At 19, Sean Parker helped create Napster. At 24, he was founding president of Facebook. At 30, he’s the hard-partying, press-shy genius of social networking, a budding billionaire, and about to be famous – played by Justin Timberlake in David Fincher’s new film, The Social Network.
Sean Parker was sitting in World Civilization class at his Virginia high school when someone brought him a note. His father, it read, was waiting to take him to an orthodontist appointment. A chill ran down Parker’s spine. He didn’t have an orthodontist. When he got outside, his father angrily whisked him into the family minivan. When they arrived at their modest suburban house, a team of F. B. I. agents was toting papers and a desktop computer out of Sean’s room.
Within a few short years, Parker went from apprehended 16-year-old hacker – he had managed to break into the computer networks of numerous multi-national corporations and even military databases – to world-class Internet entrepreneur. In 1999 he became rather notorious, at 19, for helping an even younger teenager named Shawn Fanning create Napster. That free song-sharing service upended the music industry. More recently, Parker played an indispensable role as the founding president of Facebook, the mammoth social-networking site where 500 million people now spend 700 billion minutes a month. Had he not joined founder Mark Zuckerberg in Palo Alto in the summer of 2004, when the fledgling Facebook was just five months old, the service almost certainly would not be the colossus it is today.
Parker is widely considered a Web oracle; more than a few acquaintances and colleagues use the word “genius” to describe him. He understands not only computers and Web networks but also how people want to incorporate them into their lives. As a result, he’s been stunningly successful. That said, he has a libertine side. Parker has a knack for missing deadlines
and appointments, for disappearing for weeks on end, for avoiding the press. (His decision to cooperate with a Vanity Fair profile is unprecedented and rather out of character.) He was pushed out of Facebook after an arrest for cocaine possession in 2005. (No charges were filed.) Even among his many supporters, he has a reputation for being an erratic party animal.
Now he is about to achieve a new level of fame, as one of the main subjects of the highly anticipated film The Social Network. In theaters this month, the movie purports to tell the story of Facebook’s first year, partly by focusing on a darker side of Parker’s persona. Justin Timberlake plays a suave, conniving Parker, who both in the movie and in reality was Zuckerberg’s main mentor during Facebook’s crucial early days. But as crafted by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, Parker comes across as a pushy, greedy – and, yes, visionary – schemer. “A million dollars isn’t cool,” Parker says at one point in the movie. “You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg (see page 189), comes across as cocky, angry, and somewhat sex-obsessed.
The real Parker is both more complex and more interesting, despite the considerable skills of Sorkin and director David Fincher. In fact, Parker, a svelte, wavy-maned clotheshorse, is a uniquely quirky figure in the annals of 21st-century business. At age 30, he is already worth close to a billion dollars, thanks mostly to the cache of Facebook stock he still owns. An autodidact who barely finished high school, he is nonetheless almost painfully cerebral.