The Battle For Facebook

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"Once every hundred years, media changes," Zuckerberg said. "The last hundred years have been defined by the mass media. In the next hundred years, information won't be just pushed out to people: It will be shared among the millions of connections people have." Tapping those connections, he added, was the key to advertising's future. "Nothing influences people more than a recommendation from a trusted friend. A trusted referral influences people more than the best broadcast message. A trusted refererral is the Holy Grail of advertising."

Beacon's glory was fleeting, however. Users revolted, protesting the invasion of privacy, and Zuckerberg apologized. Still, his bold plans persuaded Microsoft to invest $240 million in Facebook, valuing the company at $15 billion — a staggering figure, considering that the site's total revenues last year were only $150 million. "On the surface, it seems insane," says Charlene Li, a technology analyst who has co-authored a book on social networking. "Why would Microsoft pay so much for such a small piece of a company? But whether it was $1 billion or $15 billion, it doesn't matter. By making it $15 billion, it assures that no one would come near it. The only one who could now buy it is Microsoft."

But as more and more money has poured into Facebook, more and more of Zuckerberg's inner circle have left. His Harvard roommate Chris Hughes went to work for Barack Obama. His roommate from Exeter, Adam D'Angelo, left in May. Rumors swirl that Dustin Moskovitz is fed up. Eduardo Saverin has sued the company for forcing him out.

It is easy for Zuckerberg to cast Saverin, Harvard Connection, Greenspan and all the others he's left in the dust as con artists trying to get a piece of the action. Facebook has countersued, accusing Harvard Connection of unfair business practices. "Facebook was built through the ingenuity and hard work of its founding team," the company declared last year. "We continue to disagree with the allegations that Mark Zuckerberg stole any ideas or code to build Facebook."

But the fight has grown increasingly ugly. Harvard Connection's lawyers accuse Facebook of playing a "shell game" with the hard drives, of hiding the code used to create Facebook. When the drives finally resurfaced, key data from Zuckerberg's Harvard days had mysteriously gone missing. "It is fishy indeed, if not impossible, that the Harvard Connection code, the prelaunch TheFacebook. com code and the Facemash code supposedly do not exist," attorneys for the plaintiffs said in a court filing.

While Facebook has morphed into the world's sixth-most-visited site, ConnectU ranks 377,920th. Divya Narendra works for an investment firm in New York. The Winklevoss twins continue to row, training for the Olympics. On his Facebook page, Tyler Winklevoss has written that he is about to settle the lawsuit against Zuckerberg, but he has yet to do so. The epic and never-ending nature of all the legal wrangling seems to suggest that, at least for those who feel screwed over by Zuckerberg, the battle over Facebook is ultimately about more than money. On the site, Winklevoss describes himself with a quote from Shakespeare's Richard II. "Mine honor is my life, both grow in one," it reads. "Take honor from me, and my life is done."

In the end, it's difficult to assess whether Zuckerberg's creation of Facebook constitutes a crime. Sometimes, great ideas seem to be everywhere at once. Newton and Leibniz independently developed the fundamentals of calculus, creating controversy at the turn of the 18th century; Darwin and Wallace rolled out the theory of evolution in separate papers in 1858. In October 2003, when Mark Zuckerberg sat down in his dorm at Harvard, drunk and alone, the idea of using the Web to connect people seemed as pervasive as iPods on the campus quad. The school already had an online database known as the facebook. All Zuckerberg did was make it interactive. The fact that a couple of other students had the same idea at the same moment doesn't mean he is a thief. And the fact that many consider Zuckerberg a grade-A asshole doesn't mean he did anything illegal. "There are lots of things that an average person might consider reprehensible that aren't against the law," says James Boyle, who co-founded the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School. "I'd warn against assuming that the 'Ew, what a slimeball' reflex be equated with what is illegal."

Zuckerberg likes to present himself as an altruistic, harmless computer geek who invented a widget that will make the world a better place. "I'm just like a little kid," he told the Crimson. "I get bored easily and computers excite me. Those are the two driving factors here." But unlike most nerds, Zuckerberg possesses gifts beyond the narrow realm of programming, the monomaniacal processing of ones and zeroes. Even his fiercest critics concede that he is more Donald Trump than slacker dork, someone with an almost ruthless taste for battle — and a sharklike ability to keep moving forward, whatever the obstacles. Like Trump, Zuckerberg has left a string of broken relationships in his wake — a track record that raises questions about his ability to manage the company he founded. It's one thing to stumble across the Next Big Thing one night in your dorm room. It's another thing to build it into a new kind of empire, one with the potential to dwarf even the Wal-Marts of the world: an online monopoly of virtual communities.

"He's young — and I'm nervous about that," says Kara Swisher, a columnist who writes about Silicon Valley for The Wall Street Journal. "How many people has he burned, and he's only 24? Even if he's not culpable, the number of people he's had problems with at a young age is remarkable — and not in a good way."

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