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September 2009

Facebook, heebies, etc.: Part two.

So yesterday we talked about the subject of Ben Mezrich's book, The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook. After reading it I have decided I am going to stay as far away from Facebook as possible, but let's face it, I am not really the target audience for Facebook. If human beings have a "social gene," mine is either highly inactive or gone missing.

But today the question is, how does this book work as a book? And, more particularly, how does it work as a nonfiction book? Well, let's examine that. Here's an excerpt from Mezrich's Author's Note:

"There are a number of different--and even contentious--opinions about some of the events that took place...I re-created the scenes in the book based on the information I uncovered from documents and interviews, and my best judgment as to what version most closely fits the documentary record."

Okay, well, that's all pretty par for the course. Sounds like a lot of nonfiction at this point.

"I have tried to keep the chronology as close to exact as possible. In some instances, details of settings and descriptions have been changed or imagined, and identifying details of certain people altered to protect their privacy."

Okay, I guess I'm still with you. the "details of settings and descriptions have been changed or imagined" is starting to make me a little nervous, but I would imagine if I closely examined a lot of the nonfiction I read I would have to start questioning the details of setting. But then the note just keeps going on and on:

"Some of the conversations recounted in this book took place over long periods of time, in multiple locations, and thus some conversations and scenes were re-created and compressed. Rather than spread these conversations out, I sometimes set these scenes in likely settings."

For some reason the setting of scenes in "likely settings" is the tipping point on this one for me. Basically what we have here is a disclaimer that hey, I've pretty much changed everything, although it's all based on interviews. (And, Venta, to answer your question from the comments yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg, the primary character in the book and the founder of Facebook, never agreed to be interviewed for this book.) I'm not sure how I feel about all of this. For one thing, there is no arguing that this is effective, fast-paced, highly readable nonfiction. (It's 250 pages long but can be read in a couple of sittings.) But does that mean it's good nonfiction? That's a harder one to call, I think.

So there's my qualified review. For subject alone, this is a book you have to read. I myself have never really demanded that my nonfiction be "all true"--I read and enjoy too many memoirs to expect that--and I think even when people investigate things it's impossible to get at the truth (as I believe most people lie about everything pretty much all day long--and not always in a bad way, really), so I can't give Mezrich too hard a time.*

I also don't think it's Mezrich's fault that Zuckerberg declined to be interviewed, which I think is one of the most telling parts of the whole book, offered before the narrative even begins. This is a man who has made millions of dollars off of individuals wanting to share everything they can about themselves online, and who think he's a hero for making that possible. He didn't agree to being interviewed because he didn't have to. He can do anything he wants with very little fear that anyone will think less of him for it, and he'll make use of that. That one fact seems to lend as much credence to Mezrich's narrative arc--that Zuckerberg will do what he wants, when he wants, and anyone who isn't CEO of Facebook can just suck it--than any amount of research or more "pure" nonfiction writing would have provided.

*Mezrich has gotten in trouble for this before; claims have been made that much of his bestselling book Bringing Down the House was fabricated. I know I should be more upset about this, but all I can really say is, I'm not all that surprised. If you're a stickler for a bit more accuracy in reporting, skip this guy and head for some William Langewiesche, or really anyone whose author's note disclaimers are less than two pages long.