. That is a large part of the reason I’m so smitten with it: that same obsession that caused Bill Gates to drop out of Harvard to start Microsoft , that drove Steve Jobs to build the first home computer in a garage, that motivated Marc Andreessen to create the first commercial browser while still in school — that’s the story of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook too, at least in Mr. Sorkin’s telling. And that obsessional quality is what Mr. Sorkin has captured better than anyone before.

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Though Mr. Zuckerberg starts Facebook while still taking a full course load at Harvard, he spends most of his waking hours on his new company, not his schoolwork. He can’t help himself. Realizing he needs to be in Silicon Valley, he moves there during summer vacation — and then drops out because Facebook has become far more important than graduating from Harvard.

Mr. Zuckerberg can’t really articulate what is driving him. It’s certainly not about getting girls. But it’s not because he is trying to make the world a better place either. (His awful pranks, like creating a program that allows the Harvard student body to vote publicly on who’s “hotter,” give lie to that notion.) It’s more that, with Facebook, he has stumbled upon something that could be big and important, and he is compelled to see it through. It’s only much later that he develops the after-the-fact rationales to explain why his teenage intuition about Facebook was right.

His antagonists in the movie simply don’t share his obsession. The tall, athletic Winklevoss twins claimed that Mr. Zuckerberg stole “their” idea. But they were obsessed with rowing, not building a new Internet company. Though Mr. Zuckerberg had agreed to be their programmer, they went to crew practice while Mr. Zuckerberg was ducking them — all the while secretly racing to get “Thefacebook” (as it was originally called) up and running.

There is not much doubt that Mr. Zuckerberg didn’t play straight with the Winklevoss twins. But if they had been as obsessed as he was, they would have found another programmer and raced to get their site finished. Instead, they wound up competing in the Beijing Olympics. Seems about right.

As for Mr. Saverin, he, too, lacked Mr. Zuckerberg’s obsessional nature, staying behind in New York, for instance, during the summer that Mr. Zuckerberg moved to Silicon Valley. More important, Mr. Saverin lacked Mr. Zuckerberg’s business instincts.

For me, one of the film’s great scenes comes when Mr. Saverin is trying to persuade Mr. Zuckerberg to accept more advertising for Thefacebook. Mr. Zuckerberg won’t hear of it. “I mean it is time for the Web site to generate revenue,” a frustrated Mr. Saverin says in the film.

“Thefacebook is cool,” responds Mr. Zuckerberg. “If we start installing pop-ups for Mountain Dew, it’s not going to —— ”

"Unpleasant personality traits are almost required of young entrepreneurs trying to build something lasting." -The New York Times, Joe Nocera

The dialogue ends there, but you get the point. Mr. Zuckerberg was exactly right — it was Facebook’s coolness that allowed it to overtake MySpace, which had a huge head start but became less cool with every ad it took. I have no idea if that exchange between the two men took place in real life, but it is one of the truest moments in the movie. By the time Mr. Zuckerberg allowed his once-close friend to be brutally pushed out of Facebook, he had long since outgrown Mr. Saverin as a business strategist. Had Mr. Zuckerberg remained loyal to Mr. Saverin, Facebook would never have become the dominant site it is today.

Which brings me back to Mr. Kirkpatrick. Although he has dozens of legitimate nits to pick with “The Social Network,” his real complaint is something larger. It infuriates him that Mr. Sorkin and Mr. Mezrich have treated Mr. Zuckerberg so shabbily, portraying him as small and petty and boorish instead of as a Great Man. Although “The Facebook Effect” dutifully recounts the litigation that ensued between Mr. Zuckerberg and his antagonists — litigation, I should point out, that netted the Winklevoss twins a reported $65 million and made Mr. Saverin a billionaire — he bends over backward to exonerate his hero.

It is as if Mr. Kirkpatrick can’t accept the notion that someone who creates a great company might also be boorish and arrogant and sometimes even rotten. To him, Mr. Zuckerberg isn’t just a great businessman, he’s also a good guy. “Mark is the most impactful person of his generation,” he told me. “That is what we should be trying to understand: how someone so young could create something so important.”

Yet where is it written that driven entrepreneurs are also good guys? More often than not, they’re anything but. As a human being, Steve Jobs is the very definition of the word “jerk;” yet he’s also the greatest chief executive alive. The young Bill Gates could be obnoxious in the extreme. At the age of 24, Marc Andreessen was so arrogant that he allowed Time magazine to photograph him on its cover sitting on a throne barefoot.

Unpleasant personality traits are almost required of young entrepreneurs trying to build something lasting. It requires tremendous arrogance to believe that their idea is better than anyone else’s. They need to be immensely selfish, putting their fragile creation ahead of everything else, including important relationships. And they have to be ruthless, tossing overboard friends who were once useful and no longer are. Those are the qualities Aaron Sorkin captures so beautifully in “The Social Network.” That is what Mr. Kirkpatrick largely misses in “The Facebook Effect.”

There is much about Mr. Kirkpatrick’s book that is useful in understanding Mr. Zuckerberg and the importance of Facebook as a social phenomenon. I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading it. Nor would I discourage anyone from reading “The Accidental Billionaires,” which is a fun, zippy airport read. But for deep, lasting truths?

It’s “The Social Network,” hands down.

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