Early Zynga and Facebook Insiders Spill the Beans

Zynga CEO Mark Pincus

Two stories came out in the last 24 hours which attempt to add color to the public images of the early days of Facebook and Zynga, but to different effects. An account in the SF Weekly has early Zynga employees condemning the company for its anti-innovation ethos, and in a piece for The Daily Beast, a Harvard classmate and housemate of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg tries to clean up perceptions of the early days of the social network by recalling her own perceptions and interviewing Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Zynga’s and Facebook’s paths as social web startups have been closely related, and both are led by headstrong CEOs who’ve seemingly willed the companies to their current level of success. I’m always keen to hear what insiders have to say, so I found both stories interesting. If you’re less easily intrigued, just know that Mark Zuckerberg’s frat nickname was “Slayer.”

Here are a few excerpts from each story:

FarmVillains,” by Peter Jamison for the SF Weekly

“I don’t f***ing want innovation,” the ex-employee recalls [Zynga CEO Mark] Pincus saying. “You’re not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers”…

These similarities were no coincidence, according to an early Zynga employee, who said he was present for frank discussions about the potential consequences of copying and rebranding Mob Wars. “I was around meetings where things like that were being discussed, and the ramifications of things like that were being discussed — the fact that they’d probably be sued by the people who designed the game,” he says. “And the thought was, ‘Well, that’s fine, we’ll settle.’ Our case wasn’t really defensible.” Psycho Monkey’s suit was ultimately settled for an undisclosed amount…

Most former Zynga workers who spoke with SF Weekly about the company’s approach to copying competitors’ games did so on the condition that their names not be published, citing fears of retribution from the company. In 2009 alone, Zynga filed lawsuits against seven former employees.

My Classmate Mark Zuckerberg,” by Rebecca Davis O’Brien for The Daily Beast

Back before he was a household name, before thefacebook.com, Mark Zuckerberg was a dorm room name, especially in Kirkland House, where he and I lived as sophomores. I often saw Mark and his friends sitting around a table in the dining hall, lingering over plates of popcorn chicken and cups of soda.

There are always a handful of kids at Harvard who are notorious before arriving on campus, and Mark was among them. As a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, Mark had created an adaptive music player (think iTunes (s aapl) Genius), prompting Microsoft (s msft) to offer him a few million dollars and a job, which he turned down to go to college. This, we thought, was cool and rebellious.

“The whole notion of Mark as either an evil genius or as a deeply status-obsessed person [as portrayed in the upcoming movie “The Social Network”] doesn’t ring true to me at all,” says one of Mark’s classmates at both Exeter and Harvard, who knew Mark in high school through several classes and extracurricular activities. “He always struck me as kind of oddly comfortable in his own skin”…

When Zuckerberg came to Harvard in the fall of 2002, he joined a fraternity, one of those “lame” organizations that The Social Network so crudely mocks. To his friends at AEPi—one of Harvard’s fraternities, reputationally Jewish—during freshman year, Mark (or “Zuck”) was known by his frat name “Slayer”…

Thefacebook.com had anti-authority, subversive edge to it that appealed to people. Not only was it filling a need that the school wasn’t filling, but there was the vague sense that we weren’t supposed to have this information. Facebook was small and nimble, grassroots. It was exclusive (only Harvard email addresses could be members), but within this safe space, Facebook was wide open.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

How the Next Zynga Could Reinvent Social Gaming

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