03 December, 2010

'The Accidental Billionaires' - Ben Mezrich

I made it 30 pages into this book. So, this is not a fully informed review, just an impression of the elements that made it impossible for me to carry on.

The Accidental Billionaires is the book on which David Fincher's movie The Social Network was based: the story of Mark Zuckerberg, his relationship with Eduardo Savarin, and the early days of Facebook.

Zuckerberg was working with the formidable Winklevoss brothers: identical twins from serious money who went on to row for America at an Olympic level. The brothers, along with a business partner, wanted to build Harvard Connection, a way of 'putting Harvard's social life online'. The brothers spent most of every day on the water, in class or asleep, and wanted a way to meet girls.

A lot of this story (as told both in the film and in what I read of the book) seems to be about girls. It's testament to Facebook's phenomenal popularity that it's hard to comprehend that the Winklevoss' idea was actually a groundbreaking one, so embedded is what they propose in our current interactions. The flaw in their original idea for me (other than the fact Zuckerberg ended up taking the idea, expanding it and releasing Facebook), was that it wasn't going to increase the time they had available to socialise, at least face to face. Instead they were going to network online, and maintain their schedule of six hours of rowing and as many of classes each day, while their relationships progressed over the internet.

Somehow, the Winklevi (as Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, memorably calls them in the film) had foreseen that we would globally embrace online networking as a replacement for face-to-face interaction.

Fincher's film was superb, deserving its many plaudits (including five stars from David). Its value lay in presenting the Zuckerberg-Facebook story as a front for a far deeper discourse about values, the morality of success, and a world shrunk to a global village of 500 million people who could amend their vocabulary in less than five years, yet know little more about each other than what status updates reveal.

Mezrich's book, on the other hand, is sloppy. He explains in the Author's Note that he 'recreated scenes' based on 'documents and interviews, and my best judgement...[to describe] individual perceptions without endorsing them'. He also uses 'the technique of recreated dialogue' to compress conversations that took place over long periods of time, as recollected by multiple participants.

All perfectly acceptable. Except, he can't even get the facts he does present consistent. The book opens from Eduardo Savarin's perspective. He knows Zuckerberg is 'a computer science major who lived in Eliot House' (p15). On page 17, when Savarin meets Zuckerberg he asks (in a recreated conversation) 'What house are you in again?' Mark responds, 'Kirkland'. Given Mezrich has already told us he's recreating information, I'm unlikely to find much of it credible.

Some descriptive passages are overdone, such as describing the Charles River, pre-dawn and home to the rowing menace of the Winklevoss brothers: 'Dead silence, a moment frozen in time, a single paragraph on a single page in a book that spanned three centuries of pregnant, frozen moments like this.' The brothers emerge from the 'frigid glade', rowing in a 'perfect and complex marriage of mechanics and art'. This purple prose comes immediately after Mezrich has recounted Savarin's assertion that in senior year he swears he will have sex in the library stacks. So you know we're not going to stay on message here - Mezrich isn't restricting himself to Savarin's inner thoughts on business and venture capital.

It was probably expecting too much of this story to think it would be polished and balanced. The ink has barely dried on the deals signing off the court cases. Facebook was only created seven years ago, so the fact that almost a tenth of the world is now part of it, and that the language of it has infiltrated our vocabulary is historical evidence enough of its impact, without this 'recreated' account.

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