The Battle For Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg launched an online empire from his dorm room at Harvard. Now four fellow students say he stole their idea

September 15, 2010 12:45 PM ET
Illustration by Sean McCabe

It's a sunny afternoon in downtown Palo Alto, California, and inside the graffiti-covered walls of the Facebook headquarters, workmen are hanging lights and arranging tables for champagne glasses. Tomorrow night, there will be a party to celebrate Facebook's four-year anniversary. But in a nearby building — one of four sleek offices that the social-networking Website runs not far from the campus of Stanford University — the company's founder is oblivious to the preparations. Mark Zuckerberg, the head of the Facebook empire, sits inside the safety of a small, glass-walled office, hunched over a Styrofoam box of takeout. He looks more like a boy in a bubble than the CEO of a corporation that's worth as much as General Motors. Only 24 years old, Zuckerberg has a baby face, a long, long neck and big ears. Since he took Facebook live from his Harvard dorm as a sophomore four years ago, Zuckerberg has been crowned by Forbes as the world's youngest billionaire — a dentist's son worth an estimated $1.5 billion.

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Zuckerberg made that fortune by creating Facebook — now the sixth-most-visited site in the world — as easy to use and as addictive as any drug. Every day, some 70 million users log on to gaze at their friends' profiles and post a wealth of information about themselves: phone numbers, personal preferences, romantic timetables. Zuckerberg and his staff work, often in all-night coding parties, to hock all that valuable consumer data to ravenous advertisers. With the number of users growing by at least 150,000 daily, it's no surprise that Zuckerberg has been called his generation's Bill Gates, another technological wunderkind and Harvard dropout who changed the culture and went on to amass great wealth and power. "If there's going to be another Bill Gates," says former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, "Mark is as close as anyone." And like Gates early in his career, Zuckerberg is facing serious allegations that his creation was based on ideas he stole from others.

This article appeared in the June 26, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

In a lawsuit one judge describes as a "blood feud," three fellow Harvard students claim Zuckerberg fleeced their idea after they hired him to code a social-networking site they were creating. "We got royally screwed," Divya Narendra, one of the students, has testified. And in April, another classmate, Aaron Greenspan, filed a petition to cancel Facebook's patent, claiming he invented an online facebook months before Zuckerberg. Greenspan, who has compiled reams of e-mails chronicling his months of communication with Zuckerberg, bristles at equating the Facebook prodigy with Microsoft's founder. "Gates was shrewd, calculating and insanely competitive, bordering on autistic," Greenspan writes in his self-published autobiography. "Mark was inarticulate and naive."

The legal challenges to Zuckerberg's empire paint a curious picture of the man who has put himself in charge of our social future. One of the world's most popular networking tool was launched by a brilliant but ostracized nerd sitting alone in a dorm room. From his days at Phillips Exeter Academy, where he was known as the prep school's top programming impresario, Zuckerberg has drawn on a powerful combination of isolation and entitlement to surpass his peers. He is a Nietzschean superdork for the digital age — a college student who gamed the system, propelled by a primal understanding of how to program computers to serve human needs. Whatever the outcome of the legal wrangling, the battle over the origins of Facebook prompts a fundamental question: Is Mark Zuckerberg's social-networking empire, like so many other great fortunes in history, founded on a crime?

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Facebook may have been born under disputed circumstances, but there is one uncontested moment in its inception: a Tuesday night at Harvard, where a 19-year-old boy wonder from Dobbs Ferry, New York, sat in front of his computer, dejected, alone and on his way to being trashed. It was the fall of 2003, and the World Wide Web was just beginning its love affair with social networking. That month, Fortune wrote, "There may be a new kind of Internet emerging — one more about connecting people to people than people to Websites." Friendster.com had launched at the beginning of the year and would soon have millions of users and millions from investors.

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