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If you asked Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the twin brothers who cofounded ConnectU, whether Mark ­Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, deserved to be one of this year’s TR35, they’d say no.

We named Zuckerberg one of 2007’s 35 leading innovators under the age of 35 because Facebook is the best of the social-networking websites, and social networking is the fastest-growing phenomenon on the Internet. As of July 2007, 30 million people had registered with Facebook. An older social network, MySpace, has more than 100 million people registered, but Facebook is cooler. Its design (for which Zuckerberg is responsible) is more elegant and functional, and its features are more useful and more fun. To the young and hip, Facebook appears to enjoy the future’s blessing, but MySpace already looks dated and ugly.

This perceived coolness has real value, or soon will. Facebook is a private company, and its value is still notional, but last year Zuckerberg was widely reported to have declined an offer of $1 billion from Yahoo. When Facebook enjoys its “liquidity event” (in the form of either acquisition or an initial public offering of stock), Mark Zuckerberg, who is 23, will be very rich.

But the Winklevoss brothers say that Facebook’s founder stole the idea of the site from them. In a suit that dates back to 2004, the ConnectU founders accuse ­Zuckerberg of lifting their source code and business plan.

In 2002, when the Winklevoss brothers and Divya ­Narendra, another founder, were juniors at Harvard, they conceived what they initially called the Harvard Connection, a social network for the college. In November 2003, they asked Zuckerberg to develop the software, promising to compensate him later if the site prospered. Zuckerberg left the project in February 2004, a month after registering the domain name By the end of February, Zuckerberg’s new site, also a social network for the Harvard community, had registered half the college’s undergraduates. By April, the Facebook had expanded to other Ivy League schools. Later, it began to serve more universities, then high schools, then businesses, and eventually the broader public. By contrast, ConnectU never really got started. It didn’t launch until May 2004; overshadowed by what soon became simply Facebook, today it boasts no more than 70,000 users.

Those bare but evocative facts are all that is undisputed in the case. The Winklevosses say their business plan always described how the Harvard Connection would grow beyond the college and become ConnectU–just as Harvard’s “the Facebook” became the world’s Facebook. For his part, Zuckerberg says he never imagined that his unpaid arrangement was contractually binding.

The parties declined to be interviewed for this column. But I have no doubt that both the Winklevoss brothers and Zuckerberg are sincere in their expressions of outraged rectitude (although I am sure the twins’ grief could be diminished by a large settlement). Both parties believe they created the idea of a well-made social network, constructed to please the tastes of clever college kids.

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Credit: Mark Ostow

Tagged: Communications

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