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February 3, 2011

DOMAINfest Fireside Chat with Ben Mezrich, Author of Book Turned Movie, “The Social Network”

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Ben Mezrich is an author of many nonfiction books you may know; this chat ought to be pretty exciting since he’s the creator of the book about Facebook that turned into the movie “The Social Network”.

The room is packed! Lights are dimming. Intense … Ooo, they’re showing a clip of The Social Network.

I must admit, I haven’t seen the movie yet, but am happy this session is my first liveblogging experience ever. Hold on to your hats, people. Wheeeeeeeee!

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Ben sits down with Jeff Kupietzky, CEO and president of Oversee.net for this “fireside chat,” although I don’t see a fire anywhere (putting away s’mores paraphernalia).

Jeff: Tell us about yourself.

Ben: Grew up in Jersey wanted to be a writer since he was 10. Says he watched a lot of “Saved by the Bell”. [Go Zack!]

Started with self-proclaimed bad novels. None sold. Even janitors rejected his novels. [I'm sure there's a back story there.]

Someone in the publishing industry told him to start reading thrillers. Then he started writing them. “Threshold” was his first book.

How did Ben get started in nonfiction?

It was an accident. He was in a bar with M.I.T kids. They all had tons of money. Went over to the main character’s house (in the book “Bringing Down the House”). There’s was $250,000 in his laundry room. He went to Vegas with them the next day. The book was born.

How do you participate with the people in your stories?

Ben says he joined the M.I.T. team and went every weekend to Vegas with them. Says he started getting kicked out of casinos with them because they were becoming more known at that point. He says there’s been some terrifying situations.

Ben talks about how they were just regular kids but then when they were in Vegas, they were completely somebody else. The M.I.T. team would recruit as many Asians, Persians and women as they could so the casinos wouldn’t become suspicious that they weren’t high rollers.

They enacted a double life strategically. That’s what Ben does in his writing.

Fireside Chat with Ben Mezrich

What’s been your favorite story?

“Bringing Down the House” changed his life. But “Ugly Americans” was the most intense experience for him in terms of research.

“The Social Network” blew his mind, started out as a small story to him.

Ben is fascinated by people who are really smart and do something completely out of the box.

With the M.I.T. kids, he said they looked at it as a math problem they needed to solve.  That’s what’s fascinating to him. They are beating the system by being smart.

What is your sense of the card counters versus casino?

Ben says there’s an expected loss at the casinos. You have to accept you’re going to lose. [Hey, I'm going to Vegas this weekend and I fully intend to win.]

The M.I.T. kids had a 2 percent edge over the house. The casinos decided they weren’t allowed anymore.

How did the movie “21” come about from the book?

Kevin Spacey called Ben and approached him to make a movie. Everyone turned it down except MGM (which is the casino the kids were hitting).

It was a business decision for MGM because then people will think they can win. But pretty much fat chance. Although it’s doable with practice.

“Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook”, how did that start?

He wanted BenMezrich.com and a fan had it already. So he bought it for $750.

He put up a site and started getting e-mails from everyone with story ideas. In Feb. 2008, an e-mail came in from a Harvard student from the best friend of the founder of Facebook.

Ben meets him for drinks: it was Eduardo Saverin. He was really upset about the lawsuit with Mark Zuckerberg and wanted to tell the story.

He spent six months with Eduardo and wrote the proposal, Gawker leaked the book proposal.

Everyone freaked out and Ben heard that settlement talks immediately ensued. And Ben didn’t hear from Eduardo again.

Meanwhile, the proposal ended up in some hands in the entertainment industry, including Kevin Spacey. So everything happened at once.

He handed the book in 2008 and the movie was out last year — it happened very quickly.

Ben tried to get a hold of The Zuck but Mark was not interested in that side of the story. Ben worked around it with his other resources from Harvard.

Let’s explore some of the themes in the book.

[We're watching a clip, want popcorn. The clip centers around a college kid trying to get a date with someone.]

There’s a moment where Mark “gets” the relationship idea. Ben thinks sex was a driving factor in how Facebook started in college campuses.

People in Harvard have sex?

No. but they think about it. [Everyone chuckles.]

Ben Mezrich at DomainFest

What does Facebook represent in social interaction?

Ben says it’s a revolution. It’s changed the world. Taking over all the elements of communication. It’s not all bad, he says. It’s made life easier and more social.

Ben says Facebook is going to dominate our lives in the next 20 years, he says it’ll be bigger than Google.

Jeff brings up privacy issues and Facebook.

Ben says Facebook believes we are a better world when we’re less private. Knocking the walls down is the hacker mentality.

The media went crazy with privacy, but Facebook’s growing numbers show that people don’t care as much.

It’s really not Zuckerberg’s job to regulate what you put on your page. It’s your job as a participant.

Moving onto who should get what percentage of Facebook.

Ben thinks personally that Eduardo should be happy with the 5 percent. Eduardo put up a thousand dollars at the beginning and Mark said he would get 30 percent back.

How much was Sean Parker the influencer on Mark?

Sean came from Napster, he was a huge influence and is a brilliant person. He was the person who made it from the dorm room company to what it is.

He got rid of the “The” in The Facebook. [Chuckle.] It’s because of Sean that Mark is the head of Facebook.

A lot of people create things, Mark didn’t care about making money and never has.

Jeff asks if Mark has changed throughout this process.

Ben says he is very socially awkward, even though he has a sarcastic sense of humor. So his publicists are helping him become the face of the company.

The book is hot. The movie has awards and nominations.

They show a clip of the screenwriter accepting the Golden Globe who thanked Ben. Ben jokes he probably thinks everyone thought he was a seat filler at the awards show. He was blown away by the recognition.

What’s next?

Ben says he has a new book in July called “Sex on the Moon” and it will be turned into a movie.

It’s a true story about a college kid working in NASA.

He fell in love with a 19-year-old girl and wanted to impress her. Broke into NASA and stole a bunch of moon rocks. Guess the kid spread the moon rocks on the bed for his little girlfriend so they could get busy on the moon. [Everyone is busting up.]

He then tried to sell the moon rocks. The kid finds a Belgian gem dealer who blows the whistle on him because he’s selling moon rocks.

He takes the fall for the girls for this college prank. He ends up doing seven years time in a federal prison.

The kid went back to school to get his astrophysics degree after.

And Ben says this is the first time he’s talked about the book publicly, in this session!

Is there something special about the schools like Harvard and M.I.T. and people getting into these types of ventures?

Ben thinks that schools like Harvard accept people who are brilliant in some ways and maybe less skilled in other ways, when you put together a group of people who are all really good in something, great things can happen.

And it’s the whole double life thing. People who did not have a good time socially in younger years want to have a second chance when they go somewhere like Harvard.

They just plugged the Playboy Mansion party later and said what happens there stays there. [I thought that was Vegas, but guess it spills over to The Mansion.]

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2 responses to “DOMAINfest Fireside Chat with Ben Mezrich, Author of Book Turned Movie, “The Social Network””

  1. Virginia writes:

    Way to go on your first liveblog post, J. You made it look easy, with the pics and all. Looking forward to BCI’s conference coverage this year :)

  2. Jessica Lee writes:

    Thanks, V! It was a lot of fun. And luckily I had Susan to team with so she was on photo duty.



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