With a little help from his friends

By Elizabeth Day

The story of the Harvard nerd who changed the world with a website called Facebook is now a Hollywood movie. On the eve of its premiere, Elizabeth Day spoke to ex-colleagues, friends and business associates to find out why that nerd — Mark Zuckerberg — has left such a trail of bitter recriminations in his wake.

In many respects, Suite H33 in Kirkland House, Harvard University, was just like any other student dormitory shared by four 19-year-olds. There were two bedrooms, each containing a bunk bed and a desk, interlinked by a hallway and a common room filled with the detritus of undergraduate life: half-empty cans of Red Bull, dirty laundry scattering the floor and crumpled brown paper bags containing the curling crusts of unfinished sandwiches.

But in other ways, Suite H33 was different. First of all, there were the sleeping arrangements: the four roommates had dismantled the bunk beds so that no one would have to sleep on top. There was the 2.5 metre long whiteboard. And then, of course, there was Mark Zuckerberg, the unassuming sophomore from Dobbs Ferry, New York, who would revolutionise the internet and become a billionaire.

Because it was here, on February 4, 2004, Zuckerberg launched a website that would change the world. It was here, in front of the flickering pale light of his computer screen, that Zuckerberg clicked his mouse and invented Facebook.

The idea was devastatingly simple: Zuckerberg's website would provide a communications tool for keeping track of your friends and informing them of what you were up to. Whereas previous social networking sites such as MySpace and Friendster were difficult to use and enabled interaction predominantly with strangers, Facebook was about connecting with your real friends online.

It could act as an electronic social diary and as a means of self-expression but perhaps the most potent attraction for the four male college students in Suite H33 was that it could also be a way of flirting with your undergraduate crush from behind the relative safety of a computer screen.

In the complex Harvard hierarchy, Facebook levelled the playing field of social interaction: it was, in essence, driven by the same egalitarian spirit with which Zuckerberg and his roommates had reorganised the bunk beds. Although it was intended solely for Harvard, the site expanded more rapidly than Zuckerberg or his roommates could have imagined.

Facebook is still only six years old but today it has more than 500 million users and an estimated value of US$33 billion. Zuckerberg owns 24 per cent of the stock and is a billionaire three times over at the age of 26. Along the way, he has faced accusations of betrayal and plagiarism from former friends and colleagues. He has been portrayed as a megalomaniac, a genius, a soothsayer and a sociopath. But to many he remains simply the computer nerd who set up Facebook as a way to get a date.

Now his story has been adapted for the big screen by West Wing screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and the director David Fincher, whose credits include Se7en and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Titled The Social Network, it is based on a book, The Accidental Billionaires, by Ben Mezrich, for whom "this is the ultimate geek-becomes-success story. Mark Zuckerberg was the smartest guy in the room but he wasn't the coolest. At college, everything revolves around that [being cool]. That's why people become writers, that's why people become rock stars and that's why people start Facebook."

The film's release was being rigorously controlled before it opened the New York film festival two weeks ago, but one critic on the selection committee has called it "big, brash and brilliant" and compared it to All The President's Men, while Rolling Stone magazine critic Peter Travers has hailed it in a tweet as "the movie of the year that also brilliantly defines the decade".

The buzz that it will be a serious Oscar contender started in the summer when the Sorkin script found its way on to the internet, causing a storm of protest from senior Facebook executives who are said to be extremely unhappy about the way Zuckerberg is portrayed as a power-hungry manipulator. The ensuing row has been pitched as a titanic battle between old media and new; between Hollywood and San Francisco (where Facebook is based).

The film tells the story of Eduardo Saverin (played by British actor Andrew Garfield), a Harvard maths prodigy who contributed $1000 of his own money to start up Facebook with Zuckerberg after meeting him at a party thrown by a Jewish fraternity to which they both belonged. It depicts how, as Facebook grew in popularity, Saverin felt he was cut out of the business by his former best friend and also deals with allegations of "intellectual theft". The Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler, who filed suit against Facebook in 2004 and emerged with a rumoured $65m settlement, are played by non-identical actors Armie Hammer and Josh Pence. Sean Parker, the party-going web entrepreneur who co-founded the Napster file-sharing site and became Facebook president at the age of 24, is portrayed by the pop star Justin Timberlake; he utters one of the most memorable lines in the script: "A million dollars isn't cool. You know what's cool? A billion dollars."

Zuckerberg, who is played on screen by 26-year-old actor Jesse Eisenberg, is unlikely to be thrilled by the portrayal. Mezrich's book and Sorkin's script were based heavily on Saverin's story and Zuckerberg emerges from both as a fairly unsympathetic character: a highly intelligent, socially awkward young man driven by the ultimate goal of making the world more connected - ironically at the cost of his own friendships. According to Sorkin, who emphasises that the characterisation is exaggerated: "If you gave the character a clubbed foot and a hunchback you would find him similar to Richard III."

