Everything You’ve Read About Harvard’s Winklevoss Twins Is Wrong

With a new book out this month, the author of Facebook’s origin story reconsiders the villains he helped create.

Tech gurus Cameron Winklevoss and Tyler Winklevoss. / Getty Images

I’ve always believed that if the Winklevoss twins didn’t exist in real life, Hollywood would have invented them.

As portrayed nearly a decade ago in The Social Network, the movie adapted from my 2009 book The Accidental Billionaires, the college-age pair cut quite a celluloid spectacle: chiseled, privileged, painfully blond 6-foot-5 identical-twin Olympic rowers—the perfect foils to the über-nerdy, socially awkward Mark Zuckerberg, caught up in the Shakespearian drama at the heart of the founding of Facebook, the social network that grew from a college experiment to a company that now dominates much of our lives.

In my—and Aaron Sorkin’s, and David Fincher’s—telling, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss were the ultimate big men on campus: the cool kids at Harvard, jocks who showed up for classes wearing suits and ties, children of a self-made tycoon who were members of the Porcellian, the poshest of all the university’s semi-secret, all-male final clubs. Pitted against them, first in a dining hall at Kirkland House on the Harvard campus and then, eventually, in a mediation chamber surrounded by lawyers, Zuckerberg was their polar opposite—a rebellious computer geek trying to disrupt the social order for what he perceived to be the greater good.

But now, 10 years later, that dynamic has suddenly reversed. Today, Zuckerberg is no longer the revolutionary; Facebook, the company that grew out of his dorm room, is now one of the most powerful businesses on earth. It is the establishment, one of the silos controlling much of the data that flows through the Internet. Zuckerberg—caught up in scandal after scandal involving everything from his platform misusing private data to helping spread political disinformation—seems more James Bond villain than plucky, awkward hero.

And even more surprising, the twins are also back in the news. In an unlikely second act, these former emblems of the establishment have suddenly been recast as revolutionaries, carrying the flag for a disruptive new technology that might one day overshadow Zuckerberg’s creation itself. For the past year and a half, I’ve been documenting the Winklevoss twins’ wild ride into the brand-new world of cryptocurrencies. And the irony is not lost on me that the result of this research, and my new book, Bitcoin Billionaires, is really a reassessment of the image of the twins that I was partially responsible for creating. It’s easy to judge the brothers by how they look, how they dress, and where they come from. I grew up on ’80s archetypes, and I am now fully aware that there’s often a fine line between vivid, real-life characters—and caricatures.

The Winklevoss twins are the subject of Ben Mezrich’s new book, Bitcoin Billionaires. / Getty Images

My journey to Bitcoin Billionaires began more than 11 years ago, with a strange little email sent to my website in February 2008. Because of the success of my book Bringing Down the House, and the resulting movie, 21, I was used to getting emails from college kids describing various schemes and adventures that usually ended in fortunes (or jail time). But this particular email struck me as different. It was from a Harvard student named Will McMullen, and to paraphrase, it basically said: My best friend founded Facebook, and nobody has ever heard of him.

In 2008, I was aware of Facebook. At the time, it wasn’t the megalith that it is today, but a fair number of my friends were using the social network on a daily basis. I had heard of someone named Mark Zuckerberg, the founder, but I wasn’t aware that anyone else might have been involved. Curious, I arranged to meet the subject of the email the next night at Bar 10 at the Westin in the Back Bay.

When Eduardo Saverin walked into Bar 10, he looked a little like a dog that had been kicked a few times. Despondent but not yet desperate, he started the conversation abruptly: “Mark Zuckerberg fucked me.”

From there, he proceeded to tell me the crazy story at the heart of what would eventually become The Social Network. A tale of two best friends who were far from social stars, more comfortable in front of their computer screens, and pathetically challenged when it came to matters of the opposite sex. Saverin, from a wealthy Brazilian family, hoped to become a member of one of Harvard’s secretive final clubs to jump-start his social life. Zuckerberg, his best friend, decided on a much more inventive strategy. Hacking his way to photos of female classmates across campus, he created a website called Facemash where students could vote on which classmate was “hotter.” When the link he sent to a few friends leaked all over the school, it nearly crashed the network—and led to Zuckerberg being pulled in front of the administrative board and almost getting expelled.

Enter: the Winklevoss twins. When Zuckerberg’s troubles (his very first scandal, it could be argued) were written up in the Harvard Crimson, he caught the attention of Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, who happened to be working on their own website with their roommate Divya Narendra in their dorm room in Pforzheimer House on the Quad. Called the HarvardConnection—and later renamed ConnectU—their project was a dating website/social network aimed at connecting students through shared interests. Their own programmer had left campus to work for Google, so they were in need of someone with the necessary computer skills to complete their nearly finished coding. In short, they needed a geek. From what they’d read in the Crimson, Zuckerberg more than fit the bill.

