Who came up with the idea for Facebook? It's always been a shady story. Mark Zuckerberg, the company's wunderkind CEO, has said that the social network was his own creation, something he designed and built while he was a student at Harvard.
Nobody really believes it's that simple. Zuckerberg's email and instant messages from the time suggest that he may have found inspiration, money, and source code from a number of other people. In 2008, Facebook settled a lawsuit with fellow Harvard students—the identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and their dorm-mate Divya Narendra—who'd hired Zuckerberg to work on a social-networking site called The Harvard Connection. The three allege that Zuckerberg stole their idea and delayed their project in order to launch Facebook first. Over the last few months, Narendra and the Winklevosses have sought to reopen the case. They initially won an estimated $170 million in Facebook shares, but they say that Facebook deceived them about the true value of the company, and they argue that they deserve a lot more. On Monday, an appeals court ruled against that effort.
Now there's a new and even stranger wrinkle in Facebook's history. Paul Ceglia—an Internet entrepreneur from Upstate New York with a criminal record involving imaginary wood pellets—produced a raft of email to support his case that in 2003, Zuckerberg signed away 50 percent of Facebook in exchange for a $1,000 investment from Ceglia. Facebook claims the email is fake.
It's no surprise that we're all so interested in how Facebook got started. There's an almost inconceivable amount of money involved—the latest estimates value the company at $75 billion. Add in handsome twins, a geeky, intensely competitive genius, the class politics of Harvard, and now an entrepreneur who was charged with fraud for failing to deliver $200,000 worth of compacted sawdust, and you've got enough string for the rest of Aaron Sorkin's career.
But there's more to this than just a sensational tale. I suspect we're mainly interested in how Facebook got started because we want to know whom to credit for coming up with a brilliant idea. In America, we root for the guy with the great idea over the guy who didn't sleep for a year making it happen. If Zuckerberg really did come up with the idea for a campuswide social network, he deserves all the billions that are coming to him. But if he stole the idea, why should he profit from something that someone else thought up first?