“Ben Mezrich clearly aspires to be the Jackie Collins of Silicon Valley.”
It was the summer of 2009, and I had just published my book The Accidental Billionaires, about the founding of Facebook—which Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher would soon adapt into the Oscar-winning film The Social Network. I was on my book tour, bouncing from cable-news outlet to cable-news outlet, and at nearly every stop, Mark Zuckerberg’s refutation was waiting for me, passed along by his company’s spokesman, Elliot Schrage. I believed—and still believe—that what I had written was a fair and true telling of Facebook’s origins in a college dorm room, an almost Shakespearean drama involving socially awkward friends who had launched a revolution. Zuckerberg disagreed; at the time, his main concern seemed to be that I had implied that he’d founded Facebook to meet girls. A secondary concern seemed to be with the subtitle of my book—A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal. When news of The Accidental Billionaires leaked onto the internet before publication, along with that subtitle, the word that seemed to rile up the biggest number of panicked missives from Facebook’s PR team was that kicker: Betrayal.
Who, the PR flacks kept asking, was betrayed?
A decade later, having watching Facebook grow into the multibillion-dollar, multibillion-user behemoth we know today, buffeted by scandals ranging from accusations of misuse of personal data to the Facebook platform being appropriated for election meddling, that question feels even more important. The answer gets right to the heart of what Facebook has become.
Facebook’s origin story, as portrayed by my book and the movie, is well known. Late one night after a date gone bad, Zuckerberg made a website, FaceMash, which allowed his fellow Harvard students to compare female classmates based on photos he pulled from various dorm registries. When the prank site reached the attention of the Harvard administration, Zuckerberg was nearly kicked out of school for “breaching security, violating copyrights and violating individual privacy.” Though he managed to avoid any substantial punishment, he was written up in The Harvard Crimson, where he caught the attention of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the 6-foot-5-inch identical-twin Olympic rowers who couldn’t have been more perfect foils if they’d actually been invented whole-cloth out of Aaron Sorkin’s fevered imagination.
The twins were building their own social website, HarvardConnection, which later morphed into ConnectU, and were in the market for a coder. They reached out to Zuckerberg, who readily agreed to work for them. It was around that time that Zuckerberg went to his friend and classmate Eduardo Saverin and pitched him on an idea to create a new website, a place where people could connect, putting up their own profiles—a site that wouldn’t get him nearly kicked out of school. He asked Saverin to fund the endeavor; Saverin offered up $1,000, the most prescient investment in the history of the world, in exchange for the title of CFO and 30 percent of the company.
Weeks later, in February of 2004, after stalling Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss with a series of emails claiming he was too busy with classwork to finish their coding, Zuckerberg launched TheFacebook.com, which rapidly grew into a phenomenon. Zuckerberg ended up in California, where he met up with Sean Parker—and Eduardo Saverin, too, quickly found himself cut out of the story, his name erased from the Facebook masthead, his shares in the company diluted away.
The first few months of Facebook’s existence already offered plenty of candidates for the tail end of my subtitle. But the personal, dorm-room story was only one component of a much larger drama, still being played out on a global scale.
From the very beginning, Facebook wasn’t supposed to be just another social network—it was supposed to be a social revolution. Zuckerberg had never cared about making money with the site; in high school, he’d turned down a lucrative offer for software he’d developed, instead giving it away for free. As much as Saverin had pushed for Zuckerberg to figure out ways to monetize Facebook, Zuckerberg had never made that a priority. Instead, Facebook was supposed to be something “cool,” something that changed the world by changing how we interacted with one another. Facebook wasn’t some site you visited—it was a place where you lived. By sharing yourself among intersecting circles of friends, family, and colleagues, you became connected to an ever-growing village. The more you shared, the more connections could be made. Consequently, the less you protected your data, the better Facebook functioned, and the more powerful the revolution.
Yes, Zuckerberg created Facebook to help socially awkward kids like himself meet girls—but he was also intent on growing an online village designed to break down the barriers between people by changing our conceptions of privacy. Zuckerberg believed that the world was a better place the more we shared, whether we liked it or not. Although he’s seemed genuinely surprised at the privacy scandals that have hit Facebook over the years, nothing he’s done to break down our privacy walls has been unintentional. Privacy is antithetical to the engine that makes Facebook work. Privacy limits connection, whether it’s a connection with friends and family over a photo you put on your profile or a connection to a company trying to sell you something that you, according to your personal data, obviously want. This is the experience that Facebook was always meant to offer. The data you put on Facebook was never supposed to be private.
And this leads back to my subtitle, and to the concept of betrayal. From the very beginning, Zuckerberg has shown a pattern of deflecting and discarding things and people that don’t conform to his worldview or his ambition. In the same way that Zuckerberg discarded people like the Winklevoss twins and Eduardo Saverin in his quest to launch his revolution, he’s endeavored to shake off our fears about attacks on privacy and mishandled data. When we discover that our private information isn’t actually private, we feel betrayed.
And that’s why I believe I was right about Mark Zuckerberg—and why every one of us knows a little bit what it feels like to be a Winklevoss.