one-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
By: 
Ben Mezrich
user_rating: 
0

A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal

A-The Accidental BillionairesHarvard-educated Ben Mezrich began his writing career in science fiction but staked out his place in the nonfiction world with his remarkable stories of young men who beat the system, such as Bringing Down the House (2002), which was made into the movie 21. The movie rights to The Accidental Billionaires were reportedly sold before Mezrich had even finished the book.

The Topic: Spurned by a pretty coed in 2003, nerdy Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg retaliated by hacking into the university's online dormitory directories (called facebooks) to download female students' photos and create a Web site where male students could rank them by appearance. University officials quickly shut down the Web site and disciplined Zuckerberg for his prank, but the idea for Facebook had been born. In 2004, Zuckerberg launched Facebook's prototype, an online social network for Harvard students. As its popularity increased, the Web site opened to additional colleges, high schools, and finally, in 2006, to everyone over the age of thirteen. Despite competitors, lawsuits, and bitter disputes among business partners, Facebook has become a worldwide sensation, boasting over 250 million members and valued at $15 billion.
Doubleday. 272 pages. $25. ISBN: 9780385529372

Oregonian 3 of 5 Stars
"The writing is pedestrian at best. ... But here's the rub: You won't be able to put the book down. The story's far too compelling, and entirely too personal, to toss aside." Ellen Urbani

Business Week 2 of 5 Stars
"What results is an often tawdry mishmash of depictions of various players and a chronological retelling of the events surrounding Facebook's earliest days that does little to place the social network in its larger context or shed much fresh light on its founding. ... Unfortunately, Mezrich spends too many pages detailing the lives and motives of [peripheral] characters and offers little explanation for how Zuckerberg went from Harvard outsider to Silicon Valley darling-from awkward geek to a successful executive." Douglas MacMillan

Entertainment Weekly 2 of 5 Stars
"Tracking the rise of Facebook from campus lark to multibillion-dollar empire, the book is a breezy blend of fact and fiction-the same sort of dodgy journalism that got Ben Mezrich in trouble when he published 2002's Bringing Down the House, about card-counting MIT students in Vegas. ... All this [lack of differentiation between fact and fiction] might be forgivable if the end product were actually a spicy page-turner. But its few bits of dirt-a party here, a hookup there-feel pretty tame." Adam Markovitz

New York Times 1 of 5 Stars
"The Accidental Billionaires is so obviously dramatized, and so clearly unreliable, that there's no mistaking it for a serious document. ... Mr. Mezrich really is a vigorous storyteller in his crass, desperately cinematic way." Janet Maslin

Wall Street Journal 1 of 5 Stars
"Bringing Down the House at least had the virtue of being entertaining, however suspect its reporting; The Accidental Billionaires is simply one long, awkward stunt. ... Despite the author's best efforts to dream up a life for his protagonist, a Mark Zuckerberg-shaped hole tunnels through The Accidental Billionaires." Paul Boutin

Christian Science Monitor 0.5 of 5 Stars
"The resulting book reads like a novel-alas, a generic young-adult novel with crude plotting, cheesy descriptive passages, and grade-school vocabulary. ... For his part, Ben Mezrich is too busy snickering about sex and hangovers to wonder what actually went into making this Mark Zuckerberg Production the phenomenon it is today." Matthew Battles

Critical Summary

Mezrich forsakes the technical and business aspects surrounding the creation of Facebook and instead opts for juicier stories of "hot girls," all-night celebrity parties, and sex. Much to the chagrin of critics, even these lurid details were not enough to entertain them. They also criticized the author's forays into fiction: it's no secret that Mezrich plays fast and loose with the truth-he says as much in an author's note-but reviewers complained that his plot embellishments were laughable. Mezrich's inability to obtain an interview with Zuckerberg and his reliance on Zuckerberg's bitter ex-business partners for information necessitated some conjecture, but even with invented dialogue and imagined motives, Zuckerberg fails to come to life. Facebook addicts may rejoice, but all others should avoid Billionaires.

Supplementary Reading

Stealing MySpace The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America | Julia Angwin (2009): Though its preeminence among online social networks has been challenged by Facebook and others, the showdown between Rupert Murdoch and Viacom to control MySpace has been hailed as one of the defining conflicts of the digital age. Angwin's engaging narrative tells the story of this epic battle, as well as the history and culture of the Internet.