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Author tackles Facebook in controversial book

Ben Mezrich's "The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal" hit stores on Tuesday. He calls himself a nonfiction writer, while a Facebook spokesperson says the author is the "Danielle Steel of Silicon Valley."
/ Source: Reuters

Author Ben Mezrich wants readers to enjoy his new book about the founding of social networking website Facebook like a page-turning thriller and ignore criticism of his reporting methods.

Mezrich's book "The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal" hit bookstores on Tuesday and already is being blasted by some as more about fun than facts.

BusinessWeek called the book, published by Doubleday, a "tawdry mishmash" and said Mezrich wrote "a fictionalized account of the founding of Facebook."

Mezrich dismisses that as elitist claptrap.

"It's a nonfiction book. It's a true story," he told Reuters in an interview. "I am a narrative nonfiction writer in a way that other people don't write. I'm trying to create my own genre of nonfiction."

The controversy
Mezrich did not interview Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and critics say the author fails to explain properly Zuckerberg's transformation from anti-social Harvard University student into Silicon Valley's hottest property.

Mezrich is no stranger to controversy. His book "Bringing Down the House," about a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students who won millions playing blackjack and counting cards in Las Vegas casinos, was criticized by the Boston Globe for having made up scenes and characters.

Mezrich insists he follows normal journalistic practice — conducting interviews, talking with sources, combing through documents and piecing material together into a story.

In one scene from the book, he speculates that Zuckerberg broke into a Harvard dormitory to hack into a computer server, describing him hiding behind a sofa waiting for a couple locked in a steamy clinch to leave the room.

"I can either write a sentence that says an engineer says that this is how (Zuckerberg) did it, or I can recreate that scene," Mezrich said. "I choose to write the scene."

"I'm much more into entertainment than literature," he said, citing fiction writers Stephen King, Michael Crichton and John Grisham as his "heroes."

'Next step in human evolution'
Asked to comment, Facebook spokesman Elliot Schrage said in a statement: "Ben Mezrich clearly aspires to be the Jackie Collins or Danielle Steel of Silicon Valley."

But Mezrich stands by his book.

"Anybody who read this book who was in it, Mark Zuckerberg for instance — what he says publicly is different — but if he sat in his room and read it, he would put it down and say, 'Yeah, that's what happened,'" Mezrich said. "And that's what makes it nonfiction."

The book captures the breathtaking speed with which Facebook, established as a website for Harvard students in 2004, became ubiquitous. It also details the geeky social scene at Harvard and the legal disputes over who founded Facebook and who came up with the original concept.

On Monday, Russia's Digital Sky Technologies boosted its Facebook stake to as much as 3.5 percent, valuing the company at about $6.5 billion.

"I really believe Facebook can continue forward and get bigger and bigger and bigger and be really one of the most valuable companies in the world," Mezrich said, likening Zuckerberg to a young Bill Gates of Microsoft.

"It becomes your social life," he said. "It's the next step in human evolution. I know that sounds really grand but I think we have gone from the village to city to Facebook."

To the big screen
Mezrich said his book is slated to be made into a movie, scripted by Aaron Sorkin, famed for his hit television show "The West Wing," and produced by Academy Award-winning Kevin Spacey, who produced and starred in the film "21," the screen adaptation of "Bringing Down the House."

Mezrich says he has no idea what his next project is but, having written about young people doing extraordinary things, the main character in his next book will likely be young.

"I always keep my eyes open when I see a Ferrari go by. If the kid's under 30, I always think 'He's probably got a story,'" Mezrich said.