NEW YORK: Since moving to Manhattan three years ago, Sean Parker, a founder of Napster and former president of Facebook, has considerably enlivened New York's social scene.
The parties at Bacchus House, his mansion-like home in the West Village (bought for $US20 million from the liquor heir Enrico Marone Cinzano and featuring an indoor swimming pool), have become mini-salons for an eclectic mix of artists, scientists and celebrities.
He is a regular presence on the New York charity circuit, with causes including cancer research and bringing fresh drinking water to developing countries. (At a party for the latter cause a little over a year ago, not knowing who had contributed, he angrily threatened to throw out his guests — who included Edward Norton, David Blaine and the singer John Mayer — if they had not made a donation, and instead had come, as he put it, just to eat his food and drink his liquor.)
Last year, he became deeply involved in and helped pay for the cancer treatment of Laura Ziskin, a Hollywood producer and friend who died in June.
"He cares a great deal about the people around him," said Peter Thiel, Parker's friend and a partner at San Francisco-based Founders Fund, a venture capital firm and early Facebook investor where Parker is now an executive general partner. But there is one aspect of his reputation that Parker, 32, can't seem to shake: Most people still think he's that sleazy guy from The Social Network.
That 2010 film role, played by Justin Timberlake, continues to echo a little more than a year later. "On a daily basis I bump into someone who, either online or in real life, identifies strongly with that character and who actually thinks that I had something to do with that," Parker said in a recent interview, adding that while he read Aaron Sorkin's script ("I was mortified," he said), he played no part in either its casting or development.
Of course, Timberlake's portrayal of Parker wasn't based on thin air. For his 30th birthday party in 2009, Parker welcomed 800 guests to Bacchus House, handing them flutes of champagne when they arrived and, later, serving them plates of macaroni and cheese topped with truffles.
He favors Tom Ford suits and Dior jeans, though he lamented to this reporter that the pair he was wearing was too snug. And in 2005, Parker said he was booked in North Carolina on suspicion of cocaine possession when he was president of Facebook (no cocaine was found on him and he was never charged).
But Parker is also a self-educated polymath who decided as a teenager to liberate himself from what he called "the shackles of conventionality" and found himself at the forefront of two of technology's most important trends: the digital distribution of entertainment and social media. At 19, he helped found Napster, the online music-file sharing service that roiled the recording industry. At 24, he joined Facebook as its president after sending an email to Mark Zuckerberg, a founder and chief executive.
According to Forbes, Parker's net worth is near $US2.1 billion, largely because of his Facebook stock. But whether he was at the right place at the right time (as some critics claim) or a visionary (as supporters suggest) is almost irrelevant. He has become a celebrity in his own right, his prognostications about social media (as well as details of his personal life) parsed with as much interest as the antics of his actor friend, Ashton Kutcher.
"A lot of people are interested in Sean for the same reason I am," said Michael Wolff, the columnist and author who is a close friend of Parker, whom he met a decade ago. "You think he knows something you don't."
Parker was born in 1979 and raised in Herndon, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, the older brother to two sisters. Sean was diagnosed with asthma early on and suffers from severe allergies to nuts and shellfish, ailments which he has treated with sometimes unorthodox measures. (He carries Benadryl dissolving strips in his wallet, which he bought en masse before they were discontinued.)
"It fed into his obsessive side," said his father, Bruce Parker, a retired United States government oceanographer. "As a 12-year-old he would challenge his doctors."
Sean Parker spent much of his childhood challenging authority. At 16, he was arrested for hacking into corporate and military computer networks (the family's modest home was swarmed one afternoon by government agents).
"I remember crying and crying, and they had sequestered me in this room, and I overheard these two women talking, FBI agents," Parker said. "One of them said, 'He doesn't seem like such a bad kid.' And the other one said: 'You have no idea. You have no idea what he is into."'
Parker did community service for his transgressions. But hacking proved a powerful social outlet for the sometimes sickly misfit uninterested in student clubs, which he described as "empty, meaningless groups of people".
"I've never been much of a joiner," he said.
It was then, Parker said, that he experienced what he called an existential crisis, torn between becoming an academic like his father (a "diligent normal person," as the younger Parker put it) or something altogether different.
"There came a time when these two incompatible notions of who I was, well, something had to give," Parker said. "Either that 'something' is where you acquiesce to the world around you and you conform, or you sort of defiantly break whatever remaining bonds connect you to that world and create for yourself a different set of values."
