Facebook author Mezrich: Mark Zuckerberg should love 'The Social Network'
Ben Mezrich, author of the Facebook-genesis tale "The Accidental Billionaires," is one of the main reasons "The Social Network" exists. The upcoming David Fincher movie germinated when Mezrich's tome was optioned in 2008 by producer Scott Rudin, and Mezrich and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin began meeting and poring over the story. (The movie centers on the web of relationships between co-founders Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin and other Harvard students, who alternately collaborate and battle over credit.)
“Billionaires” has generated controversy among critics who say that Mezrich uses fictional techniques in a nonfiction context, and relies heavily on the recollections of Saverin but not Zuckerberg, who wouldn’t cooperate. We had several conversations with Mezrich to discuss his relationships with the personalities in the book as well as with the film.
Among his more notable thoughts: Facebook's standing will actually be enhanced by the movie. And Zuckerberg -- who has said he won't see the movie but on Wednesday was reported to have been spotted at a Seattle screening -- comes out looking good, Mezrich believes, contrary to much of the consternation from the young mogul and much of the Facebook camp.
There's been some hay made of the fact that Zuckerberg wouldn't talk to you. How hard did you try and why do you think he turned you down?
I spent a year kind of trying to get Mark to talk to me. It was a little like "Waiting for Godot." There were a lot of the "maybes" before the "no." I think he didn’t want this to be an authorized story, and even though it wouldn’t have been done that way I think that’s what he was afraid of. It’s a little ironic. Facebook is all about opening boundaries, and yet I can’t get this guy to sit down and talk to me.
Why do you think Saverin decided to tell you his story?
I got an e-mail at 2 in the morning, completely random, in February 2008 from a kid whose best friend was Eduardo. It just basically said, “My best friend co-founded Facebook and nobody knows who he is.” He was angry. He felt betrayed. And then Eduardo met me and started telling me these stories about how he’d been screwed over. Then my book proposal leaked out on Gawker — and I don’t know exactly what the trigger was — but Eduardo called me and said, “You can never speak to me again.” It was six months of interviewing him, and then he cut off conversations. I heard he got a billion-dollar settlement from Facebook. A billion dollars is a lot of money. If someone offered me a billion dollars not to talk …
Did you think Zuckerberg would be as upset by the book — or the movie — as he has suggested he is in some of his public comments?
He does come off pretty well in the movie. It’s not negative at all. It's [simply the story of] an antihero and driven geek turned into a powerful figure.So you think he might actually like the movie if he saw it?
I would love to hear what he actually thinks of it. I personally came out of there saying this is the best movie I’ve ever seen. My previous favorite movie was “Fight Club,” but I think this is even better. It was amazing to see. And I do think it's a very fair portrayal of the different points of view. It’s the true story of how Facebook originated. Facebook wants to keep calling it fiction, but there’s a lot of documentation. It may be the most documented movie ever made.
It sounds like one of the things that Zuckerberg objected to is that your book and the film both exaggerate the degree to which girls played a role in what he and some of the other founders were doing back in those early days of '03 and '04.
He doesn't come off as sex-crazed. He did that Facemash stunt and made that hot-or-not website [both antecedents of Facebook] and there's a couple scenes of hooking up. A lot of it has to do with people -- the whole theme and idea is that these are college kids doing crazy things. [There's] nothing in particular that says he's sex-crazed.
Why, then, do you think the company has reacted in as dismissive a manner as they have, both to the book and to the movie?
They would rather a different story were being told. Personally, I think it puts Facebook on the map in a whole other way. What other 26-year-old is having a major movie being made out of them? It puts Zuckerberg up there with Bill Gates.
But with all the privacy concerns bubbling up, they must be worried that it will affect their public perception.
I think that the movie makes Facebook cooler now than it’s ever been before. There’s some dirt but the 19- or 20-year-old who reads the book or sees the movie is going to think Facebook looks cool in this movie. I would bet anything that after this movie more people sign on. What they're concerned about pales in comparison to what they're going to get out of this.
Silicon Valley is littered with high-fliers brought low. Do you think Facebook is the exception?
I believe Facebook is going all the way. They’re going to reach a billion members and will be the biggest company in the world. It will be a platform everyone goes on the Internet through. Yes, they have to deal with the privacy thing and a few other issues. But it’s not like MySpace or Friendster. This is something so usable, it feels like it’s your own. It really is a village.
You were involved a lot earlier in the film-development process than usual, working with Aaron Sorkin before you even finished the book. How did that unfold?
Sorkin signed on to write the movie and came out here [to Boston] to write. We sat at the Four Seasons and I handed him chapter after chapter. He was my first reader. I literally sent him the draft and he went from there.The discussion about the film's fidelity to the truth parallels the criticism of your book and the purported liberties it took with things like dialogue and motivations. How do you respond to that?
There's always sort of controversy around what I write. I'm an author [who has] a style that a lot of journalists don't like it. I write nonfiction in this thriller-esque style. I have all the facts; I research it. I have thousands of pages of court documents...I try to get inside my stories. I'm Hunter S. Thompson. Without the drugs and the guns.
--Steven Zeitchik and Amy Kaufman
Photo: Mark Zuckerberg. Credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images