Why You Should Care About Sean Parker: The Man Behind Napster, Facebook, and Chatroulette

Sean Parker is already famous in today’s Web-connected tech world, mythical perhaps. But he’s about to get even more famous thanks to a Vanity Fair profile and a movie that’s indirectly about his life.

Sean Parker

Sean Parker is already famous in today’s Web-connected tech world, mythical perhaps. He was around at the start of Napster, Facebook, and more recently Chatroulette. But Parker’s getting even more famous thanks to a profile in Vanity Fair, and the upcoming Facebook movie.


The movie is The Social Network, David Fincher’s biopic about the birth of Facebook–already controversial because of its portrayal of CEO Mark Zuckerberg. But Sean Parker, a speaker at our Fast Company Innovation Uncensored conference, played an absolutely crucial role at several pivotal moments in Facebook’s early history. One example: a huge argument in a branch of Silicon Valley Bank over whether or not his partner Zuckerberg should go back to finish studies at Harvard–Zuckerberg was unsure, Parker was convinced about Facebook’s future (Mark stayed). So Parker gets a starring role in the movie too–played by Justin Timberlake.

Vanity Fair’s David Kirkpatrick delves deeper into Parker’s life, and reveals exactly how tricky a character he is. Parker was arrested aged 16 for hacking into Fortune 500 companies, thanks to a slip-up by his angry dad who pulled the plug on a late-night hacking session before Parker could cover his tracks. Then he co-founded Napster, with Shawn Fanning, which famously upset the entire recording industry and landed Parker back in court to defend the service against allegations of copyright theft. Mere moments later, it seems, he spotted Zuckerberg’s fledgling college friending site and saw its potential. The rest is history–and Parker’s now worth nearly a billion dollars (in Facebook shares).

The magazine profile paints him as “complex and […] interesting,” “Web-world savvy,” and “undisciplined” with the “life of programmer-as-rock-star–often spent among real rock stars.” The genius tendencies and eccentricities don’t make him an easy character though. He was asked to step down from Facebook’s board in 2005 after a kiteboarding trip to North Carolina resulted in his arrest “during a party at his rental house” on “suspicion of cocaine possession.” Though he wasn’t actually charged, “some of Facebook’s investors and employees felt Parker could no longer effectively serve as company president.”

So why do his colleagues and friends tolerate him? Jo Green, a former classmate of Zuckerberg at Harvard and now partner to Parker in a Facebook charity-giving app called Causes, sums it up neatly:

Why do we all put up with it? … For two reasons. He adds a lot of value in the time he’s there. And he’s very loyal. When you really need him, he will be there. That builds up a reservoir of goodwill.

Given the roaring success of Facebook, the triumph of Napster in reinventing a whole industry (would we have had iPods if it weren’t for Parker?) and so on, it would seem that the “value” Parker adds is definitely worth having him crash on your sofa, or disappear into the ether once he’s contributed his ideas.



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