Author Mezrich calls Facebook controlling, but says he's a 'huge fan'

Chronicler of Facebook's start talks about social networking and writing at Cisco user conference

LAS VEGAS -- Bestselling author Ben Mezrich offered a ringing endorsement of Facebook during the closing keynote at Cisco Live! here Thursday, even while he noted that officials at the social networking firm aren't happy with how he depicted them and their company in a recent book.

Mezrich chronicled Facebook's creation and subsequent turmoil in his 2009 book, The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal. The book first appeared last summer and is now being made into a movie, The Social Network, produced by actor Kevin Spacey and featuring Justin Timberlake. The movie is slated for an Oct. 1 release.

"I'm a huge fan of Facebook, and believe it will hit 1 billion [users]," he told thousands of Cisco customers, some whom attended the event to learn more about Cisco's social networking technologies. "It's changed dating and how college kids live. Stories come to me through Facebook."

Today, Facebook has more than 400 million active users, according to its Web site. Mezrich said he has a Facebook page and uses it actively.

Mezrich said Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg doesn't talk to him, probably because of how the book depicts Zuckerberg's split with Harvard college friend and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin. "They [Facebook officials] don't like this story coming out," Mezrich said. "They are geniuses, but this is not the story that Facebook wanted to tell. Mark just basically said no [when asked for interviews]."

Mezrich said Facebook's behavior is ironic considering the company's posture on privacy and related matters. "Facebook is all about control," he said. "They want to control the story while they break down the privacy world and still stay in control."

There are some similarities between Mezrich's story of Facebook and his earlier book, Bringing Down the House, about MIT students who made millions of dollars in Las Vegas by counting cards in blackjack, he said. The 2008 film 21 is based on the latter book.

At Facebook, "they created something almost by accident," he said. They are the same "anarchistic hacker types [as the MIT students] who see a system and figure out a way to game it."

Mezrich's book describes the birth of Facebook as having partly resulted from Zuckerberg's hacking of a computer system at Harvard University when he was an undergraduate there to create a database of female students on campus for a Web site that became so popular that it shut down campus servers. Zuckerberg "was nearly kicked out of school," Mezrich said in the keynote today.

Mezrich didn't elaborate in his remarks about how or why Saverin and Zuckerberg had their falling out, but said Saverin probably got a $1 billion legal settlement from Facebook when he left the firm. "Saverin is now listed as a [Facebook] co-founder," Mezrich noted.

Mezrich said "a lot of the book is Eduardo's side" of the story because of Zuckerberg's reluctance to talk.

When asked by a member of the audience about how truthful his non-fiction books are in the details, Mezrich admitted he comes to writing from a love of fiction and a hatred of non-fiction, adding that he wants to tell a good story that people will love to read.

"I stand behind the truth of it," he said. "There's dialogue [in my books] written from old conversations." For example, when trying to describe a conversation from five years ago by drunken college students in a dorm room, he said he prefers to create dialog to tell a better story.

Other non-fiction authors might decide to paraphrase what was said instead, he said.

Cisco Systems has steadily begun building technologies related to social networks, especially for business users, part of the reason Mezrich was invited to speak at the user conference this week. The company announced the Cisco Quad collaboration platform in June.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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