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Worth $7.3 bil­lion at 26, Face­book’s founder lives in a rented house and drives an old Honda. He’s cre­ated a global net­work of friend­ships, but has trou­ble keep­ing his own. Now a movie chron­i­cles the rise of Mark Zucker­berg from uni­ver­sity geek to ruth­less em­pire builder.

Big Brother. This is the age of Big Buddy, in the un­likely form of Mark Zucker­berg, the nerdish, so­cially dys­func­tional ge­nius who iron­i­cally cre­ated the world’s favourite so­cial net­work­ing web­site.

An as­ton­ish­ing 550 mil­lion peo­ple in more than 200 coun­tries – in­clud­ing nine mil­lion in Aus­tralia – now be­friend one an­other on Face­book, the site he cre­ated seven years ago in his messy Har­vard dorm, sur­rounded by the piles of dirty clothes, food scraps and other arte­facts of a teenager’s var­sity life.

At 26, Zucker­berg has been de­clared the youngest self­made bil­lion­aire in his­tory. Ac­cord­ing to more than one mag­a­zine, this son of a den­tist fa­ther and psy­chol­o­gist mother from a mid­dle-class New York sub­urb is also the most in­flu­en­tial fig­ure on the planet, not least be­cause much of the per­sonal in­for­ma­tion Face­book’s users re­veal is passed to ad­ver­tis­ers, who use it to tar­get them. Since ev­ery mes­sage placed on Face­book is stored on the com­pany’s vast com­puter main­frames, Zucker­berg has also been placed in a po­si­tion of unimag­in­able power – the kind of power, in­ci­den­tally, of which to­tal­i­tar­ian tyrants could only dream.

His as­ton­ish­ing as­cent is doc­u­mented in an ac­claimed new film, The So­cial Net­work, which opens this month. The big ques­tion is, should we trust a young man who has de­clared the age of pri­vacy to be over – and who ap­pears to be on some turbo-charged mis­sion to re­de­fine the con­cept of hu­man friend­ship – to use this power re­spon­si­bly? Ob­serv­ing him, and talk­ing to those who know him, he seems harm­less enough. In­deed, his life is re­mark­able only be­cause it is so bor­ingly or­di­nary.

De­spite be­ing worth a stag­ger­ing $7.3 bil­lion, he has no in­ter­est in man­sions, fast cars, par­ties and model girl­friends, and is said to be only truly at ease when gaz­ing into a com­puter screen.

Zucker­berg lives in a rented, sparsely fur­nished fourbed­room house in a quiet cul-de-sac in the US com­puter in­dus­try cap­i­tal of Palo Alto, Cal­i­for­nia. He has been there for about a year and, though it is an or­di­nary, mid­dle-class street, by sheer co­in­ci­dence, one of the in­ven­tors of YouTube lives in an equally mod­est home next door. Zucker­berg re­cently placed a note on the wind­screen of an­other neigh­bour’s bat­tered, 35-yearold BMW, ask­ing whether it was for sale. His of­fer was re­jected, so he con­tin­ues to drive an age­ing Honda.

Ac­cord­ing to one woman on the street, he is an “ill­man­nered dork”, for she claims that when her 83-yearold mother bade him good morn­ing, he ig­nored her. But oth­ers say he is friendly enough, and An­drea Bar­las, a mar­riage guid­ance coun­sel­lor who lives next door but one, said she was hop­ing to match him up with her 17-year-old daugh­ter Alie. She was jok­ing, but in any case Zucker­berg is spo­ken for. His long-term girl­friend from Har­vard Uni­ver­sity days, Priscilla Chan, a Chi­nese-Amer­i­can stu­dent pae­di­a­tri­cian, moved in with him this month. In­evitably, this event was marked with a folksy mes­sage to his Face­book friends (he lists 879 of them): “Now we have 2x ev­ery­thing, so if you need any house­hold ap­pli­ances, dishes, glasses etc, please come by and take them be­fore we give them away.”

Meet­ing him in per­son is an al­to­gether trick­ier prospect. If Zucker­berg had both­ered to record our en­counter ear­lier this month on his Face­book page, I sus­pect this is what he might have writ­ten: “An­other sunny day in Sil­i­con Val­ley – so I walked the few blocks to the of­fice. On the way, I met this guy who said he

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