Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Accidental Billionaires Is Full Of Shit

Ben Mezrich's The Accidental Billionaires details the founding of Facebook, and does its best to show who screwed and got screwed, and who knew what, and when. However, it isn't particularly well-sourced, openly speculates much of the time, and, one suspects, covertly speculates much of the rest of the time.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, is the main character, for obvious reasons. Facebook was his idea, though he may have been "inspired" by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, identical twins, rowing stars, and fellow Harvard students who hired him to work on a dating website called "Connect U" two months before Zuckerberg launched Facebook on his own. Whether Zuckerberg stole the Winklevoss' ideas or not is a bit of an open question; before Facebook went national, its main appeal was its exclusivity - if you were on Facebook, that meant you attended Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or a handful of other elite colleges, and that exclusivity was a big part of its appeal, particularly since Friendster and MySpace were, then as now, full of fake profiles and spammers. The Winklevoss twins' idea for a college student dating site limited to students at elite college had enough similarities, but also enough differences, to make intellectual copyright infringement claims plausible, but not certain successes. The inevitable lawsuit settled out of court for tens of millions of dollars. Also screwed over by Zuckerbreg (allegedly) was Eduardo Severin, a friend who fronted his own money, earned investing in oil futures in his spare time (!) to rent servers for the fledgling sites, and help Zuckerberg hire assistants.

To its credit, it emphasizes that Facebook's exclusivity was originally the biggest part of its appeal; I for one remember when you needed an e-mail address from one of a handful of universities in order to join, and I, like so many others, thought it was a welcome alternative to the likes of Friendster. However, the book is very well-written in other respects - it reads like a non-fiction airport novel, told in breathless prose, full of beautiful people, everything overly dramaticized to make it more exciting than it was when it actually happened in real life (Exhibit 1: the lacy red bra and martini glasses on the cover). It repeatedly misrepresents Harvard University as being overflowing with beautiful women who are fashionably dressed and flirty. I've spent a fair amount of time there, and it just isn't true.

Also, a good fact-checker would have caught any number of mistakes, for instance . . . anything involved in any of the book's numerous rowing scenes. Example:

"Five A.M.
A desolate stretch of the Charles River, a quarter-mil eserpent's twist of glassy greenish blue, braced by the arched stone Weeks Footbridge on one side and the concrerte, multi-lane Mass Ave. Bridge on the other. A frigid glade of water winding beneath a gray-on-gray canopy of fog, hanging low and heavy, air so think with moisture it was hard to tell where the river ended and the sky began.
Dead silence, a moment frozen in time, a single paragraph on a single page in a book that spanned three centuries of pregnant, frozen moments like this. Dead silence--and then, the slightest of noises: the sound of two knifelike oars dipped expertly into that frigid glade, pivoting beneath the swirl of greenish blue, levering backward in a perfect and complex marriage of mechanics and art.
A second later, a two-man skif slid out from under the shadow of Weeks Bridge, its phallic, fiberglass body slicing down the center of the curving river like a diamond-edged blade carving its way across a windowpane." (P. 23-24).

A few of my many problems with this passage, and the other rowing-related passages in the book, other than that it made Mark Twain ("if you catch an adjective, kill it") roll over in his grave:

1) This is the sort of overwritten passage that rowers hate to read about rowing - most rowers feel that the sport is described too often in a pretty, new-agey way ("perfect and complex marriage of mechanics and art") that ignores how brutal and physically taxing high-level rowing actually is.

2) A boat in which one rows is not a "skiff," it is a "shell." I've rowed for ten years, and I've never known anybody to be in the middle of a workout at 5:00 A.M. You might wake up at 5:00 to make it to a 6:00 or 6:30 practice, but you would never be on the water, in the middle of a workout, at such an early hour. Besides being inhumanly early, it would be dark, and dangerous to row at that time.

2) Rowers refer to rowing boats by their size; a 2-man boat like the one described above is referred to as a "pair." Rowing shells are neither phallic nor fiberglass. They are made out of carbon-fiber, particularly those used by athletes at Cameron and Tyler's level.

3) The book states that, in the fall of 2004, the Harvard crew "sat atop the Ivy League standings in any number of rowing categories. However, Harvard's men's rowing team does not compete in the Ivy League, it competes in the Eastern Association of Rowing Colleges (EARC), which includes all eight Ivy League schools, but also M.I.T., Georgetown, Syracuse, the Naval Academy, the University of Wisconsin, Boston University, etc. There is literally no such thing as an Ivy League rowing championship. There are no "standings;" a team's won-loss record is factored into its seeding for the Eastern Sprints, the EARC championship race, but there are no "standings" per se in the way that there are in basketball or football. Also, what are the different "categories" in which they lead the Ivy League? There are no categories that I know of . . . just rankings in the coaches' poll.

4) Last, but not least, I rowed for ten years, and could never "feel the river resonating beneath" me three hours after I had finished rowing, which Mezerich says of Tyler Winklevoss on page 25. Is that what Tyler actually felt? Or is Mezerich just full of shit?


Senor Beavis said...

While I hope everyone involved in the creator of FB spontaneously combusts, I will say that every time i hear the name Winklevoss, I think of the Mandelbaums from "Seinfeld."

"Winklevoss! Winklevoss! WINKLEVOSS!"

Such a brilliantly villainous name.

Wade Garrett said...

If you have a minute, google the Winklevoss twins. Between their family wealth, blue eyes and Kirk Douglas jaws, they look like the "dick" characters from 1980's movies, like the jock in a John Hughes movie or the Cobra Kai guys from The Karate Kid. (To its credit, the book even acknowledges it at some point).