After a lunch meeting at Kirkland House, Zuckerberg agreed to help—most likely more intrigued by the chance to hang out with two Olympic-level athletes with enviable social pedigrees than by their computer code—but then began to blow them off, mostly via email. At the same time, Zuckerberg went back to his friend Saverin with a proposal: He had an idea for a website where people would put their own profiles up to connect with one another—and nobody would end up getting expelled from school. All Saverin needed to do was put up some money, and Zuckerberg would do the rest.

A few weeks later, behind the Winklevoss twins’ backs, Zuckerberg launched TheFacebook.com, and the rest was history. Eventually, he kicked Saverin to the curb, resulting in a lawsuit, a confidential settlement, and my book and movie. Similarly, the twins—feeling betrayed—sued as well, and received a hefty settlement of their own.

This moment—what I believed at the time to be the end of the twins’ story—was actually just the beginning.

Ironically, I first made contact with Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss by reaching out to them via Facebook. A week after that evening at Bar 10 with Saverin, we arranged a face-to-face meeting in New York, at the W Hotel in Union Square. When the twins walked into my suite, one of my very first thoughts eventually ended up in the book: They looked just like the bad guys in every ’80s movie I had grown up on. On appearance alone, they were the matinee-idol dudes in the skeleton costumes chasing the karate kid around the gym.

More than that, they were incredibly compelling because there were two of them. Not just identical—but mirror twins, an even stranger twist of biology. Normally, identical twins—born of a single egg fertilized by a single sperm—separate into unique embryos between the second and eighth day of gestation. Mirror twins, however, don’t separate until later, around the eighth to 12th day, after which a monozygote that split would most likely end up conjoined.

Where identical twins are close—often thinking similarly and communicating wordlessly—mirror twins are like one person split in two. If one mirror twin has a birthmark on his right shoulder, the other has one on his left. When one of the twins is a lefty, the other favors the right hand. Where Tyler Winklevoss is more left-brained and analytical, Cameron is more empathetic and goofier. Interviewing them together is like interviewing a single source, because they not only complete each other’s sentences, they also actively think together.

Moreover, they aren’t just built like professional athletes; because they train together, work together, and eat together, they remain physically the same. It was one of the keys to their success at rowing—they move identically but as opposites, righty and lefty. When their high school rowing coach met them for the first time, the twins told me, he commented that God had dropped them on his front porch.

Right from the start, the Winklevoss brothers became two of my most valuable sources. Not only were they first-person—albeit very subjective—witnesses to the birth of Facebook, but they had access to thousands of pages of court documents involving depositions of every major character. Even more intriguing, from the very beginning it was obvious they had intense feelings about Zuckerberg, and what they perceived to be his many betrayals.

Though their dispute was eventually settled in mediation, they were not content to ride—or row—off into the sunset. The settlement itself came to a head in unique fashion, something I did not find out about until well after The Social Network. After months of meetings with lawyers, the twins had the idea to sit down, face to face, with Zuckerberg and work things out. They were just three college kids who had met in a dining hall, after all—shouldn’t they be able to shake hands and come to a fair agreement? They took the proposal to Zuckerberg’s lawyers, who returned with an odd request. Zuckerberg had agreed to the meeting in principle—but he had what the lawyers described as “security concerns.” He wanted to meet with only one of the twins, not both. Apparently, the twins recalled thinking, Zuckerberg was afraid they were going to beat him up. So the meeting took place—just Cameron and Mark—in a glass-walled office surrounded by lawyers.

It was this last-ditch meeting that potentially led to the settlement itself: $65 million—which, against the advice of their lawyers, the twins took as $45 million in stock. That alone turned out to be one of the best decisions they ever made: Six years after the IPO, the share price had quintupled, and the twins’ holdings are now estimated at about $500 million. But the brothers hadn’t taken such a large chunk of the settlement in stock because of what it might be worth—they’d taken stock because they truly believed they should be part of Facebook. Zuckerberg might not have thought much of the HarvardConnection or their computer code, but the twins believed that many of their ideas were integral to the social network’s success. The fact that you needed a harvard.edu email to sign on in the beginning, for instance, creating a sense of exclusivity. And the concept of circles of connections, from family to friends to classmates. Tyler and Cameron didn’t think they’d created Facebook, but they did believe their names deserved to be mentioned on that masthead somewhere. The massive settlement made them rich, but it wasn’t going to heal the wounds of betrayal.

After settling the case, the twins’ initial plan was to dive back into the tech world as VCs, using the settlement money to invest in Silicon Valley startups—perhaps find another Facebook as investors. But they quickly discovered that Zuckerberg’s shadow made this an impossible goal. Every company in the Valley had the same endgame—to sell their startup to Facebook. Nobody would risk having the last name of the two people Zuckerberg hated most in the world on their spreadsheets.

