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05 Jul 2009 07:44
on a book that claims to expose the secrets of those who made billions from social networking
Founding a successful website is normally a story that would interest only a handful of computer obsessives. It would certainly not be the subject of a million-dollar publishing deal and a Hollywood movie brimming with A-list talent.
But then Facebook is no ordinary website.
A book about the beginnings of the globally popular social networking site, which now has more than 200 million users, is set to hit American bookshelves on 14 July.
The cover of the book, The Accidental Billionaires, sets the raunchy tone. It features an overturned cocktail glass and a discarded bra next to the blurb: “A tale of sex, money, genius and betrayal.” The exposé is written by the Boston-based author Ben Mezrich, who has previously, and controversially, chronicled the deeds of Las Vegas gamblers, high-powered financiers and Japanese gangsters.
Purporting to tell the story of Facebook’s founding by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg and his friends, it charts the site’s rise from a private project aimed at judging the attractiveness of his fellow students to a way for classmates to keep in touch, and eventually to a global phenomenon valued at billions of dollars.
Along the way Mezrich paints a story of backstabbing, wild sex, hard drinking and, at one stage, feasting on roasted koala on a yacht owned by a Silicon Valley millionaire. “No one has really succeeded in making Silicon Valley sexy. But this book might,” said Caroline McCarthy, a journalist for the technology website CNET, who has reviewed a rare advance copy.
Perhaps no wonder, then, that The Accidental Billionaires is the subject of a major movie deal after actor Kevin Spacey signed on to produce it. Spacey even wrote a review of the book on its Amazon page, calling it “a captivating story of betrayal, vast amounts of cash, and two friends who revolutionised the way humans connect to one another—only to have an enormous falling out and never speak again”.
Spacey is one of many top names linked to the project. Aaron Sorkin, the man behind the acclaimed TV series The West Wing, is writing the script and David Fincher, whose previous films include Fight Club and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, is in talks about directing the film. Canadian actor Michael Cera, meanwhile, is tipped to play Zuckerberg.
Given such a roster of talent, you might think Zuckerberg and the people at Facebook would be delighted. Far from it. Facebook has made no secret of the fact that it does not appreciate Mezrich’s treatment of its founding and has strong doubts about its veracity.
“Ben Mezrich clearly aspires to be the Jackie Collins or Danielle Steele of Silicon Valley,” Facebook spokesperson Elliot Schrage told the Observer. “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.”
The fact is that the book has not only created a stir with its depiction of high jinks among nerds but also because Mezrich’s work has come under increasing scrutiny for being not entirely accurate. His previous books have suffered attacks for including composite characters, invented dialogue and scenes that did not happen. Though his books explain these tactics, they continue to be sold and marketed as non-fiction. “Inventing characters is against the ideal of non-fiction,” said James Hirsen, a media law expert at Biola University, southern California. “The key word being “inventing” ... there has been a blurring of non-fiction and fantasy.” He is equally dismissive about the disclaimers.
“Disclaimers are a legal version of chicken soup. They don’t hurt, but they don’t always help either,” he said.
Perhaps mindful of that, Mezrich has written an especially long disclaimer at the front of The Accidental Billionaires. The 285-word note admits to mixing up details and dialogue and even the chronology of some events. That certainly seems to be borne out by reviews of advance copies. One scene, set in 2004, has a character complain about Valleywag, a gossip blog that was only set up in 2006. Another scene has Harvard students being handed degrees on a stage, whereas in real life they are given individually in their residence halls. Even the koala feast has raised eyebrows. The book describes it as taking place on a yacht owned by one of the founders of Sun Microsystems. But, according to reports, none of the company’s founders owned such a boat at the time.
“[Mezrich’s] definition of non-fiction is perhaps quite different from what the average reader’s definition of non-fiction is,” said Luke O’Brien, a journalist who has written several pieces critical of Mezrich’s methodology.
Others agree. They say that the line between fiction and non-fiction has been blurred all over the modern media landscape with the advent of scripted reality-TV shows and movies that claim to be based on true stories but have little grounding in actual events.
“Cultural perceptions about what is fact and what is fiction are a lot looser than they used to be,” said Hirsen. That may be true, but blurring the line can still be a risky game for publishers to play. Other authors such as James Frey and JT LeRoy have been caught pushing the envelope of truth and their careers imploded as a result.
Mezrich’s publishers will be hoping that they avoid that trap. Facebook executives are probably hoping for exactly the opposite. - guardian.co.uk
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