When you think Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, you are probably thinking about their portrayal in the 2010 Oscar-winning film The Social Network . The twins—call them Winklevii, if you want—were digitally duplicated Armie Hammers who smirked their way through meetings before they were eventually defeated by Jesse Eisenberg’s version of Mark Zuckerberg . Whatever your feelings about Facebook, then and now, pretty much everyone agreed that the Winklevoss twins were the heels.
Ben Mezrich, whose book The Accidental Billionaires was the script’s source material, blames himself for that incomplete image. And now, about 10 years later, he’s back to correct the record. It helps that the Winklevoss twins are billionaires now— the first ones to be verifiably minted by bitcoin , in 2017. When Mezrich learned that, he decided to go back to the twins and figure out exactly what he got wrong, and that became Bitcoin Billionaires: A True Story of Genius, Betrayal, and Redemption , out this week. It redeems the Winklevii, sure, but the story has all the trappings of a classic adventure: wronged underdogs, party scenes, partners who flip, and, of course, a few villains.
Abel Resende Borges
Mezrich spoke with Vanity Fair to explain why he changed his mind about the Winklevoss twins, why he wanted to document their time on the bitcoin bandwagon, and what he thinks about Facebook now that so much has changed for the embattled company
Vanity Fair: Why do you think you depicted the Winklevoss twins the way you did in your first book—the preppy, buff villains?
Ben Mezrich: I’ve always been sympathetic to them, to some degree, because I’m really intrigued by their belief system. These are guys who truly believe in right and wrong—they’ve got this almost 1950s sensibility about honor [and being] men-of-Harvard thing
But I remember meeting them in a hotel room in New York, and when they walked in, they looked like the bad guys from every 80s movie. They were the guys in the skeleton costume chasing the Karate Kid around the gym. That really stuck when I wrote Accidental Billionaires and it was turned into The Social Network. They were archetypes of the big jocks; Zuckerberg was the lovable nerd; and it was a battle
When the book and the movie came out, I didn’t know how they would take it. They did come, I believe, to the movie premiere, and they didn’t hate it. Even though they didn’t see themselves in it, they didn’t hate the movie or the characterization. So I always stayed in touch with them
When did you decide to write about them again?
About a year and a half ago, when The New York Times published an article that said they were the first bitcoin billionaires, I decided, Hey, I’ve gotta call them up and see what the heck is going on. I started hanging out with them more and interviewing them, so I’ve gotten to know them pretty well in the last year and a half. I think I’m the third Winklevoss twin now
As I’ve gotten to know them, I think the way I portrayed them was not entirely fair and accurate. These guys are really smart—they speak multiple languages, they understand economics, they’re computer coders—so they didn’t fit the stereotype that was easy to draw at that time. I always thought from the very beginning, These are guys who don’t lie . Not everyone agrees with what they want to do or the way they do it, but they are very truthful
When I start to look back at the founding of Facebook, I’ve come to the opinion that they were much more [involved] than I previously thought. I do believe it’s not a coincidence that they’re now part of this whole other revolution. You don’t usually get struck by lightning twice
In the early part of the book, you mention that an insight they had into making Facebook work was using institutional e-mails as verification. It’s reminiscent of how they’ve tried to make bitcoin more regulated. Were you trying to draw connections between the role that they played pre-Facebook and what they’ve done in bitcoin?
For Facebook, one of the things they brought to the table is the idea you need a Harvard [e-mail address]. But it wasn’t just to verify you went to Harvard—it was also for exclusivity. When Facebook launched, it was exclusive to Harvard, and then it was exclusive to Ivy League students, and it was exclusive to college kids, and then it went to these concentric circles of exclusivity. I do think that that was the Winklevoss twins’ idea—at least according to them, it was. They were the social ones. When you look at Mark Zuckerberg, you look at the Winklevoss twins, which is more likely to have created a social network?
Looking at when they were first introduced to bitcoin—they’re on the beach in Ibiza, and they’re partying it up. Someone walks up to them, and pitches them the idea of bitcoin as a network. They did see the idea of having some verification process being part of it. It’s an interesting parallel
The book also portrays them as being very careful and obsessive about details. There’s a scene where they separate and go to small banks around the country to hide the different parts of their bitcoin keys. You called it the “Reverse Heist.” It seems like you have to know how bitcoin works in order to understand why they are taking serious measures to protect what is essentially pieces of paper. How did you think about embedding that explanation of bitcoin into your storytelling?
