The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal

CoverAmericans love the idea that an ordinary individual can achieve the extra-ordinary – the American Dream! So it’s no surprise that American youth were enthralled with the Facebook story when details of its gnarly conception started to emerge. Author Ben Mezrich did well to cater to this interest and capitalize on it early on. In The Accidental Billionaires, he attempts to reveal the behind the scenes creation of Facebook starting at the start – Harvard University. Mezrich was a Harvard student himself, so he has insight into Ivy League culture.

The narrative basically begins around 2003 with brilliant Harvard students Eduardo Saverin and Mark Zuckerberg – supposed social outsiders – were excommunicated from the perfect and polished cliques of Harvard. Eduardo and Mark are depicted as being obsessed with social acceptance (most importantly with girls), which they try to achieve by either getting accepted into exclusive fraternities, or via devious computer creations.

Cover of Think like ZuckDespite Eduardo having fraternity ambitions, Mark seemed to find it much more thrilling creating contentious computer platforms to allow Harvard students to compare the school’s female students against each other and decide who are the most beautiful – a platform known as Facemash, which almost got Zuckerburg kicked out of Harvard due to the rage it provoked among the female student population. And then there was the wee issue of Facemash crashing the Harvard computer interface due to its popularity. Whoops.

Facemash, however, earned Mark a degree of notoriety, upon which two esteemed Harvard athletes approached him for help in building an exclusive Harvard dating site. However, upon working on the dating site, Mark’s ideas around social networking evolved, with Saverin helping out with the business side of things. It was all moving toward what would initially become “The Facebook”. But, TheFacebook was allegedly an adaptation of the athlete’s dating site idea. Upsetting the two 6’5 athletic giants greatly.

From here on in there were significant divisions and sneaky tactics, undermining and brinkmanship, all of which makes for very interesting reading. How could it not be, with such a cocktail of competitive individuals vying to control a burgeoning social networking site: venture capitalists, lawyers, sports people, fellow IT geeks and beautiful girls – all trying to get theirs.

What follows is a sad story of legal wrangles and friendship fall-outs which are a bit eye watering. The way the narrative goes has echoes of the Great Gatsby, except the subjects aren’t the Nouveau Riche but supposedly the Nouveau Popular. And eventually very Rich. The book has a raciness about it, and this thrusts the reader into the glamorous and clamorous environment of the Harvard fraternity culture.

This book is a bit speculative. One of the primary subjects, Mark Zuckerberg, wasn’t interested in talking to the author. So were left to read between the lines about what really happened. But we don’t like that, do we. As a society we expect people to be more forthcoming with mouth-watering portions of slanderous and scandalous material. So by default, there’s lots of scope for Mr Zuckerberg to be vilified. Which he is. In the absence of his side of the story.

There are some genuine messages to be taken from this read: fickle human nature, success changing people, or bringing out the worst in them. Don’t trust your counterparts upon entering a business relationship with them etc etc. So the story goes …

The Accidental Billionaires gives insight into competitive American college and business culture. Give it a go.  We have the book, eAudiobook, as well as the movie The Social Network which was based on the book.


Just five hours after a horrendous dental procedure and three hours after the loss of my beloved 2015 diary, I sought solace in a bit of Facebook therapy and I noticed that I was one friend down. I had been unfriended.

Say what you will, but it is not many people who lose a tooth (OK, a part of a tooth), a diary and a friend all in the space of a mere five hours. I did what any teenager would do: I trawled the list of remaining die-hards (still bravely hanging in there in my hour of need, thanks guys), in order to work out who had dumped me. My adolescent self and my aging self forged new bonds. It was not pretty.

Cover of UnfriendedI needed help, but would there be books on topics as diverse as social networking, teeth and lost diaries? Amazingly enough, the answer is Yes and right now I will share this bounty with you (and my remaining 126 Facebook friends!)

Being unfriended, if it’s done nothing else, has got me to read my first ever Young Adult book, Unfriended by Rachel Vail. I have resisted YA fiction despite the recommendations of some truly lovely colleagues who swear that it is better than adult fiction. Let’s just say I started reading it as an unbeliever and ended up, after 282 silly pages, yearning to be beaten over the head by a superficiality of adolescents armed with selfie sticks. I think we can safely say that the YA boat has sailed for me. Lesson learned.

Cover of The Story of My TeethIf it is true that every bad day has a silver lining then The Story of My Teeth was my bookish equivalent. It is a joyful romp of a read by Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli (named as one of the 20 best Mexican writers under 40), in which Gustavo Sanchez extracts and sells all his teeth at auctions, spinning improbable stories about them. This is a scam that requires talents like this:

He can imitate Janis Joplin after two rums, he can interpret Chinese fortune cookies, he can stand an egg upright on a table, and he can float on his back.

