At the “Startup School” Conference at Stanford University on October 16, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, was asked point blank about the biographical accuracy of the movie The Social Network – specifically, its depiction of the events leading up to the launch of the biggest Internet phenomenon ever. It was a tense moment, since anyone who’s seen the film knows that in that version of Facebook’s origin story, Zuckerberg ends up cutting out his long-time friend and business partner Eduardo Saverin from the company he and Saverin got off the ground together. After quipping, “Where do you wanna start?” Zuckerberg continued, “I mean… I don’t know… It’s interesting what stuff they focused on getting right. Like every single shirt and fleece that I had in that movie is actually a shirt or fleece that I own.”
More follows, but it all amounts to Zuckerberg sounding like he has answered the question when he really hasn’t. His artful dodge executed, the interviewer and the audience happily moved on, letting Zuckerberg off the hook. But why did he dodge at all? Does Zuckerberg really have anything to worry about from The Social Network?
A bit of background on Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg created a program called Facemash while a sophomore at Harvard, a program that allowed Harvard students to compare and “rate” photos of co-eds. To get these photos Zuckerberg hacked into the protected areas of Harvard’s computer network and copied the private dormitory ID images from nine houses on Harvard’s campus. Zuckerberg was charged by the administration with breach of security, violating copyrights, and violating individual privacy. A few days later he was sued by three Harvard students who recruited him to help them create a site called HarvardConnection.com; they accused him of stealing their ideas and using them to develop what would become Facebook. A few years later Zuckerberg was sued by his former friend Eduardo Saverin for being cut out of the company and for not being acknowledged as the site’s co-founder.
Meanwhile, since 2006, when Facebook was opened to everyone over 13 with an email address, the site has gone from 50 million users to 550 million users. It’s the #2 site in the US and the only thing more important to an American college student than Facebook is his iPod. “Facebooking” and “friending/unfriending” are household verbs, Zuckerberg is a billionaire, and by all projections this global phenomenon is only going to get bigger and bigger.
Staggering success. Unsavory details. Honoré Balzac once wrote: Behind every fortune is a great crime. So is The Social Network the “true crime” story of the founding of Facebook?
The film, (like the book Accidental Billionaires, on which the movie is at least in some way based) is basically the Eduardo Saverin story – that is, the story of Facebook as told by the guy who at first was not even acknowledged as the site’s co-founder. (Saverin was the only key player in the story of Facebook who gave anyone any interviews.) The authors of the book and the screenplay (Ben Mezrich and Aaron Sorkin, respectively) have different accounts of how much the book has to do with the screenplay, but both basically have the same story arc: Saverin gets screwed. Sorkin says he saw in the story of the founding of Facebook a classic tale of friendship and jealously, and he has truly crafted an epic tale of betrayal. Moving seamlessly between opposing legal testimonies and intimate biographical and emotional details, he has given actors Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield a lot to work with – and the haunted intensity of Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg and the boyish bewilderment and heart-broken outrage of Garfield’s Saverin are both tours-de-force. And the dialog is super-witty and super-brainy, vintage Sorkin, a perfect match for a story of super-geeks hard at work conquering the world.
But how objective and reliable, you might ask, could a biopic about Zuckerberg be when its only inside source was the guy who claims he was betrayed by Zuckerberg and who spent several years suing him for everything he is worth? Interestingly enough, there is no denial of this basic “Zuckerberg screwed his best friend” story coming from the Facebook camp. The closing titles of the film tell you that Zuckerberg settled with Saverin, but don’t tell you for how much. That suggests it was a lot. And you don’t pay someone a lot of money (certainly not a billion dollars, as some reports of the settlement run) if you really did not do anything that bad – if the publicity of a trial wouldn’t be likely to leave you with a great big black eye.
OK, so maybe Zuckerberg screwed Saverin. Did not at first give credit where credit was due. Maybe even kicked his pal to the curb. Maybe even hated his best friend all along, like something out of A Separate Peace, as the film obliquely suggests (perhaps on Saverin’s behalf). But the film also suggests that deep down Zuckerberg was just trying to vindicate himself – before a world that seemed ready to ignore or exclude him, or/and in the eyes of the first girl he ever fell in love with but was too much of a weenie to handle. Indeed, the Zuckerberg of The Social Network looks for all the world like a nerd who desperately wanted to be cool and got a little carried away in the pursuit of worthiness. Maybe even fell in with a bad crowd along the way, gave into temptation, took bad advice because he was angry when his erstwhile best friend threatened to pull the plug on the coolest party on earth – his. But is The Social Network really an indictment of Zuckerburg – or is it an apologia? Or does it strive mightily to occupy some strange territory in-between?
Director David Fincher has referred to The Social Network as “the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies” – which sounds like another way of saying that it’s a cool-kids version of the archetypal story of ruthless ambition that leads to supreme power that leads to personal disintegration and total friendlessness (except maybe online).
But is it?
The refrain from the film’s authors is everywhere the same: Zuckerberg doesn’t come off looking that bad in The Social Network. And indeed, given the multifarious screenwriting sleights-of-hand designed to downgrade (upgrade?) the Facebook CEO from Zuckerjerk to Zuckerlame (or even sweeter, Zuckersad), it really is hard to see why Mr Z and his homeys would have their corporate panties in a twist. The opening scene has the initial (and enduring) object of Zuckerberg’s affections, Erica Albright (played by Rooney Mara), declaring to him: “You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.” But by film’s end, attorney Marilyn Delpy (played by Rashida Jones), at the end of a long day of depositions, mumbles sweetly to the lonely Zuckerberg sitting alone with his laptop, “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be.” As we are still trying to figure out what that means, Marilyn leaves, and Zuckerberg turns back to his laptop, friend-requests Erica, then sits there repeatedly refreshing the page, hoping to see her reply appear. Aww! Poor Zuckersad!
But while the filmmakers have labored mightily to give us a Zuckerburg that is neither a hero nor a villain, neither have they have given us an “anti-hero” (which, judging from their declarations to the press, was the “middle ground” they’d hoped to find here). But an anti-hero is a protagonist, and Zuckerberg comes off here more like a typical Hollywood victim, of everything from exclusion to bad advice to a broken heart. Neither have they given us someone who is merely pathetic, since Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg is extremely charismatic and decisive, not to mention (if we accept Saverin’s narration) scheming and vindictive. The sum of all these contradictions is an emotional and moral blank at the heart of what might have been a powerful drama of personal corruption – making The Social Network a meaning-deprived but thrilling spectacle of super-fast, super-smart moving-and-shaking on a scale the likes of which the world has never seen and may never see again.
The Social Network reminds me of that moment in Robert Redford’s Quiz Show in which Martin Rittenhome (played by Martin Scorcese) says of the people that made his (rigged) show, “Twenty-One” a smash success, “They just wanted to watch the money.” And in this amoral film, all there is to watch, finally, is the power. And the sex that occasionally comes with it. And also the money. But judging from the box office returns, people like this just fine. And that’s precisely our problem – a problem of which The Social Network, perhaps despite its authors’ intentions, has become a part.
Mark Thomas Lickona is a screenwriter, critic, filmmaker and small-scale
organic farmer currently bi-locating between Los Angeles and the hills
of upstate New York. He hopes one day to be not only organic but