Certainly, Saverin felt he had been unfairly treated by his former friend. "He was in the midst of a legal battle with Mark when he came to me," says Mezrich. "He was feeling very angry. Of course, once Mark heard about the book, he settled and I heard Eduardo got US$1 billion. I don't think he'll ever speak publicly about what happened again."

Perhaps he does not need to: Saverin now owns 5 per cent of Facebook's stock and in 2007 was finally given a credit on the website as co-founder. Zuckerberg, however, refused to co-operate either with Mezrich or the film-makers. "I started Facebook to improve the world and make it a more transparent place," he told a media conference in America in August. "This movie portrays me as someone who built Facebook so I could meet girls." Last month, in what many saw as a carefully timed public relations offensive, Zuckerberg announced he was donating US$100 million to the troubled state school system in the city of Newark, New Jersey. Mezrich, at least, wasn't buying it. "I think Mark Zuckerberg wants to run the world," he says. "And these are the stories he never wanted told."

How did Mark Zuckerberg, the son of a dentist father and a psychologist mother, from a comfortably middle-class background, become one of the most powerful men in the world? He was always extremely bright and interested in technology, given to obsessive enthusiasms - the theme of his bar mitzvah was Star Wars - and curious habits, such as his penchant for wearing rubber-soled Adidas flip-flops even in winter.

As a teenager, he attended an elite, private boarding school in New Hampshire, where he won prizes in maths, astronomy, physics and classical languages as well as being captain of the fencing team.

His university contemporaries remember Zuckerberg - if they can recall him at all - as an introverted, pale student with curly brown hair and a wide-eyed, freckled face that gave him the air of an overgrown child. Almost everyone comments on his strange conversational manner: while talking, his face would appear utterly devoid of emotion and he would stay absolutely silent until his interlocutor had finished speaking. Only then would he respond, often curtly and with a single, unenthusiastic "Yeah" if the subject did not interest him.

And yet, for all that he might have seemed a little gauche, Zuckerberg possessed supreme confidence in his own abilities. "He has a supple and flexible way of thinking," says David Kirkpatrick, the author of The Facebook Effect, who has met and interviewed Zuckerberg several times. "He has shown a tremendous open-mindedness and ambition and I think he has always sought occasions to increase the scope of his vision but only when he thought it would make sense. He is not a delusionary visionary and that's what makes him kind of amazing. It's a characteristic that belies his young age."

Within a few months of arriving at Harvard, Zuckerberg had created a website called Facemash.com that enabled students to rate each other's attractiveness. It proved an instant hit - in under two hours, the site logged 22,000 votes - but was taken down after an outcry over privacy violations. At the time, a reporter from the university newspaper tried to contact Zuckerberg for a comment. "He was so highly strung and responded to my email by saying that I would need to speak with his lawyer first," that reporter recalls. "He was, like, 19!"

But Zuckerberg's plans for world domination left little time for responding to interview requests. After the popularity of Facemash, Zuckerberg was convinced there was an appetite for an online student community with an irreverent twist. The idea for Facebook germinated rapidly over the next few months. It would essentially be an online version of the "facebooks" given by American universities to new students each year which contained photographs and brief information on their contemporaries. But it would also incorporate functions like the ability to "poke" your friends - giving them a virtual nudge in the ribs.

Supported by two of his roommates - Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes - and with US$1000 start-up money from Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg launched Thefacebook.com in February 2004. Five days after it went live, the site had racked up almost 1000 registered users.

According to Moskovitz, who later became vice-president of the company, Zuckerberg "fell into the right situations a lot, and had extremely good timing. And when he saw a good idea he wanted to pursue it, whereas another person might have felt he needed to finish school first."

Zuckerberg did drop out. In June 2004, he moved his operations and his roommates to a four-bedroom ranch house in Palo Alto, at the heart of Silicon Valley in California. Saverin, who had an internship at a New York investment bank over the summer break did not follow, although he did deposit US$10,000 of his own money in a Facebook business account and started trying to drum up possible advertisers.

The living arrangements in Palo Alto were basically an extension of Suite H33: Zuckerberg and his friends rigged up a zip wire in the back garden that ran from the base of the chimney to a telegraph pole on the other side of the swimming pool. The house was filled with whiteboards, computer equipment and empty pizza boxes. They had raucous parties, complete with beer-drinking competitions, but they also worked hard: Zuckerberg assembled a small team of engineers and programmers who would type through the night, ironing out kinks in Facebook and developing new applications. "There was this weirdly frenzied atmosphere when they were at their laptops," remembers one early visitor. "Even though they were all in the same room, they would communicate by instant messaging. Mark didn't like to have his concentration broken." As a result of this furious work rate, Facebook kept expanding. Later that month, it received a US$500,000 investment from the PayPal entrepreneur Peter Thiel. Then the twentysomething Sean Parker became the company's president.

