The creator of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, famously started the popular social network from his dorm room at Harvard University. Ben Mezrich fills in some juicy details of that story (based on interviews and court documents but with imagined dialogue) in his new book, The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal. Mr. Mezrich argues that the student created the site out of frustration over getting rejected from an exclusive “final club” at Harvard, and that the social-networking site was his attempt to build a new kind of elite club online -- one that he could control. As Mr. Mezrich tells it, the student and his friend, Eduardo Saverin, essentially created the site as a way to pick up girls.
Mr. Mezrich’s previous work includes Bringing Down the House, the tale of a poker-playing team made up of graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which was made into a Hollywood film last year.
Q. What was it that first attracted you to the story?
A. I was initially struck by the idea of two good friends who did something, and one of those kids explodes and becomes head of this billion-dollar corporation, and the other kid goes and finishes school. And it was ironic to me that the kids who started the biggest social network in the world were guys who just couldn’t get laid.
I didn’t know the story of this hack by Mark (Zuckerberg). Where late one night after getting dumped by a girl, he hacked into all the computer systems at Harvard and pulled up pictures of all the girls on campus and created a ‘Hot or Not’ site, and all the students on campus voted who the hottest girl was. And it ended up crashing all the servers at Harvard and he almost got kicked out of school. That was sort of the impetus for Facebook. I didn’t know any of that.
Q. How much was Facebook shaped by coming out of a college environment?
A. Harvard shaped Facebook a lot. First of all it was exclusive. At first you had to have a Harvard.edu address to join. He basically created Facebook to create his own final club. That’s what I believe. It definitely was a Harvard thing.
Q. What was the most surprising thing you found in your research about the origins of Facebook?
A. One of the most surprising things is that Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t care about money. That was spectacular to me and very admirable. When he was 17 years old and a high-school student, he created add-on software for MP3 players, and Microsoft offered him $2-million for it. And he just turned it down. He didn’t want it. And he just put the thing online for free. And nobody knows why, but he just didn’t care about money. And now he’s the head of this billion-dollar company, and a lot of other people who work there definitely care about money, but Mark doesn’t. And I think that guides a lot of Facebook. He’s turned down a lot of offers. Until recently they just haven’t cared about monetizing, and I think that’s kind of cool.
Q. And you think that shaped Facebook?
A. Absolutely. Part of the appeal of Facebook is that it’s not MySpace. It’s not this branding tool where you’re like, ‘Look at me look at me look at me.’ Facebook is a social network. It’s your social life put online, and it doesn’t feel like it’s about money.
Q. Well, Facebook’s leaders have put ads on the site, and one initial attempt drew vocal complaints from users.
A. My guess is that was under pressure from other people. There are lots of venture capitalists who want to make money off of this site. I don’t think Mark thinks that way. Originally it was about being in the in-crowd. Now it’s about running the biggest social network in the world. It’s this feeling of creating something that is world-changing. He’s a revolutionary, and I think he sees himself that way.
Q. Many colleges have recently set up official pages on Facebook. Does it make sense for colleges to do that?
A. It’s very wise for colleges. A lot of colleges tried to have their own kind of Facebook. In fact there was a facebook at Harvard [before Mr. Zuckberberg’s creation], just no one used it because it wasn’t interactive and it wasn’t social. I think schools would be very smart to just incorporate in there because it doesn’t cost them anything.