Spend Some Time With the Winklevii

The New York Times
By David Enrich

BITCOIN BILLIONAIRES: A True Story of Genius, Betrayal, and Redemption

At the end of 2017, Bitcoin mania was in full swing. Prices of the digital currency had reached a record high of about $20,000 a pop. Wall Street banks were rushing to get in on the frenzy. Egged on by hyperbolic cheerleaders, small-time investors socked their savings in the so-called cryptocurrency.

And then, just as you would expect of an asset whose value had increased exponentially in the blink of an eye, the bubble burst. The price of Bitcoins fell by about 80 percent (though it has rebounded some lately). Mainstream financial institutions scurried away, jittery about the currency’s susceptibility to manipulation and money laundering. Many individuals who put their faith in the digital currency saw their fortunes erased.

In “Bitcoin Billionaires,” Ben Mezrich chronicles the dizzying rise of the digital currency, through the eyes of two of its biggest boosters: the celebrity twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. He doesn’t get around to detailing the nausea-inducing fall.

The Winklevoss brothers are best known for their public brawl with the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. They all attended Harvard together, and the twins later claimed in a lawsuit that Zuckerberg stole their idea for his social network. That story is well known thanks in part to Mezrich’s previous book, “The Accidental Billionaires.” (It was adapted by Aaron Sorkin into the award-winning film “The Social Network.”)

“Bitcoin Billionaires” is essentially a sequel to Mezrich’s breezy, best-selling Facebook book. It picks up with the Winklevoss brothers prying a lucrative settlement — cash and Facebook shares that will be worth more than $200 million — out of Zuckerberg. They soon plow a chunk of that into the Bitcoin circus, where they encounter shameless hucksters, hapless computer geeks and shadowy criminals.

In “The Accidental Billionaires,” the identical twins — hulking, 6-foot-5-inch Olympic rowers — came across as well-intentioned overachievers who fall victim to the ruthless, brilliant Zuckerberg. In “Bitcoin Billionaires,” Mezrich goes in a slightly different direction, caricaturing the Winklevii — as the brothers are collectively nicknamed — as grumpy geniuses and sympathetic underdogs. We are supposed to feel their pain as they are ostracized from Facebook-dominated Silicon Valley and as they struggle to find worthwhile companies in which to invest their nine-figure windfalls.

Of course, it’s hard to muster much pity for two privileged young men — raised in Greenwich, Conn., their father a wealthy consultant — who pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars for, in essence, spending a few months in college hatching and then failing to execute on a half-baked internet idea.

In any case, the Winklevii soon confront a series of challenges. The first is what to do with their newfound fortunes. The twins know they are destined to create important things, but they’re initially not sure what those things should be. As Mezrich explains: “Tyler and Cameron were builders. As kids they built LEGOs. As teenagers — they built webpages.” A couple of paragraphs later, Mezrich adds, “Tyler and Cameron didn’t believe they were on the earth to exist; they were here to create, to build.”

After months of fruitless searching for things to build, the dejected twins head to Ibiza for a break — the first “real vacation in their entire lives,” Mezrich notes, implausibly. They mope to a dance party, and that is where they bump into a Brooklyn entrepreneur who is touting Bitcoin as the Next Big Thing.

The twins get excited, do some research, talk to Dad, and invest in an online company that makes it easier for people to acquire the digital currency. Then they use some of their Facebook winnings to buy about 1 percent of the world’s total outstanding Bitcoins. Their timing is great — Bitcoin is dirt cheap in 2013 — and as its value rockets higher, the Winklevoss brothers get richer and richer. They go to really great parties. And some of their Silicon Valley haters eventually embrace them, old wounds salved by new wealth.

Mezrich treats the brothers’ Bitcoin binge as something profound, as if they are the visionaries who created the cryptocurrency rather than the rich gamblers who wagered on it. He hails their subsequent Bitcoin proselytizing as crucial to the mainstreaming of a once-obscure currency, without acknowledging that their pitch might be self-serving, intended to drive up the price of their prized asset.

Mezrich is a talented storyteller, and portions of “Bitcoin Billionaires” offer memorable glimpses inside the messy world of a start-up currency. As the value of their Bitcoin hoard soars, for example, the twins go to elaborate (paranoid?) lengths to safeguard it, locking scraps of printed computer code in safe deposit boxes in random banks all over the country.

And we encounter a genuine underdog — one who is much more textured than the worshipfully portrayed Winklevii — in the twins’ business partner, Charlie Shrem. Raised in a Syrian Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, Shrem is propelled by his burning ambition to escape his parents’ basement. He might be a genius, and he is certainly loyal, but he is also undisciplined, gets carried away with his fledgling fame and demonstrates remarkably poor judgment in his fellow humans.

Even here, though, Mezrich’s tale is hampered by his reliance on the Winklevoss brothers as his main sources. (Mezrich writes in an author’s note that the book is based on “hundreds of sources,” but the twins’ very large fingerprints are basically the only ones visible.) The Winklevii apparently came to loathe Shrem, and the story jolts back and forth between Mezrich’s attempts to capture the character’s true essence and uncritical parroting of the twins’ harsh judgments.

Throughout, the narrative is polluted by clichés — “the battle for Bitcoin had just begun,” we’re told — and stilted attempts at recreating dialogue. At one point, a recent Stanford grad simply named “Jake” tells the Winklevoss brothers — then still radioactive from their war with the mighty Zuckerberg — that he won’t accept their tainted money in his virtual-reality start-up. “It might be optics, but optics are important in a land of dreamers,” Jake lectures. “Your dollars might be green, but they’re marked.” Come on.

And then there is Mezrich’s jarring disclosure at the outset that some details and settings described in the book are “imagined.” It is hard to overcome the impression that large swaths of the book fall into that fictional zone. That includes a bizarre final scene, inside Mark Zuckerberg’s office.

“The Accidental Billionaires” also suffered from Mezrich’s flippant writing and thin sourcing. But that book worked because its topic — the creation of a social network that fundamentally changed the world, for better and for worse — was freighted with importance.

That isn’t the case in “Bitcoin Billionaires.” The supposedly revolutionary powers of digital currencies have yet to be unleashed. And while Bitcoin’s rise seemed to make its enduring relevance self-evident, Mezrich doesn’t bother with the consequences of its subsequent plunge — including the inconvenient fact that the Winklevoss twins’ Bitcoin fortunes no longer appear to be measured in billions.

Ben Mezrich
Bitcoin Billionaires