“The Accidental Billionaires”: The True Story of the Founding of Facebook?

Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires: The Founders of Facebook reads like a novel, but allegedly tells the “true story” of Facebook’s early years. It covers much of the same territory as David Fincher’s film, The Social Network, for which it served as source material, but goes into more detail about things like what exactly is a Harvard Final Club, why it was better for Facebook to take money from VCs early on rather than sell advertising space, what made Facebook different from MySpace and Friendster and The Harvard Connection/ConnectU, and what was in the contracts Mark Zuckerberg’s former partner signed that resulted in him losing his share of the company.

With that said, many of the more contentious details from the film, such as Zuckerberg trying to use his invention to impress a former girlfriend, were absent, but, perhaps more importantly, many were still there. In the book Zuckerberg and his partner still picked up a pair of Facebook groupies at a Bill Gates lecture and subsequently hooked up with them in adjacent men’s room stalls, the application process for Facebook’s first summer internship still involved hacking while drunk, and Zuckerberg still came off as a socially awkward jerk, albeit without his dialogue provided by Aaron Sorkin, leaving questions of how true was the “true story” found in the book.  These details, among others have been highly contested and largely denied.

Sorkin and Fincher have responded by admitting to changing some things in the interest of making a better film, and this is acceptable given that they never claimed to have made anything other than a film, a work of fiction. This was actually to be expected on their parts. But Mezrich’s book is different because Mezrich does hold his work up to be a work of non-fiction, a work of narrative non-fiction for which he admits to condensing events and inventing dialogue and some locations, but a work of non-fiction nonetheless. But, if Mezrich invented so much that these more contentious details are false, then Mezrich’s work is simply a work of fiction  − a work of fiction with a rather simple style and without any real literary flare, making it simply an entertaining work of pop fiction but nothing more.

However, before completely discounting Mezrich and The Accidental Billionaires, there are a few other things worth considering. First, Mezrich’s work of narrative non-fiction seems to rely heavily on interviews, seemingly from sources that have unresolved issues with Zuckerberg or were only loosely connected to him. Second, Zuckerberg had denied Mezrich’s interview requests on multiple occasions, and it appears that those currently on more amicable terms with Zuckerberg did not agree to be interviewed either, leaving Mezrich with only more hostile and more distant sources (This is not to say Zuckerberg or his friends were under any obligation to cooperate with Mezrich, but they now do have the misfortune of his book being as popular as it is and having been used as the primary source material for the film). And third, even if those who currently know Zuckerberg have come forward and vouched that neither the book nor the film accurately portray his character, that is not to say that those portrayals are completely incongruent with how he may have been perceived by people from 2003-2005.

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