CAMBRIDGE -- Few trends have swept college campuses with the speed and force of Thefacebook.com, a website that allows students to create a personal page and then network with classmates.
Launched last winter by Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard sophomore, Thefacebook has 284,000 users at 99 colleges, and on many campuses it has become the primary tool to get someone's phone number, form a study group, or scope out interesting new people. Flush with the website's success, Zuckerberg, 20, is fending off buyout offers and has taken a semester off from school to expand the site.
But earlier this month, Zuckerberg and his team were slapped with a lawsuit that alleges he stole the idea for Thefacebook from three fellow Harvard students. The three, creators of a similar website called ConnectU.com, assert in a federal suit that they hired Zuckerberg to help them program their site, and then he stalled for months before unexpectedly surfacing with his own version of their idea.
"It's sort of a land grab," said Tyler Winklevoss, one of the founders of ConnectU, which ended up launching three months after Thefacebook. "You feel robbed. . . . The kids down the hall are using it, and you're thinking, 'That's supposed to be us.' We're not there because one greedy kid cut us out."
Zuckerberg denies he stole their idea, saying both his concept and computer code were different from ConnectU's.
There isn't yet much money at stake -- Thefacebook.com is breaking even, according to its staff members -- but the lawsuit is testament to the market frenzy around college students and the time they spend online.
"In virtually any category where people are making money on the Web, college students are a key target for marketing," John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, wrote in an e-mail. Palfrey pointed to the race among music-downloading services, such as Napster, to cut deals with colleges.
Thefacebook is working out investment deals now, said spokesman Chris Hughes, a Harvard junior and former roommate of Zuckerberg, who has set up an office in Palo Alto, Calif.
Winklevoss, his twin brother, Cameron, and another friend, Divya Narendra, all of whom graduated from Harvard in the spring, said they conceived of the idea of an online network for Boston-area students more than a year and a half ago. But none was a serious programmer, so they enlisted the help of several students. One of those students, referred by another programmer, was Zuckerberg.
The ConnectU creators said they had an "oral contract" with Zuckerberg to finish building their site. He was not paid to do the work, they said, but he was a full member of their team and would have reaped any future rewards. They said he dragged out the work for more than two months.
The three set up a website quoting from Zuckerberg's e-mails to them. "I'll keep you posted as I patch stuff up and it starts to become completely functional," Zuckerberg e-mailed them Dec. 1. In January, he began to ignore their e-mails, they said. In early February he launched Thefacebook.
The Facebook.com took off almost immediately, attracting thousands of users at Harvard and elsewhere, and earning Zuckerberg a flattering profile in the campus newspaper. Feeling burned, the ConnectU founders appealed to Harvard's disciplinary board and directly to President Lawrence H. Summers, saying Zuckerberg violated the school's honor code, which prohibits theft and dishonesty. In May, they launched their own site, which has 15,000 members at nearly 200 schools, they said.
Like other networking sites, such as Friendster and Orkut, Thefacebook allows users to create profiles, attach pictures, and describe their interests and dating preferences. Zuckerberg, for example, lists among his interests computer coding, guitar, Asian girls, and "bad life decisions."
Members can then send messages to each other and ask anyone else to become friends. They also have the option to search for anyone else sharing their classes and interests.
ConnectU is similar, though it has a different set of bells and whistles, including instant messaging, group discussions, and blogs.
The ConnectU creators got nowhere with their complaints at Harvard. Indeed, Summers joked in his welcome to freshmen last week that he got to know them through Thefacebook rather than through their application essays.
So in their lawsuit, the three graduates are asking the court to shut down Thefacebook and award them an unspecified amount of damages.
Zuckerberg said he had no business relationship with ConnectU, and he said his lawyers plan to file a countersuit for defamation of character. "I was a student who agreed to help a fellow student," he said. "I did not agree to complete their project."
A computer science and psychology major, he was well-known at Harvard for another website, Facemash, when ConnectU asked him for help. Facemash posted student pictures and allowed Internet users to rate who was "hotter," but it landed Zuckerberg on probation for using Harvard photos.
He said ConnectU asked him to do about six hours of work, and he did. The site he launched was different, he said. ConnectU was originally focused mostly on dating, he said, while he was inspired by other social networking sites, such as Friendster. Thefacebook's new twist on a generic idea was to focus on students and to create smaller communities by limiting members to viewing other people on their own campus.
While some wonder whether it will be a passing fad, Thefacebook appears to have cornered the market at many schools, and 5,000 members are believed to be signing up each day.
Some students say they have friends who have dated people they met through Thefacebook. Many admit to using it to check out cute classmates.
Margarita Linets, a Boston University sophomore, has used it to find friends who are in her management class, which is so big she has been unable to see them during class. She also appreciates the notification she gets before a friend's birthday.
"I thought it was stupid in the beginning, and then I got addicted," Linets said. "Now I check it first thing every morning."
Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.