New Book Spins Steamy Tale of Facebook's Founding

Sex, scandal and social climbing at the heart of new book, but how much is true?

June 29, 2009, 7:47 AM

June 29, 2009— -- It's supposed to be a book about the world's most influential social network. But instead, it's the uber-elite social scene at a supremely elite New England college that holds center stage for most of Ben Mezrich's new nonfiction book on the early days of the Facebook Web site.

From cocktail parties at the university's high-flying Finals Clubs to beer blowouts in claustrophobic college dorm rooms, Mezrich's book retraces the bumpy path of two Harvard University "best friends" who try to win over their classmates, not to mention a few attractive coeds, by launching a revolutionary social Web site.

"The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal" is a titillating page-turner about the rapid rise of one of the world's youngest billionaires, Mark Zuckerberg, and his widely popular social network, Facebook.

Implying that the motivation behind the site was scoring with the opposite sex, the book describes racy scenes with Victoria's Secret models in posh nightclubs and other sexual escapades in the men's bathroom.

But though it's still two weeks away from hitting the bookstores, those familiar with the key characters and the growth of the company are scratching their heads, wondering how much of the book is actually fact and how much is fiction.

Mezrich is well known for his book, "Bringing Down the House," about the true story of some MIT whiz kids who took in millions from Las Vegas casinos. The book spent more than a year on The New York Times Best Seller list but drew criticism for made up characters and scenes.

Doubleday declined to make Mezrich available for an interview in the weeks before July 14, the book's release date. But in an author's note at the front of the book, Mezrich says "Accidental Billionaires" is a "dramatic, narrative account" of the founding of Facebook.

"There are a number of different -- and often contentious -- opinions about some of the events that took place," he writes. "Trying to paint a scene from the memories of dozens of sources -- some direct witnesses, some indirect -- can often lead to discrepancies."

Zuckerberg Declined to Be Interviewed for Book

In his note, Mezrich says he re-created scenes and dialogue based on interviews and documents.

But what most concerns would-be critics is that Mezrich did not speak at all with Zuckerberg and appears to rely most heavily on one source, Zuckerberg's estranged co-founder Eduardo Saverin. (In his author's note, Mezrich did say that Zuckerberg declined numerous requests to speak with him.)

Saverin, one year ahead of Zuckerberg at college, was one of the first to invest in Facebook but was pushed out of the company and later sued Zuckerberg, who countersued. Those suits were dismissed in a settlement. Saverin did not immediately respond to requests for comment from

"As someone who spent a year completely immersed in the story of Facebook, it's an interesting story but not one you can understand easily," said David Kirkpatrick, a writer for Fortune magazine and author of the upcoming "The Facebook Effect," from Simon & Schuster. "It's hard to understand how he could write a nonfiction story about something no one told him about."

Kirkpatrick said that though Saverin and Zuckerberg were friends at Harvard and did start Facebook together, to his knowledge, Saverin was ambivalent about the project and didn't really understand Zuckerberg's vision.

When Zuckerberg and co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and others moved to Silicon Valley to pursue Facebook, Saverin stayed behind in New York, Kirkpatrick pointed out. That he would be able to provide Mezrich with full details about the company's growth is unlikely, given that he was absent for much of it.

Sarah Lacy, a longtime Silicon Valley reporter and author of "Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good," first interviewed Zuckerberg when he was 19-years-old. Although she hasn't read Mezrich's book, given the lack of input from Zuckerberg, she questions the book's accuracy and balance.

"He has a very subtle personality, he's very shy and hard to get to know," she said about Zuckerberg. "There's an impish side to him that people read wrong."

Even those who spend a great deal of time with him misinterpret his motivations and actions, she said.

Zuckerberg's Interest in Facebook Was Efficiency

That Mezrich could get inside his head through the observations of others is unlikely. That the book implies that his motivation in building Facebook was to meet girls is dead wrong, Lacy said. Lacy and others said that from the beginning of Facebook, they have known Zuckerberg to be in a serious relationship with one woman.

"From the beginning, what fascinated him about Facebook was having the sheer efficiency. … Taking all that complex data and making it, within seconds, work for you," she said, pointing to Facebook's newsfeed as an example of that efficiency.

She also said that from her years covering startups she's observed that when emotions run high and founders part ways, the one left out -- in this case Savarin -- perceives the situation in a completely warped way.

Considering the amount of emotion invested in startups, she said, "everyone is going to have a totally different take on it."

For its part, Facebook, like its CEO, is distancing itself from the book.

"Ben Mezrich clearly aspires to be the Jackie Collins or Danielle Steele of Silicon Valley. In fact his own publisher put it best, 'The book isn't reportage. It's big juicy fun.' We particularly agree with the first part of that and think any readers will concur," said Elliot Schrage, a spokesman for Facebook.

But still, that Jackie Collins-esque drama works well for Hollywood flicks and, even though the book has yet to drop, a movie is already in the works.

In an Amazon review for the book, actor and producer Kevin Spacey, who first met Mezrich when he produced and starred in "21," an adaptation of "Bringing Down the House," announced that "Hollywood has come calling again."

"The Accidental Billionaires is the perfect pairing of author and subject. It's pure summer fun -- a juicy, fast-paced, unputdownable Mezrich tale that adds to his canon of lad lit," Spacy wrote.

Steven Elzer, senior vice president of media relations for Sony Pictures Entertainment, confirmed that they are developing a movie about the creation of Facebook, adding that Aaron Sorkin is writing the script and Michael De Luca, Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti and Kevin Spacey will produce.

Kevin Spacey, Aaron Sorkin Developing Movie on Facebook

"Without sharing specific details about the project, it is fair to say we will base our forthcoming film on material we have acquired the rights to produce as well as interviews and information available to us in the public record," Elzer said in an e-mail to ABC News.

But Mezrich's version aside, many agree that it's a story that needs to be told.

"Any type of huge undertaking like Facebook that has the far-reaching consequences that it does it going to be rife for mythology," said Julia Allison, a New York City columnist and media personality who is friends with Zuckerberg's sister Randi Zuckerberg. Though she doubts that Mezrich's version is the accurate one, she said the founding of Facebook is the epic story. "It's one of those stories that will go down in history."