Despite his relative youth, Parker was a well-connected operator with a penchant for Tom Ford suits, BMW cars and wild parties. One of the most controversial scenes in the script for The Social Network depicts Parker being offered lines of cocaine from the bare breasts of a pair of teenage partygoers. Whatever the truth of that particular episode, Parker was forced to leave Facebook after being charged with - but never convicted of - cocaine possession.

"A lot of exciting things happened in 2004," the ex-roommate Dustin Moskovitz said recently. "But mostly we worked a lot and stressed out about things; the version in the trailer [of the film] seems a lot more exciting, so I'm just going to choose to remember that we drank ourselves silly and had a lot of sex with co-eds."

In any case, the work started to pay off: by September 2005, Facebook (the definite article had been dropped on the advice of Parker, who liked to keep things streamlined) was launching in high schools. Zuckerberg, by now quickly becoming one of the most influential entrepreneurs of the decade, still retained a distinctly undergraduate sense of humour and had a set of business cards printed with the words "I'm CEO ... Bitch!"

The offensive language did nothing to stall the site's exponential growth. In 2006, Zuckerberg turned down a US$1 billion offer to sell to the internet giant Yahoo, because he believed it was worth more. A year later, Microsoft purchased a 1.6 per cent stake in the company for US$240 millon. By 2008, Facebook overtook MySpace as the world's biggest social network. In 2009, the site was operating in 27 different countries. And in May 2010, Zuckerberg celebrated his 26th birthday.

"I think he is arguably the most influential person of his generation," says Kirkpatrick. "That is not hyperbole. Speaking in literal terms, that is how I see it: he is the most impactful 26-year-old in human history. It is difficult to think of anyone else the same age who has had remotely the same global impact."

But with success came the inevitable litany of problems. In New York, Saverin was beginning to feel sidelined. He also suspected, according to Mezrich, that his money was being spent rather more on beer kegs and zip wires than on legitimate business expenses. In a fit of pique, Saverin froze the company bank account. Zuckerberg, forced to keep the site going with money intended for his college tuition, never forgave his friend.

Gradually, Saverin was pushed out and his contributions as "business manager" were written out of the company history. "He definitely didn't take it [Facebook] as seriously as he should have," says Mezrich. But it was not just Saverin who had been left enraged by Facebook's success. Several of Zuckerberg's Harvard contemporaries started creeping out of the woodwork to accuse him of stealing their ideas, including the Winklevoss brothers. Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss are 1.95m identical twins - good-looking, academically gifted, with a family background steeped in wealth and privilege.

Mark Zuckerberg, two years their junior, would not have crossed their paths were it not for their desire to set up their own online social network. The twins' project, Harvard Connection, was intended to be a dating website that offered discounted entry to local night spots. Having read about the Facemash.com controversy in the university paper, the Winklevoss brothers and their classmate Divya Narendra contacted Zuckerberg in late 2003 and asked him to work on writing some of the more complex code. Zuckerberg agreed but remained unconvinced by the site's efficacy. At the same time, he claims to have been working on his own separate ideas for Facebook.

In 2004, the Winklevosses and Narendra filed a lawsuit against Facebook alleging that Zuckerberg had broken an oral contract with them and copied their idea. A multimillion-dollar settlement was reached four years later, though the trio are now accusing Facebook of securities fraud, alleging that the value of stock they received is worth considerably less than they were originally led to believe. The terms of the agreement are subject to a strict confidentiality agreement.

As the tagline to The Social Network so succinctly puts it: "You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies." The director, David Fincher, has expanded on this theme: "It's ironic that we're making a movie about how people separated themselves from one another over technology that is here to give us the advantages of recombining old relationships."

Fincher also admitted he could relate to Zuckerberg's "passion ... It's a f***ing hard thing to be [in his position]. I can imagine being 21 and having invented something everybody wants and not wanting to give it up and let it be changed."

It is ironic, however, that the founder of an organisation which prides itself on a culture of openness and "radical transparency" (the idea that all corporate decision making should be carried out publicly) is so profoundly concerned with image control that he has refused to co-operate with the film-makers. "Mark came out with a comment a few months ago, kind of minimising the idea of privacy," Aaron Sorkin said recently. "I just remember reading it and thinking 'I don't think you're going to feel that way when the movie comes out."'

The Social Network opens in cinemas on November 25.


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