I’d never been interested in bitcoin. I’ve always [thought], Oh, God. The word “blockchain” just makes me glaze over. It’s so hard to get your head around, and it just makes you want to throw up. But when I realized it was the guys from The Social Network, and saw this whole idea of how they hide the keys, and that some people print it on a ring—I got excited about it. The way you understand bitcoin is not by reading about blockchain, math, and crypto. It’s understanding these real-world uses of it
I’m not someone who understands computers and math and economics, but I do get the idea behind bitcoin, and what’s really cool about it. It’s money of the future, you know—something that is instantly transferable, that’s digital immediately, that’s both a store of value and useful. It’s the whole idea of digital gold. It’s what you read about in science fiction, when people walk around with credit and instantly transfer money to one another. It made a lot of sense to me. The idea of explaining bitcoin, and what they do with it, is much more interesting and much more accessible than just trying to explain it through the math or the science behind it
In the epilogue, you mention that you are pretty convinced by bitcoin and cryptocurrency. Why is that?
Bitcoin makes more sense than things from the past. Listen, the bitcoin world is full of scams and schemes and manipulation. The history of bitcoin has been Silk Road and underground, dark-Web things going on. By saying that bitcoin is the future, I don’t mean that bitcoin is this reputable, clean world, because it definitely comes from something else. But I do believe that digital money or the idea of a cryptocurrency is certainly the future of money
I didn’t come into writing this book thinking that. I knew nothing about bitcoin when I started, and own no bitcoin—I never was a part of that thing. When I saw it go to $20,000—just like everyone else, I thought, Shit, I should be a billionaire right now. Because I knew about bitcoin in 2009—I just didn’t buy any. It’s frustrating to watch from the sidelines with something like that. But at the same time, when I look at the history of bitcoin, it didn’t make any sense to buy it. It was crazy and ridiculous. As I look into the technology, the science, and the philosophy behind it, it does make a lot of sense
It's intriguing that Facebook is now looking at crypto, and Zuckerberg is now looking at doing his own. It’s a personal battle—I believe there’s no way that Zuckerberg is looking into crypto and not thinking about the Winklevoss twins. There’s no way that’s not in the back of his mind somewhere. They are locked in this Shakespearean battle, and have been from the very beginning. I think it’s always personal between them and Zuckerberg. I think that it’s intriguing. Will Zuckerberg win in the end again?
In general, has your opinion of Facebook changed in the last 10 years? Some of Zuckerberg’s dicey I.M.s about privacy that you mention in Bitcoin Billionaires weren’t available to you last time.
I think we got the Winklevoss twins wrong, but we got Zuckerberg exactly right. The way Zuckerberg has dropped friends and business partners along the way. His thoughts on privacy—the idea that he really wants to take away our privacy. He doesn’t think that our data should be our data, and he really thinks it’s a better world the more we share it
It’s always been about domination. For him, it’s always been about doing what he thinks is right. And if you look at those I.M.s, he was a college kid. He was young. He said some really horrible things, and he really, truly thought other people giving him information was idiotic or stupid. But the way he treated the Winklevoss twins was strategic. I mean, he says to a friend, “I’m going to fuck them in the ear.” There’s no equivocating about what he means there
My opinion of Mark has stayed the same—it’s just that reality is catching up to that opinion. He’s now acting the way I’ve always said he’s going to act. I don’t dislike Mark Zuckerberg. I think he’s brilliant and has done some amazing things. But I do think that his opinions of privacy and what the world should look like don’t agree with most people’s [ideas]. And he’s got an awful lot of power. Now he’s only gotten more and more powerful as these things have come out
Again and again, everyone who’s worked with Mark eventually leaves and says bad things about him. I don’t think that that’s a coincidence over and over again. It’s just that he acts differently. I think, in his mind, he’s doing the right thing. He’s making our world better in his mind. We just may not agree with that
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