Despondent, the brothers headed to Ibiza to lick their wounds. And there, at the Blue Marlin, a famous beach club/disco brimming with bronzed, beautiful people, a chance encounter changed everything.

Over the past decade, I’d stayed remotely in touch with the twins—meeting them once or twice in New York, seeing them at restaurants in L.A.—but I knew very little about what they had been up to since The Social Network. Although they’d been part of the hoopla around the film—attending the premiere, meeting with Armie Hammer as he prepared to play them—the media hadn’t been kind to them. They had become such caricatures—angry jocks in suits—that Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard who had famously kicked them out of his office when they’d tried to point out that Zuckerberg had broken the school code of conduct, publicly ridiculed them on stage at the Aspen Institute, calling them assholes.

Because of this, I wasn’t expecting the New York Times article that popped up on my Google news browser one random morning a year and a half ago declaring that Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss had suddenly become the world’s first well-known Bitcoin billionaires.

Just as I’d tangentially known what Facebook was when I’d first met Saverin a decade ago, I also had some awareness of Bitcoin when I read the Times article. I knew Bitcoin was a form of digital money—cryptocurrency—that had appeared out of nowhere in 2009 and had run from pennies per coin in value to more than $10,000 a coin (and would eventually top out at double that, before sliding back to roughly $5,000 today). Other than that, I was a Bitcoin novice. I certainly had no idea that the twins were involved to such a degree—that in fact, they were at the center of this cryptocurrency revolution. I immediately emailed them, and a day after reading the article, I was in New York, walking into an office in the Flatiron district filled with computers and buzzing with dozens of employees, nearly all of them seemingly under the age of 30.

As it turned out, not only did the twins own an enormous number of Bitcoins, they had also built a crypto exchange called Gemini—essentially, a stock exchange for crypto coins. They’d become a part of Bitcoin’s growth story by investing in Bitinstant, a company whose young CEO, Charlie Shrem, ended up being arrested for money-laundering Bitcoin, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, and was sentenced to jail for a year.

As the twins proceeded to tell me their story, I was immediately engaged. On that beach in Ibiza, they said, their chance encounter was with one of Shrem’s colleagues—a man named David Azar, who first told them about the cryptocurrency. The history of Bitcoin was fascinating—how it was launched in a “white paper” submitted to a cryptography board by a mysterious person, to this day unidentified, calling himself Satoshi Nakamoto; how Nakamoto saw it as a revolution in money, a currency built for the Internet that could be exchanged instantly, each transaction verified by the Bitcoin community itself; how it was initially embraced by libertarians and anarchists, who saw the idea of a digital form of money transferred in the same way you’d send a text or an email as a way of keeping currency out of the reach of banks and governments; how initially, it grew to prominence primarily as a way of buying illicit goods on Silk Road, an underground drug bazar lodged deep in the “dark web”; and how it shifted into something more important after a financial crisis on the tiny European island and notorious tax haven of Cyprus suddenly made the idea of a form of money you could store on a computer fob, a hard drive, or even your arm make a lot more sense.

Still even more incredible to me was that it was these two characters—the Winklevoss twins, a.k.a. the Winklevii—who had jumped so deep into this world that they’d now emerged as two of its most famous players. At first, they thought Bitcoin was either the next big thing or a scam. But the deeper they delved into the theories behind it, the more they began to believe that it was something significant. The truth is, money is already mostly digital. When you deposit cash into a bank, it doesn’t sit in some vault somewhere—it instantly becomes zeros and ones, bouncing through computerized ledgers. Bitcoin just took this one step further, erasing the need for the bank—and the government that watches over it—by using the online community itself to verify transactions as they happen. Bitcoin “miners” who run software solving complicated mathematical problems log transactions for everyone to see, in exchange earning coins—a self-incentive system that makes an overarching authority unnecessary.

The twins loved the idea of a form of currency that did not rely on human intervention but instead was built on math. Once they were convinced it was not simply a scam—that Bitcoin actually worked—they made an incredible bet, buying up 120,000 coins, one percent of the entire finite supply at the time, at an average price of below $10 a coin. At the same time, they invested in Shrem’s company, and began traveling the world pushing the currency to investors, media outlets, and politicians. They even ended up testifying in front of the New York State Department of Financial Services in a public hearing on the future of crypto.

Once again, to the twins, it wasn’t about the money; becoming billionaires was a byproduct of their battle for Bitcoin’s acceptance, not its goal. To them, Bitcoin truly seemed to be another revolution, on par with Facebook in how it might one day change the world. And as I followed them to document this new journey, I had no choice but to readjust my view of the two guys in skeleton costumes.

I don’t believe the twins’ second act is accidental, nor do I think Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss have been a part of two revolutions just by chance. In the end, as much as I believe that The Social Network and my book got Mark Zuckerberg exactly right, we just might have gotten the Winklevoss twins exactly wrong.