The Crusade of the Winklevii

“When did persistence start to be viewed as a bad thing?” Cameron Winklevoss says. “It’s odd that it’s gotten construed to be some sort of … ” He glances at his twin, Tyler, his long frame folded into the booth across from him at the Red Flame Diner in midtown, who supplies the missing word: “Overreaching.”

“… This overreaching or negative thing,” Cameron continues. “And it’s like, Abraham Lincoln, right? He did all these things and then finally at 50 made his way into the White House. There’s so many stories of people being persistent, and taking no’s, and not accepting it. If you think that someone is not being fair to you, are you supposed to sit back and take it?”

The twins, dubbed the “Winklevii” in The Social Network, which told the story of how their Harvard classmate Mark Zuckerberg used an idea from them to create Facebook, have become famous for refusing to do exactly that. Four years ago they accepted a reported $65 million settlement from the company — $20 million in cash and $45 million in stock — but recently, they filed an appeal to overturn it, claiming they were misled about the value of the shares and reviving their seven-year-old battle. It’s been suggested more than once that the Winklevii ought to take their hush money and, well, hush. Their background — they grew up in Waspy Greenwich, Connecticut, and attended private school before swanning into the finals clubs at Harvard and, later, rowing professionally in the Olympics — doesn’t exactly lend itself to the vision of scrappy underdog.

But the twins, a combined thirteen feet tall and 400-plus pounds, aren’t inclined to go away quietly. Last week, they took time out from their twelve-hour-a-day training sessions in California for the 2012 Olympics to fly to New York for a full-on media blitz. “I think people get confused when we make media appearances and think that we’re looking for sympathy,” Tyler said, sipping a decaf tea on Saturday. “But we don’t expect people to be like, ‘Oh, I feel so bad for you, you got screwed.’ What we do expect people to do is realize that whoever you are, whatever your background is, whatever amount of money’s at stake is irrelevant to the fact that in this country, justice is blind. And people should be rooting for justice, whether it’s us or someone else.”

For them, justice would include a hefty payout: With Goldman Sachs’s recent valuation of the company at $50 billion, the twins stand to make hundreds of millions of dollars if their appeal is granted. But they insist their fight is not, as Leslie Stahl suggested on a recent 60 Minutes interview, about the money.

If it was about shaking down Facebook, we’d stop,” says Cameron. “Why would we continue? We have a certainty. We’re taking the uncertainty, and there’s no guarantee that we’ll do better.”

The point for them, to use the term their characters use in The Social Network, is honor. And — as indicated by the rapid-fire cadence their speech takes on when they move from discussing legal arcana to the subject of Zuckerberg, though their chiseled faces remain oddly implacable — vengeance.

Now that there is scrutiny, it’s important to get our story out,” says Cameron. “To be like, ‘Look, this guy is not who you think he is. He’s not the underdog, he’s not a bootstrapping kid. This is a very, very deeply amoral person.’”

He’s bordering on a sociopath,” adds Tyler.

The Facebook story as it is now is not the story it should be,” says Cameron. “The lesson you take away from it, based on what Mark Zuckerberg did, is: Start a partnership with people, lead them on, take everything, and then, when they come after you, use those resources to fight them, get away with it, and laugh all the way to the bank.”

We want the lesson to be quite different,” says Tyler. We want it to be, if you’re going to do something like this, you’re going to pay. You’re going to wear the stain of your misdeeds for the rest of your life.”

But what about the rest of their lives? The Winklevii are only 29. Aren’t they worried this legal fight will end up staining them, or at least defining them?

Not at all,” they say in unison.

He — Zuckerberg — is more in danger of being remembered for this than we are,” says Tyler. “Because his success is predicated on a pattern of behavior that is unacceptable and illegal.”

By his nature,” adds Cameron, “he’s a bridge burner. He’s a scorpion. You know the story of the scorpion who takes a ride with the frog across the river? He’s like that. He can’t forge a relationship with people based on mutual respect and honesty. He can’t spend time working with other people and giving and taking. He’s a thief.”

The twins have a steep legal battle ahead of them. The decision on their appeal is expected to come down in the next couple of weeks. No matter what the verdict, it likely won’t end there. “If we win the appeal, and go back to trial, they might think that they can settle with us, but we don’t have to settle with them,” says Tyler. “We can get the documents. We can depose them. We can have the O.J. Simpson trial of the century. Have Mark Zuckerberg on the stand, and say, ‘You lied to Harvard. You know. You lied to these guys. You hid these documents.’” From his dreamy tone, it’s clear that this would be the best possible outcome. The next best thing, perhaps, to having invented Facebook.

The Crusade of the Winklevii