More books are published each year about the Internet’s future than about its past. But it’s not clear that readers who wish to better understand the paradigm changes of our time aren’t better off with solid history than with ponderous trendspotting. I’d rather read a book with a story to tell than a book with guesses to make.
There have been many good books in this field: Tracy Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine, Kara Swisher’s AOL.com, Michael Woolf’s Burn Rate, Robert X. Cringely’s Accidental Empires and (perhaps best of all) Linus Torvald’s Just For Fun. I once read a good history of the early television industry called The Box by Jeff Kisseloff, and I guess our current electronic communications revolution must be at least as bookworthy as that one was.
I’m also (complete disclosure of the utterly obvious) busy writing my own suspense-filled memoir of life as a New York City techie, so I have reasons to hope future generations will want to read about how exactly the Internet came together (or came apart) in its early decades. At least these seem to be exciting times.
I recently read two new books in this field: Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming and Why It Matters by Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg and Accidental Billionaires: the Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal by Bringing Down the House author Ben Mezrich. Both are good books, but one is a bestseller and one isn’t, and I thought it’d be interesting to compare and contrast the two.
Accidental Billionaires is the big seller of the two, and it’s also likely to become a major motion picture soon. Ben Mezrich’s earlier non-fiction book about tech-savvy young gamblers became the film 21, and he’s clearly more interested in exploring the character of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg than in wondering about the meaning of social networking. Tracking the shy teenage entrepreneur as he builds the little website at Harvard University that blows up and takes over the world, Mezrich clearly admires his pluck and taste for mystery, even as the awkward but confident student screws over one former friend after another while clawing his way to the top. Zuckerberg’s personality is Mezrich’s main topic: this enigmatic mensch is too shy to pick up a girl on his own, but isn’t too shy to carry business cards that read “I’m CEO — bitch.” I hope they get an actor clever enough to capture this walking paradox in the movie.
Accidental Billionaires is at its howling worst when Mezrich attempts to talk like a techie. Passages like this, supposedly Zuckerberg’s stream of consciousness as he “hacks” into Harvard’s student directory system, are cringe-worthy:
12:58 am: Let the hacking begin. First on the list is Kirkland. They keep everything open and allow indexes in their Apache configuration, so a little wget magic is all that’s necessary to download the entire Kirkland facebook. Child’s play.
No self-respecting hacker in the real world has ever used the phrase “a little wget magic”. Wget is a simple and perfectly legal app that sends out web requests on public networks. I don’t think many hackers say “Let the hacking begin” either. This is like a movie about auto racing where the driver gets in the car and says “Yippee! The wheels go round!”
But Mezrich is at his best when he zooms in super-close on the amazing cipher that is Mark Zuckerberg, revealed in all his glorified loneliness in a stirring chapter at the end. Accidental Billionaires is not a very brainy or heavy book about the current technological revolution, but it’s no less important or relevant for telling its one simple story well.
Scott Rosenberg’s Say Everything is a much more substantial effort than Ben Mezrich’s, covering the history of blogging from years before the word was invented to today, from Links From the Underground’s Justin Hall in 1994 to Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin in 2008. Like Mezrich, though, Rosenberg is at his best when painting pictures of the individual people who like to make themselves visible on the web. His affectionate portrait of Justin Hall (who also turns up in an early chapter of my memoir) is lively and just plain fun; I’m glad that giddy, carefree and sometimes careless people like Justin Hall exist in the world, and I’m glad that Justin’s story has been printed in book form for future readers to enjoy.
Rosenberg also tells good stories about folks like Dave Winer, Jorn Barger, Evan Williams and Heather Armstrong. The book is weakest at the end, when Rosenberg attempts to philosophize about the blogging medium. These chapters could have been simply skipped, not because they are badly written, but because this topic is too well-trod. I couldn’t even bear to read the section on “Bloggers vs. Journalists”. I know I’ve heard it all before. Maybe posterity will find this chapter interesting, but nobody with a Twitter account will find it unfamiliar.
What do both of these books offer? It’s hard to say. No message emerges, except the message of diversity and open-mindedness towards the unexpected. Perhaps the most important testimony is that both books propelled me forward, created suspense, satisfied my urge for resolution. The real story is unfolding around us today, and these printed pages are but leaves that fall to the ground as the story grows.