I feel better already!

Cover of The Red Leather DiaryStill I yearned for my lost diary. Was there a suitable read to help me with my loss? The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal looked promising to me. The discovery of a long lost journal rescued from a dumpster in New York brings to life the story of the writer, Florence Wolfson: an extraordinary woman from a glamorous, forgotten time. I fantasise that my beloved diary will share a similar fate and the full fascination of the life of a Network Library Assistant will finally be revealed in all its glory!

All in all these three reads were therapeutic. Next time you are a hit by a string of seemingly unrelated crises, have faith. There will a book or three for you!

Facebook was actually invented in 1901?

One of the perks of my job is I get to explore the limitless charm of our collection of historical newspapers including the British Newspaper Archive which brought this to my attention….

According to the Evening Telegraph on June the 17th 1901 it was reported in the ladies column that it is  “Quite the latest idea to have a Face-Book“! Maybe Mark Zuckerberg isn’t so clever after all? Without the benefits of online technology in 1901, the ladies were encouraged on visits to friends to draw their face or the face of someone else in the lady of the house’s sketchbook and to put their name underneath it. This gave the lady of the house her very own “Facebook” which one could chortle over the teacups while viewing the varying drawing skills of their friends.

I don’t know about you but I think this idea is perfectly charming – despite my illustrating abilities rarely progressing past stick men. At the end of the day the ladies of the Evening Telegraph have at least come together for a laugh and aren’t discussing their woes by abbreviated texts. Oh for simpler days? Maybe. I sure would missed those funny cat videos though!


Cover: Anne of Cleves
The discarded bride

In with a chance to become the fourth Queen of England, Anne of Cleves could have saved herself a whole heap of bother had Facebook  existed in her day.

For starters she could have cut out the middleman artist, posted her own selfie and just sat back and waited for King Henry VIII to take one of three possible actions: click like, make a comment such as “LOL”, or unfriend her on the spot (today’s equivalent of beheading).

But no, in the 16th century you had to go and get your portrait painted. Pity the poor artist, Hans Holbein the Younger, caught between his plain subject, an out of control King and a punishing time frame.

But Henry was quite taken with the portrait. It was Anne of Cleves herself whom he loathed on sight. Referring to her as ‘that Flanders mare’, he is reputed to have claimed she did not look English enough. And if you want to know what that means, read The English Face – which Oscar Wilde dismissed in just  four words (the face that is, not the book):

Once seen, never remembered

The Royal marriage was never consummated and was finally annulled. But the portrait lives on, as portraits tend to do.

Cover: A Face to the World
Your own self portrait may not look as good as this!

There is so much human drama in this little bit of history and whichever part of it piques your interest, the library has the book for you: books on portraits, King Henry VIII and social networking.

You may even be tempted to paint a self portrait. Be warned though that nothing will drive you to substance abuse faster than attempting to make a painting of  yourself, cutting as it does to the core of the disparity between how you think you look and what the rest of the world may actually be seeing.

But my absolute favourite book of faces is a book on moko tattoos called The Blue Privilege – The Last Tattooed Maori Women : Te Kuia Moko  by Harry Sangl. This art book is rare for me, in that I devoured all the paintings with my eyes and read every word with my heart. It truly is a taonga.

And were it ever to crop up on facebook, I’d go the whole hog: like, comment and share.

In so many words (in quite a lot of words)

Thursday 4.30 at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival saw a small but select group attending a panel discussion about social media. Donna’s already talked here about her fellow panellists, and interviewed them as well, so I will just try to give you a bit of a flavour of the actual event. Cheating, I know, but hey, it’s the new social media, where everyone shares everything, and no-one owns anything. That’s right, isn’t it?

Just before we begin, in a happy little piece of meta, panellist Moata takes a photo of the audience and tweets it, turning the tables on those of us who think we are there to report on them.  I find this train of thought so distracting that I completely fail to take a photo of them. You will have to picture for yourselves, then, the small geodome in Hagley Park, a couple of comfy couches, and a lineup that includes Chair Graham Bookman Beattie, and guests Moata, Donna, Lara and Will, all looking and sounding incredibly calm and relaxed.

Each of the panellists here today spend a large part of their lives online, personally and professionally.  The first question (How has your internet life changed from five years ago?), brings some great comments. Lara points out that the small black portable notebooks she always carried have now changed to a small black portable phone that she always carries; and that F Scott Fitzgerald (the inspiration for this habit of hers of recording the “cognitive surplus” of her life) would have been brilliant on Twitter.

