Saturday, July 18, 2009
Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich: A Book Review about the Creation of Facebook: Read New Postscript
I finished reading Ben Mezrich's book which is a one sided view focused on the popular online website Facebook's early creation and history. I say one sided view because Accidental Billionaires is reported basically from the viewpoint of the Harvard undergrad Eduardo Saverin, who became friends with computer genius Mark Zuckerberg and later Saverin provided the seed money that went into the company's early formation. As I got into the book, I was turned off by the description of interests and life styles of the under 21 year old men of Harvard being depicted. As a 68 year old Lesbian Feminist in a 38 year relationship, I did not appreciate the drunken revelry and sexual crudities basically presented as going on in the mind and behavior of Zuckerberg who was described as a young man having trouble attracting young woman from his same milieu.
The book using the anecdotes told by Saverin seems to suggest that it was Zuckerberg's clumsy attempts to create an interactive website which would compare pictures of female undergrads from Harvard to farm animals and rate them which set the boiler plate for what later would become the popular and Billion plus company Facebook. This crude boilerplate was later turned into the online site we now know of as Facebook which allows the user, originally only college students, to have a group of friends, acquaintances, whatever one wants to call them with similar interests sharing information, comments, pictures, a way to raise funds for causes, take quizzes, draw pictures and engage in a seemingly endless array of options including sharing something called the Wall where individual notices and alerts can be displayed by individuals and groups.
However, as I read and kept going beyond the antics of ambitious sexually aroused young men, I saw another story emerging that was more interesting and complex. In spite of the bias the author must project given Mezrich only has the information he has obtained from people who were around Zuckerbeg in the early days at Harvard and in California and has nothing from the mouth of Zuckerberg himself, one still does get a sympathetic picture of a person who as the book describes becomes a Billionaire probably at this point a Billionaire many times over. The main characters, two sports characters who are Olympic hopefuls at rowing, Harvard compadres,handsome twins who attempt to get Zuckerberg to set up a social website for them who later sue Zuckerberg for his failure to deliver the product, the computer codes and whatever into their hands. Eduardo comes off bright but too loyal to think at first that Zuckerberg, his friend, would do him any harm financially or to the idea that motivated both of them. Another character emerges in California, the guy who created the famous Napster program and who entices Zuckerberg to ignore his Harvard friend Eduardo and to go along with his more mature strategies for getting real seed money for the new Facebook operation.
I am not sure what fascinated me about the story, the speed with which Zuckerberg successfully invented the technical prerequisites that made Facebook possible and what seems the nimble way this young guy navigated the ocean of business maneuvers from the various venture capitalists that turned Facebook in practice into what it is today. Actually the fact that I am a casual Facebook user,( I do log in weekly but am not obssessive about getting into Facebook and find some aspects of the site juvenile and irritating), made me want to finish the book to find out what happened and made the reading go more smoothly.
The book motivated me to go onto Wikipedia to look up what people were saying about the history of Facebook from various points of view. Doing that allowed me to find out a bit about what happened as a result of various court cases and objections that are made by the early characters in the Accidental Billionaires book. I was amazed how closely the description from the various Wikipedia accounts correlated with Mezrich's rendition of his account. It appears some kind of out of court settlement since the book was written occurred between Eduardo and Zuckerberg which sucessfully made Eduardo Zaverin on the topic . The two rower boys also got their many millions from their court experience against Zuckerberg. In a way, it seemed like a happy ending for these characters if one is only counting the money and where it went. But one wonders if any of these young men who are still not yet over age 25 will ever be able to get their heads screwed on right. For Zuckerberg it may well be that his celebrity has made him into a non person like Michael Jackson.
Or, perhaps, Zuckerberg has somehow mastered the art of keeping his privacy as there seems to be very little information about who he is in current time and for that matter in the past too. All we know is he was a hard working driven computer genius (born to Jewish professionals who moved to the upper middle class suburbs of Florida) who finally scored with a few "girls" because of his celebrity. The real truth is I shouldn't care at all about any of these boorish suppposedly highly educated young "men". But something makes me curious. Will Zuckerberg use his wealth to do any good in the world? Will Eduardo Saverin go on to new projects (besides his teenage years' investments and incredible research on oil futures and the more or less failed website he invented called Joboozle) that resonate in some way? I suppose following Zuckerberg would be as boring as following Bill Gates, nothing uplifiting, only more boring stuff. So is this the stuff of person Harvard now produces? When you read this book take note of the interaction the rower boys have with Larry Summers*, the former President of Harvard. Summers', now an Obama economic point man, lack of interest in the Harvard "Rower Boys" complaints about Zuckerberg and Summers' non action as a result reflects a new way of thinking about what the future of education is really all about. It points in a new direction, away from the old caste and class system of places like Harvard toward a world with only one kind of actor in the world, the one who thinks first and fastest and wins without looking back at the fallen and stumbling.
Postscript: July 19, 2009 There must be something strongly seductive about Facebook that makes so many people use it. There is something quite obscene about the fact anyone or anything could be worth that much money (in the billions). What does it say about our society that such a thing can come to pass. It is not Zuckerberg or any other computer minds that annoy me. It is the fact that so much time is spent on Facebook with people doing mindless things, taking stupid quizzes that are truly meaningless. And many love to record minute details of what they are doing everyday. Perhaps, some day Facebook will provide important historical minutiae and insight into our ironic way of life in the beginning of the 21 Century. The bottomline for me is not that Facebook is worthless; there are some good things about it and people can use the mechanism provided for the betterment of society if they so choose and also as a catharsis to get things off their chest, that is not all bad but it is terribly self involving.
The networking part is more interesting. It can lead to complex social interaction that leads in many directions, hopefully sometimes in a constructive direction offering people a platform for ideas across borders and above the narrowness of place and inbred thinking. The final question is who really should own Facebook and get the economic rewards. Society could put all this monetary outcome to better use than one young man and a few corporate buddies. If there is so much money in these software programs and related invention perhaps, more entities i.e. States, Countries, Political groups, Networks of Labor Unions should hire people like Zuckerberg to create new products so larger and ever larger numbers of people might benefit from the rewards of these computer and internet creations and sensations. Of course, the people with the creative minds and nonstop working ethics need to handsomely rewarded for their creations but not given billions of dollars. One can say, that's America for you but not in my book. I wonder if one can really hire genius. They certainly seemed to do it during WWII to build that evil bomb of ours.
*Summers is also the academic who as President got in hot water with feminists and academic women at Harvard for suggesting there might be a logical/perhaps, physical non sociological reason girls and women are not as good at math and science as men. Yes, the same guy.
Sharon Raphael, Long Beach