Joanna Weiss

No tears for the Winklevi

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / February 15, 2011

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OH, LORD, it’s hard to cry for the Winklevi.

That would be Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. As anyone who saw “The Social Network’’ knows, they are the identical twins who, as Harvard undergrads, hired a kid named Mark Zuckerberg to help them build a social networking site.

Now, they’re full-fledged adults with a litany of complaints. They think Zuckerberg stole their idea and turned it into Facebook. They think the $65 million settlement they reportedly got from Facebook isn’t nearly enough. And to add to the trauma, they’re now defined by a goofy fake word that makes them sound like a taxonomical type. Winklevi: identical males of species, possessing a range of superior mating attributes, harboring the delusion that they’re underdogs.

That seemed to be the message of their publicity tour last week, which took them from CNN to New York Magazine to the new tablet outlet “The Daily.’’ And while it’s impossible to know who’s right in their legal dispute — without access to secret documents and perhaps the ability to read minds — it’s clear that the twins are losing the publicity wars.

Underdogs? They’re 6-foot-5, they have perfect teeth, and their chins seem to extend across state lines. They grew up in Greenwich, joined a final club at Harvard, and rowed in the Olympics. CNN’s Piers Morgan seemed to barely be able to tolerate them, much less countenance their insistence that they deserve more money.

“You’ve ended up becoming super rich,’’ Morgan scoffed, “and you’re very immaculately tailored, you’re hugely successful rowers. Presumably the women are queuing up. I mean, life is pretty good for you. Why don’t you let it go?’’

The Winklevi’s response has been to claim to be acting on principle, and then to launch into character assassination. They told New York Magazine that Zuckerberg was “deeply amoral’’ and “bordering on a sociopath.’’

Yet no matter what they say, it doesn’t seem to stick. The fictional Zuckerberg was surprisingly sympathetic, in a movie that posits that he might be a cheat. And since the film came out last fall, the real Zuckerberg has been on a brilliant publicity offensive. He gave $100 million to Newark public schools, did a well-received turn on “60 Minutes,’’ and promised Warren Buffett that he’d give away most of his riches.

By the time he showed up on “Saturday Night Live’’ to make fun of himself last month, he had turned into a kind of cuddly mascot — despite all of those latent concerns about how Facebook guards users’ privacy. And now that Facebook has been credited as a tool in the Egyptian revolution, Zuckerberg isn’t just a geek gone big; he’s a kid who helped to change the world.

The fact that he’s now worth billions doesn’t seem to hurt him, which makes it easy to understand the Winklevi’s frustration. We do seem to have a national conflict over how to define the underdog — at what point success counts in your favor, and when it starts working against you. Sometimes, we lionize people who are good-looking and talented; in these parts, at least, Tom Brady can do no wrong. But sometimes, we want to punish them for having too much.

And sometimes it’s a matter of simply having the wrong foil. Zuckerberg embodies all of the standard tropes of the American dream: Self-invention versus old money, ethnic upstart over privileged WASP. (It’s striking that we don’t hear much from Divya Narenda, the son of immigrants who was the Winklevi’s partner in their would-be-Facebook venture.) As for the Winklevi, it seems easy to turn down $65 million on principle when a) you’re asking for more, and b) you’re already a millionaire.

On CNN, the Winklevi took pains to insist that theirs was a classic American story, too. As evidence, they cited their distant-but-ordinary roots. “My great-grandfather on my father’s side was a coal miner,’’ Cameron said.

It was a feeble argument, but it raises an intriguing question. If they were, say, the McGillicutty twins, humble boys from Appalachia with a killer idea, would everyone be on their side, instead?

CORRECTION: In Sunday’s column, I wrote that James O’Keefe was arrested for entering Senator Mary Landrieu’s office with the intent of tampering with her phones. According to the factual basis for O’Keefe’s plea agreement, O’Keefe entered Landrieu’s office under false pretenses for the purpose of recording a conversation on video, but did not intend to tamper with her phones.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at