Moata notes that where the internet used to be a kind of “go, look, read” kind of place, there’s now a real depth to it, and you can go, look, read but then keep going, get deeper in, be more involved and interactive. Donna talks about starting with her own personal blog, but then very quickly developing the CCL blog – launched at the 2007 Auckland Writers Festival, it had a sense of immediacy that was new in terms of coverage of festivals and events. She also makes the point that we used to think that technology was cold and impersonal, but the events of 2010 and 2011 have shown us that social media brings the ability for us to share more, help more, and build community in ways that wouldn’t have been possible in the past.

Will notes that the biggest change for him professionally has been the speed at which The Press has had to move – the expectation now from readers is that the news is being reported as it happens. He also notes that online comments have changed the game: where the Letters page of the newspaper is a very groomed product, online commenting is a completely different animal.

Looking five years into the future, Lara quotes Gibson and Mieville, talks about a crackdown on online piracy and DRM, and points out that although we think the internet is free, when we agree to the terms and conditions of websites like Facebook and Twitter, these sites are then able to monetize our thoughts and ideas for their own profit.

Moata hopes that the future will see bloggers recognised as ‘real’ writers, rather than being thought of as vaguely unsavoury lower ranks. Donna thinks that the idea of the death of the book is a load of bollocks, and that libraries will become a place of increased connectivity and interactivity, with more collaboration between galleries, libraries, archives and museums. Will asserts that The Press will still be here, still be on paper, and still be delivered to the door of anyone who wants it; but also that most people will get their news on a device, that they will happily pay for it, and that the best and most successful papers will be the ones that deliver intensely local news.

A round  of mostly great questions, with the seemingly mandatory That’s-Not-A-Question as well, and the session is over.  I must just run out now and see if I feature in that photo that Moata took …

The absence of hope or the habit of heroism?

Anthony McCarten signs books at the Schools ProgrammeAnthony McCarten’s Schools Programme session from Festival Thursday: I’m sitting looking at my notes, and trying to figure out where to start. Turns out my notes resemble real life in the digital world: fast, furious, and full of brightly intense images and words that flash by even before I can process them properly. So I’m going to take the easy option and do the ‘stream of consciousness’ thing at you.

If you were there, this will hopefully help you remember, and if not, come and find me and I’ll show you my scrawlings! (In conversation afterwards with Mr McCarten’s publicist, she says she might be able to get the full session notes from the man himself, so hopefully we will be able to give you a better report soon – watch this space!).

After a brief introduction from the MC (with the best instruction EVER to an audience, who have gotten into a terrible muddle with no information from the venue about how and when to move between sessions : What are you all DOING? Sit down and be quiet, or I’ll come down there and beat you …), we are off with the opening lines from Anthony, who freely acknowledges that as a 51 year old he knows far less about the internet than they do, but that they need to think of him as a huge fan who is offering constructive feedback about a loved one.  And now the thoughts come thick and fast:

One piece of advice – be nice to nerds. We old folk are now living in the equivalent of Vichy France, occupied in our own country by supposedly benign dictators.  We are saturated with newness, looking at the Kindle-ing of literature (how’s the book? Great – I’m 32% of the way through it). Told to want things we don’t need, and that New is always better than Old, no matter what. Imagine Gutenberg had invented the iPad in the 1400s and that Apple was publicising its brand new invention the Book today.

We are nearing 1 billion Facebook users – the industrialisation of friendship. Alice is in Cyberland. An online life is better, faster, with instant feedback and greater rewards – why wouldn’t you want to live there all the time? The internet today is like drugs and alcohol was to previous generations. BUT when international studies show that teenagers are even losing interest in sex, then clearly we have a problem.

References to Columbine, Virginia Tech and Norway lead to studies on video games and violence, BUT with studies finding no direct causal link between virtual violence and real-world should we worry about games like Doom, Counterstrike, BlackOps or Modern Warfare 3?

Is what we are seeing the Absence of Hope?

The internet allows us to lie, escape reality, hide behind a mask, never grow up, explore every kind of degeneracy, be less innovative, more docile, blind to new ideas, predisposed to be followers and copiers – Log in, imitate, and cop out.

BUT it’s not all bad – technology allows us to do the things we always wanted to do but couldn’t – the internet allows us to travel the world, talk to people everywhere, improve our lives, save the planet: witness the Arab Spring and revolution via cellphone. Computer games teach us co-operation, problem-solving, and the habit of heroism.

It’s too late to turn back the clock, put the genie back in the bottle – like the Industrial Revolution, we can only go forward from here.

We are all nerds now.