The (True?) Story Behind Facebook's Founding

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Lynn Goldsmith / Corbis

Ben Mezrich

Facebook has long been viewed as the brainchild of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of the social-networking juggernaut that has garnered more than 200 million users in five short years. But Ben Mezrich, author of the 2003 smash hit Bringing Down the House, wants to make sure readers learn a few more of the names behind Facebook's runaway success — including that of Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg's former best friend and an original Facebook co-founder, and twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, the classmates who originally hired Zuckerberg to code a website of their own.

In Accidental Billionaires — The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal, Mezrich, a 1991 Harvard grad, traces the company's progress from its 2004 origins in a beer-soaked dorm room to the worldwide phenomenon it has become. The book, which is labeled nonfiction and has already been optioned for a movie, uses some of the same controversial literary techniques Mezrich deployed in Bringing Down the House, including re-created dialogue, imagined details and compressed conversations. He talked with TIME about his controversial methods, why he considers himself a journalist and how Facebook is permanently shaping our lives — whether we like it or not.

TIME: One thing you don't really get into in the book is how you came upon the story and why you chose to write about it. Can you tell me how you got to know Saverin?
Mezrich: I got an e-mail at 2 in the morning one night from a guy named Will McMullen, who was a senior at Harvard [when Facebook was founded]. He was just shooting an e-mail out to me saying one of his good friends co-founded Facebook, and would I be interested in the story?

I was immediately intrigued. I met the kid for a drink, and he showed up with this geeky, gawky kid who ended up being Eduardo. Eduardo and Mark [Zuckerberg] had been best friends before their friendship fell apart, and I thought there was a pretty cool drama in that.

And you weren't able to get Zuckerberg to speak with you for the book?
No, Mark opted not to talk to me. You know, he was nervous. I think Facebook as a whole was kind of terrified about what I might write. It takes place in his sophomore year, and there's a lot of semi-scandalous stuff in the book. In truth, I'm a big fan of Mark's. But this is a story they didn't want told.

As you write in your author's note, you've re-created dialogue, changed or imagined details and compressed conversations. Why did you decide to use those techniques?
My style is this sort of immersion journalism, where I go inside the story and build it as a thriller, as a narrative. There are a lot of journalists who don't get what I do. They don't understand my style, or they're frustrated by it. And sometimes they're quite angry about it, which is funny. I re-create the story. It's a true story. It's nonfiction.

But in certain scenes and certain instances, I have multiple sources and many pages of documentation — like thousands of pages of court documents. [While] creating the scene from those documents and from opposing views of what actually happened, I have to choose what I believe really happened. And I'm very clear about that. When I get into a scene that I know I'm working off of documents or a lot of different opinions, I say, "This is what probably happened." My audience understands what I do and likes the way I write these narratives. I think as a whole, this book is nonfiction. I don't think anybody could look at it and say differently.

Do you consider yourself a journalist?
I mean, in a way. I'm a different sort of journalist than someone who writes a textbook or someone who writes a documentary. I write a form of journalism that I think a few people are doing. Go back to Michael Lewis or Sebastian Junger, or all the way back to Hunter S. Thompson. I think I see myself as that sort of journalist — someone's who telling a true story, but in an entertaining way.

Did finding out what really happened change your perception of Zuckerberg in any way?
I don't really have an opinion [on the book's events]. I lay it out there, and I couldn't tell you whether or not Mark stole [the idea for Facebook] or not. I feel like there was definitely a reason for each one to have the view that they had. My opinion of Mark hasn't really changed. I think he's a genius. I think he started this massive company that's amazing. But I also think that socially, he's very unaware.

Was it hard to track down these characters to get the real story?
The way I write my books and my stories is, I really just go in there as someone who's just having a great time with them. It's not me with a notepad running around trying to get an interview. It's me hanging out with people who love Bringing Down the House, who want to talk about Vegas and want to go to Vegas, that kind of thing. It's a very different form of journalism, I think.

How do you see Facebook evolving as a business?
I honestly think we're just at the beginning of Facebook. Facebook is growing enormously. It's 200 million users and growing. I see no reason why it doesn't have a billion users in a couple years. And I really think it's going to become a lifestyle. In terms of revenue, they're growing and they're going to find a way to make real money. If everyone who's on Facebook paid a dollar a month for the service, they'd be one of the most profitable companies in the world. The more I've read about it and gotten inside of it, I think this is something that can be very life-changing. And the future will look differently because of Facebook.