the social network
“There will be time, there will be time,” T.S. Eliot once cryptically wrote, “to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” For Mark Zuckerberg, the camera-shy entrepreneur who created Facebook and went on to become the world’s youngest billionaire, time is running out. This weekend brings the nationwide opening of David Fincher’s buzzy drama The Social Network, which recounts how Zuckerberg launched the site with his friend and fellow Harvard undergrad Eduardo Saverin, then shafted Saverin in a 2005 stock reorganization. Adapted by Aaron Sorkin (creator of The West Wing) from Ben Mezrich’s zingy best seller The Accidental Billionaires, the movie portrays Zuckerberg as a first-class heel, a supremely arrogant tech nerd driven by his hunger for social status, and it seems destined to define him publicly. Watching The Social Network, the real Zuckerberg may feel as if someone has hacked into his Facebook account and changed his profile picture.
Zuckerberg has been showing his face more often in the last few months, mounting what’s been widely perceived as a preemptive strike. In July he granted a rare TV interview to Diane Sawyer for ABC’s World News, and in September he was the subject of a relatively flattering profile in the New Yorker. Zuckerberg also appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show last week to be applauded for his donation of $100 million to the public school system in Newark, New Jersey (a city to which he has no personal connection). The appearance was a publicist’s wet dream: Winfrey ran a clip that showed Zuckerberg and his girlfriend inside their modest four-bedroom rental home in Palo Alto, California, and mitigated the suspicious timing of his gift by explaining that he’d planned to make it anonymous before she and Newark mayor Cory Booker talked him into coming on the show. Winfrey then introduced the topic of the “unauthorized” movie, which she declined to name, and invited Zuckerberg to issue whatever comment he chose. He cheerily dismissed it, and Winfrey quickly moved on.
Zuckerberg’s standard response to The Social Network has been to call it fiction (a verdict apparently based on a script leaked online last year) and to say he has no intention of seeing it. The fiction label has been adopted by others as well (“Most People Don’t Know ‘The Social Network’ Is Fiction,” read a recent headline at the independent blog Allfacebook.com), yet the more accurate term would be fictionalized. Both Mezrich and Sorkin employ the now-common techniques of re-created dialogue, composite scenes, and names changed to protect the privacy of bystanders. But the events they chronicle are mostly drawn from interviews and from depositions in two high-profile suits against Zuckerberg—one filed by Saverin and the other by a trio of Harvard students who alleged that Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from them. The various court proceedings serve as a narrative frame for the movie, allowing us to understand which recollections are a matter of dispute.
Given all the privacy issues that have sprung up around Facebook, there’s something perversely satisfying about seeing its creator’s own privacy invaded. Yet on Facebook the biggest threat to your privacy is yourself. You can restrict access to most of your information, allowing only friends to see it. But as the friend requests roll in, friendship is inevitably defined downward, from intimates to casual acquaintances to, ultimately, people who just want something from you (in my case, coverage for their indie movie). Eventually you realize that the things you’ve been posting aren’t the least bit private, because your circle of friends has gradually widened outward to include all the avenues of your life experience: school, work, family, romance. When I post something on Facebook now, I try to be as careful as if I were publishing it in the Reader, because I might as well be.
Played with smug impassivity by Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland), the Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network shows absolutely no regard for other people’s privacy—yet, ironically, the sequence that portrays him thus was mainly fabricated by Sorkin. The movie opens at a bar near the Harvard campus where Mark and his girlfriend, Erica (an invented character played by Rooney Mara), are locked in one of those rapid-fire, hyper-witty arguments that have become Sorkin’s (rather irritating) trademark. After Erica gives Mark his walking papers, he returns to his dorm room, drunk, and launches into a tirade about her on his LiveJournal blog: “Erica Albright is a bitch. . . . For the record, she may look like a 34D, but she’s getting all kinds of help from our friends at Victoria’s Secret. She’s a 34B, as in barely anything there. False advertising.” Later in the film, when Mark runs into Erica at a bar, he seems oblivious to the fact that he’s violated her trust by posting her most personal information on the World Wide Web.
The LiveJournal scene may be largely fiction, but it’s followed by one that’s documented fact: that same night, inspired by his bantering dormitory pals, Mark hacks into various Harvard sites, downloads hundreds of photos of undergraduate women, and launches a new site called Facemash that allows users to rank the women physically. The site gets 22,000 hits before crashing the university’s entire system, which gets Mark called before a disciplinary hearing. The prank also gives him such a bad name with women around campus that he jumps at the chance to rehabilitate his image by creating a more popular social networking site with two well-connected upperclassmen. Mark later blows them off to collaborate with his friend Eduardo on a similar site called the Facebook. The episode illustrates a social truth that’s just as pertinent now, with Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to the Newark schools: once something negative about you becomes public, you can never get it back; your only hope is to counteract it with something positive.
By the end of The Social Network, Mark has learned the value of at least one person’s privacy—his own. The final scene takes place in a law firm conference room, after one of the depositions has wrapped up. Alone with one of his attorneys (another invented character, played by Rashida Jones), Mark learns to his amazement that his legal team will be preparing a settlement offer for the three Harvard students he stiffed, despite their weak case. “You’re gonna need these guys to sign a nondisclosure agreement and you’re gonna need to be indemnified,” the attorney tells him. “They say one unflattering word about you in public and you own their house, wife, and kids.” That settlement, details of which were leaked in February 2009, amounted to $65 million in cash and stock. That may be a drop in the bucket for Zuckerberg, but it’s a stunning amount to pay for a little privacy—especially when you consider its going rate on Facebook.