Zuckerberg made that fortune by creating Facebook — now the sixth-most-visited site in the world — as easy to use and as addictive as any drug. Every day, some 70 million users log on to gaze at their friends' profiles and post a wealth of information about themselves: phone numbers, personal preferences, romantic timetables. Zuckerberg and his staff work, often in all-night coding parties, to hock all that valuable consumer data to ravenous advertisers. With the number of users growing by at least 150,000 daily, it's no surprise that Zuckerberg has been called his generation's Bill Gates, another technological wunderkind and Harvard dropout who changed the culture and went on to amass great wealth and power. "If there's going to be another Bill Gates," says former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, "Mark is as close as anyone." And like Gates early in his career, Zuckerberg is facing serious allegations that his creation was based on ideas he stole from others.
In a lawsuit one judge describes as a "blood feud," three fellow Harvard students claim Zuckerberg fleeced their idea after they hired him to code a social-networking site they were creating. "We got royally screwed," Divya Narendra, one of the students, has testified. And in April, another classmate, Aaron Greenspan, filed a petition to cancel Facebook's trademark, claiming he invented an online facebook months before Zuckerberg. Greenspan, who has compiled reams of e-mails chronicling his months of communication with Zuckerberg, bristles at equating the Facebook prodigy with Microsoft's founder. "Gates was shrewd, calculating and insanely competitive, bordering on autistic," Greenspan writes in his self-published autobiography. "Mark was inarticulate and naive."
The legal challenges to Zuckerberg's empire paint a curious picture of the man who has put himself in charge of our social future. One of the world's most popular networking tool was launched by a brilliant but ostracized nerd sitting alone in a dorm room. From his days at Phillips Exeter Academy, where he was known as the prep school's top programming impresario, Zuckerberg has drawn on a powerful combination of isolation and entitlement to surpass his peers. He is a Nietzschean superdork for the digital age — a college student who gamed the system, propelled by a primal understanding of how to program computers to serve human needs. Whatever the outcome of the legal wrangling, the battle over the origins of Facebook prompts a fundamental question: Is Mark Zuckerberg's social-networking empire, like so many other great fortunes in history, founded on a crime?