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.

The evils of inequality

Cover of The spirit level: Why more equal societies almost always do betterThe gap between the rich and the poor has become one of the most topical issues in many countries post GFC (Global Financial Crisis) and post Neo-Liberal economic reforms. More and more people seem to feel that the rich (particularly the super-rich) don’t pay enough tax and have managed to sneakily get away with taking no responsibility for the GFC while the rest of us languish in our lacklustre lifestyles working squillions of hours per week…and all the while paying our fair share to keep society running! Or so the Russell Brand sentiment goes.

So its against this backdrop that The Spirit Level should be read, I guess…

The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone is among a handful of cornerstone works for anyone who is interested in 21st century political and economic thought. I reckon. In fact, I’d almost argue that it is a grand thesis which seeks to give policy advice on how to solve (or markedly reduce) a catalogue of society’s ills through its recommendations and findings.

Inequality = poor outcomes

The key message that authors (and epidemiologists) Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett want to drive home is that the more “unequal” a society is, the more likely that society is to manifest higher degrees of illness, mental illness, drug abuse, widespread poor educational outcomes, obesity, social mobility and cohesion, violence, teen pregnancy, among other societal ills such as rapacious consumerism.

The focus on “inequality” is really on Income Inequality – the income gap between those at the top, middle and bottom. The argument being that countries with larger income gaps experience more societal ills.

International research

Their claims with regard to what drives poor outcomes in terms of societal well-being are backed up by some quite robust research comparing and contrasting various developed countries (and comparing States to States in the USA). Lots of graphs, statistical data etc drawn from reputable organisations such as the United Nations and the World Bank (among many others).

However, not all variables are taken into account which might frustrate some people – claiming rates of obesity are higher in the USA compared to Japan because of the USA’s rough private healthcare system is a bit unfair when you leave out factors such as Japan’s healthy and entrenched culinary traditions, and genetic factors (skinny genes).

More tax…good?

But, it also seems that countries which have higher income taxes and high levels of wealth redistribution (i.e gather large amounts of tax revenue to pay for generous education, welfare, healthcare and maternity leave programmes) are more “equal” than countries which have low taxes and far less social spending – we see less of the aforementioned health and well-being problems if we practice the former!

However, the authors seem more concerned about Income Inequality (even if the average income is quite good but the top income markedly better), not so much tax. But what is outstanding is that pretty much all of the “most equal” countries have really high income tax regimes (Japan, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway).

So you are kind of left to draw your own conclusion about which is the most important – income equity or high tax rates, or both?

Sadly, New Zealand and Australia rank really highly in terms of inequality according to the authors, and therefore, this is what drives a variety of problems here and in Oz. Not just “people being lazy” etc.

Don’t be put off the by the academic sounding nature of the book, it’s really well written which makes all the technical sounding stuff really palatable.