Rowing, crypto and rock: the crazy story of the inventors of Facebook, the Winklevoss brothers

What is the connection between Martin Eberhard, the Winklevoss brothers or Lizzy Maggie Philips? At first glance, not much. Their only common point: History has somewhat, if not totally, forgotten them. The first is the real founder of Tesla, the second imagined Facebook and the third invented a world famous game, Monopoly. Throughout the summer, L’Express lets you discover those who revolutionized the economy but were robbed or dispossessed of their businesses. Watch the first episode here.

There are midlife crises that have more panache than others. In the series Successionthe wealthy Kendall Roy finally gives up singing the tube Honesty of Billy Joel the day he celebrates his 40th birthday, for fear of ridicule. The Winklevoss brothers, they did not disassemble. In 2022, the twins, famous for accusing Mark Zuckerberg of having copied their idea with Facebook, embarked on the most absurd of projects: starting a rock band. Their performances are clumsy and their repertoire has nothing trendy (Blink-182, Pearl Jam…). Seeing these “Perfect Gentlemen” embark on such a wacky adventure is, however, strangely moving. The internet has changed, we’ve aged, so have the Winklevoss.

When the world discovered them, they were the caricature of well-born people to whom success is promised. Born in the Hamptons, multi-millionaire parents… The brothers play Chopin and wear out their bottoms in elite schools. Annoying to the end, Tyler and Cameron are also rowing champions and walk around campus in their giant frames with a Colgate smile. The screenwriters of the series Silicon Valley joke: “Looks like two genetically modified Ken dolls.” So inevitably, when they complain that their classmate, Mark Zuckerberg, stole their concept of social network, the world is not moved. We understand, however, that the case left them with a bitter memory.

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In 2003, the Winklevoss brothers and their friend Divya Narendra asked “Zuck”, a brilliant coder, to help them develop an online social network for Harvard students. At the time, this type of platform did not exist anywhere and the three friends strongly believed in the potential of the project. But while they think Mark is busy making their ambitions come true, he develops and launches his own social network: TheFacebook.

Pure and simple plagiarism? The case is complex. “An idea is not protectable as such, any possibility of innovation would be blocked otherwise”, answers Claire Poirson, associate lawyer of the firm Bersay. Industrial property attorney at Dreyfus, Nathalie Dreyfus confirms: “What is possibly protectable is the way in which creators plan to implement, to materialize their idea.” Tyler, Cameron and Divya, however, did not have their backs before contacting Zuckerberg. Worse, they were content to verbally “top” with him. “At a minimum, non-disclosure agreements should have been signed before presenting the idea,” analyzes Marc Picart, partner at the industrial property consulting firm Santarelli. In defense of the trio, this type of adventure was not commonplace at the time. “In 2000-2004 at Harvard, there were no start-ups or incubators on campus, and venture capitalists weren’t investing in students. Everyone was pursuing stable careers in law, medicine or finance,” recalls Divya Narendra, now founder and CEO of a social network dedicated to investors, SumZero.

Tasty return of karma

In the United States, where justice is very expensive, the Winklevoss are however part of the happy few able to afford seasoned lawyers who will obtain in 2008 a comfortable compensation of 65 million dollars. “Such a sum is rarely conceded in this type of dispute”, notes Anthony Bem, lawyer in business law and litigation of new technologies. The twins, however, come out of the adventure with a damaged image. At this time, the “jocks” (athletes) become tacky, the “nerds” cool. In this new narrative, “Zuck” has the air of Robin Hood, making fun of the privileged. The sensation of the moment is him. So the companies of bubbling Silicon Valley have little desire to flirt with its two new sworn enemies.

A bad for a good. While in 2012, all the geeks of the “Valley” are looking to create the next Facebook, they are betting on a much crazier project that they were told about at a party in Ibiza: cryptocurrencies. “At the time, it was very daring, analyzes Hugo Bordet of the association for the development of digital assets (Adan), almost no one knows what bitcoin is and it is not worth much.” A winning bet. In 2022, the wheel of tech has turned: Zuck no longer has the image of a revolutionary nerd, but of an all-powerful CEO with little respect for the privacy of Internet users. Its social network is snubbed by teenagers, and more broadly, it’s this whole Web of large platforms that is starting to look old-fashioned. The spotlight turned to Web3, this new world powered by blockchain, cryptocurrencies and NFTs (non-fungible token) where the Winklevoss serve as pioneers. Tasty return of karma.

Thanks to cryptos, each of the brothers has made a fortune of 3 billion dollars. A modest nest egg compared to that of Zuckerberg (58.7 billion dollars), but they are tracing their path. And Gemini, the cryptocurrency exchange they created is thriving. “It is little known to us because it was not launched in Europe, but in the world, it is one of the biggest players”, points out Hugo Bordet. The twins have nonetheless suffered a few recent setbacks, including a complaint from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) that accuses them of providing misleading information to get a bitcoin-related financial instrument authorized. “Regulators are tightening the screws in the sector,” observes Frédérick Lacroix, associate lawyer at Clifford Chance. The crypto crash that began in January also complicates matters.

The Winklevoss have a good time reassuring their community by saying on Twitter that this crisis will clean up the sector and that they are all in the same boat. But when Cameron exclaims “WAGMI” (“We’re all gonna make it”)we allow ourselves to doubt it: small shareholders who are not financially well off and have bet a little too much of their savings on it will have a hard time climbing the slope. If the twins have not departed from all their fads of privileged young people, they are nevertheless more complex than they want to show. Their adolescence was marked by the death, following an overdose, of their older sister Amanda Winklevoss – she had suffered two years earlier from a severe form of depression. “The most luminous person in the family, however, was her… an athlete at university, the star of student shows, a brilliant student. She captured all eyes, a real rock star”, manages to tell , twenty later, Tyler in a moving post.

Crazy rock tour

In addition to the immense pain of loss, the family endures harassment from the tabloid press. “They were calling home, knocking on our door… At 20, I learned a lesson. From a few pixels, the media can weave a story that completely disguises reality.” Despite this dark period, the twins can lean on each other. “They are inseparable,” says their friend Divya Narendra. These injuries, however, encourage the two brothers to cultivate secrecy and performance. While their lawyers are battling with Zuck’s, they are training for the 2008 Olympics rowing event where they will be finalists. After years of discipline, the two imperturbable colossi however seem to soften and lift the veil. “Going to see a therapist has helped me tremendously… We’re all brought up to believe that being vulnerable is a weakness, but asking for help is tremendous strength,” Tyler writes. on Twitter. Letting go isn’t easy mentally or physically after years of training, he says: “I’ve been watching myself all my life, it’s hard to unlearn that muscle memory.”

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It is, however, rather pleasing to see these two marble statues allow themselves to have a little fun. Yes, their rock tour is totally crazy, Tyler sometimes sings completely out of tune and Cameron is no Jimi Hendrix. Internet users also did not hesitate to make fun of it on Twitter. But, notes Tyler, this tour constitutes “one of the most exhilarating, terrifying, vulnerable, rewarding and funny moments of (his) existence”. “Haters gonna hate” (haters will keep hating), it says on the internet. The Winklevoss are now used to it. They have thick leather.


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