He skipped college (to his parent's disappointment) and, in 1999, moved to Silicon Valley to work with Shawn Fanning, his fellow Napster founder, defying recording companies that later sued Napster for creating a system to easily swap pirated songs. (Despite that, Parker has many friends who are artists and executives in the music business.)
After Napster, Parker went on to found the online address-book service Plaxo, where he clashed with the company's venture capital partners and was fired. He joined Facebook in 2004 as its founding president, but left the next year, shuffled out by the company's outside investors, Parker said, over "external events," including the North Carolina incident and the fallout from his earlier clash with venture partners.
His feeling of being an outsider is not confined to corporate life.
"At every point I am besieged by people who would like me to conform to some social norm of whatever sort of social group they expect me to be a part of," Parker said. "I never have any identification with these social groups."
He seems more comfortable in small, intimate settings. Last December, Parker had a small dinner party at The Lion, the media-centric restaurant he frequents, to celebrate his 31st birthday. Parker said he invited about 15 close friends, including Wolff; Sean Lennon, the son of the singer John Lennon; and Kevin Colleran, whom Parker recruited to Facebook.
After dinner everyone was invited back to Bacchus House where Colleran said Parker prepared cups of hand-blended tea, urging his guests to stay longer.
"Those hours are lonely for him when he's not with people," Colleran said. "You will get a call at 3 am where he wants to talk. It is a random thing. He wants to make sure you are coming to his engagement party. But you have no idea what triggered that thought."
(In response, Parker said, "One of the difficulties in living the lifestyle I lead is that it is hard to get my friends in one place.")
Parker's behavior can seem erratic. He is often late. When asked whether he had used drugs, he turned florid and abstract, saying: "I'm a believer in any method of mind expansion whether facilitated by meditation, religious experience or drug use. There is a value in using tools available to us, even if it is pharmacological in nature, if it expands the mind."
He said he sometimes disappears during parties at home, and has trouble gauging social cues in large groups.
Last March he attended a charity event at London's Bridgewater House hosted by Trudie Styler, the wife of Sting. "There were all these wealthy establishment people and it was, like, dreadfully boring," Parker said. "So I was trying my best to make light of the situation. I don't know what I said to some guy, but I said something like, I liked his jacket. And he thought I was being sarcastic. And he actually started to get, well, it became this big thing."
Parker knew other people there and moved between tables to talk. "There was this sense, I think, everyone felt uncomfortable, whereas, for some reason, I didn't feel uncomfortable in that situation," said Parker, still puzzled at their reaction. "I kind of ran around for a little while, became bored, and I left."
The Monday evening after Thanksgiving, Bacchus House was unusually quiet. Parker's voice echoed in the cavernous atrium as he bounded down the stairs, waving his BlackBerry and pointing to a gossip item about him that he had pulled up onscreen. It was minor, but the attention given to it by Parker pointed to a larger issue since the The Social Network was released: He is concerned with his public image. "Entrepreneurs are not supposed to be famous," he said. "This is not a problem I am supposed to have."
"I've said to him a million times it doesn't matter," Wolff, the author and his friend, said of Parker's depiction in the film. "I say, 'These things go on around people who have notoriety.' But I think he finds it hard to let go."
Added Chris Kelly, a friend and Facebook's former chief privacy officer, who has known Parker since 2004: "There is a reactivity to the way he experiences the world. He needs to have a filter."
Parker sought to correct the imbalance between his private and public persona by setting up a Twitter account. "If you just overexpose to the point where it's all out there, there is nothing they can say about you that has not already been said," Parker explained before Thanksgiving.
But the reaction has been mixed. When one poster told him to "stop whining," Parker wrote that he was "just embracing the idea of radical transparency — exposing my inner monologue even when it's not rainbows/sunshine."
When others commented on whether Parker complained too much, Parker wrote, "EVERYTHING sounds like a complaint when one lives in a Scrooge McDuck vault counting gold bars and eating bonbons."
Parker described his Twitter musings as a failed experiment. Still, his professional reputation doesn't seem to have suffered much. His newest company, Airtime, is a video chat service he founded with Fanning.
He is a director at Spotify, a music sharing and streaming service founded in Sweden, which he hopes will be a (legal) successor to Napster. And more quietly, he is a founder of Causes.com, an online political and philanthropy activism website set up in 2007. Parker says he wants to harness the ubiquity of social media and make it easy for anyone to finance a cause.
"Part of it is showing people they have power all the way down the chain," he said.
The New York Times