Book review: The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, by Ben Mezrich

originally posted elsewhere: June 22, 2014

tl;dr: A somewhat sensationalized, salacious telling of the Facebook story...

The beginning of Facebook, like the founding of just about any rapidfire billion dollar company, is bound to be an interesting business story. While that business story is indeed told in The Accidental Billionaires, author Ben Mezrich seems to have written the book with one eye on Hollywood. Mezrich spices up The Accidental Billionaires throughout with speculations about interpersonal relationships, assignations and motives. The historical record on these particular topics is likely very thin, probably little more than hearsay from one or two individuals. The result is a book that does tell the Facebook story, but not in a definitive, entirely factual way.

Before I read The Accidental Billionaires, I didn’t consider Facebook to be an innovative technology company. They were the winner in a classic network effect market opportunity: as the first social networking company to attract a critical mass of participants, Facebook could propel itself into the long-term winner in the marketplace. As The Accidental Billionaires makes clear, there were plenty of other people working on similar social networks at the time, even at Harvard alongside Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg did have some key ideas that made Facebook a success, including starting Facebook as an exclusive social network within elite universities. But after reading of Zuckerberg’s prowess as a programmer and his focus as a businessman, I do have a greater appreciation for what he did to build Facebook.

That said, I could have done without the salacious aspects of The Accidental Billionaires. Mezrich’s mixing of the business world with the personal world casts doubt upon his entire book. I tend to think The Accidental Billionaires should come with the classic Hollywood tagline: “based on a true story”. Yes Mezrich tells a good story, but just how true is it?