The real Mark Zuckerberg was on Oprah last week talking about a donation he’d made to fund a pilot educational project in New Jersey, and several times, mention was made of how shy he is and how he wanted to make the donation anonymously. At first, I rolled my eyes and thought that the timing was suspect and that his reputation just needed the rehabilitation, but my feelings on him are somewhat changed after The Social Network — I still think that he could use some lessons in empathy, compassion, and friendship, but at the same time, I think that the way Facebook blew up must have been a completely overwhelming experience, and maybe he’s deserving of the benefit of the doubt, at least a little bit.
When Facebook launched in February 2004, I had already concluded undergraduate studies, and it wasn’t until Mark Zuckerberg opened up his wildly popular college networking website to the unwashed masses in 2006 that I became one of millions of Facebook users. Like many others will attest, life was never again the same. One of the earliest users of Facebook, a character named Amy, says to Sean Parker (a pivotal player in Facebook’s explosion into the world’s consciousness) that the site is wildly addictive, and never were truer words spoken. As much as I’d like to walk away from the site, it keeps pulling me back. This is what Mark Zuckerberg knew to be true: if you build it, they will come.
The Social Network, based on the early days of Facebook, is a riveting tale of privilege, jealousy, revenge, cunning, ingenuity, power and status. Jumping back and forth between Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) undergrad experience at Harvard and the almost-present day lawsuits launched against him by Cameron Winklevoss, Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) and Divya Narenda (Max Minghella), and his former best-friend and co-founder of Facebook, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), the movie explores relationships based both on friendship and on opportunity to tell the story of Facebook’s foundation. Ultimately, both suits were settled out of court; however, the monetary value of the first action remains in dispute, as the actual value of Facebook shares remains contested.
Interestingly, it is not the legal action surrounding Facebook that gives The Social Network its pull. Instead, it is the interpersonal relationships that Mark Zuckerberg remained so wholly ignorant of and inept at that is the movie’s most fascinating aspect. In fact, it can be argued that his breakup with a girl named Erica Albright (played by Rooney Mara, who will play the highly-sought after role of Lisbeth Salamander in David Fincher’s next project, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) provides the impetus for the creation of Facebook. After he stumbles through a conversation with her and ends up insulting her education and background, Erica informs him that he will go through life believing that girls don’t like him because he is a geek; in truth, she says, it will be because he is an asshole.
Chastised, Mark returns to his dorm room and in a fury of hurt and revenge, blogs about Erica while a storm brews in his head, leading him to create, in one (drunken) night, a website which rates female undergrads against one another. But a perfect storm is brewing. The success of that site leads brothers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and their business partner, Divya Narenda, to seek out Zuckerberg to help create a social network for Harvard students, called “HarvardConnection” (later “ConnectU”). Debate continues as to whether this idea was essentially Facebook or not, but it does seem to share enough DNA with Facebook’s underlying premise to convict Zuckerberg. However, as a Winklevoss himself points out, the one who wins is the one who gets there first. Zuckerberg simply had more knowledge in programming than the other three and was quicker on the draw. (It is also arguable that he also had more spare time due to, ironically, his comparably small social network).
Saverin came into play as Zuckerberg’s best friend at Harvard. He also put up the initial seed money for the project and Zuckerberg named him as Facebook’s (then “TheFacebook”) first CFO.
In a twist of fate, Facebook garnered the attention of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, who is already garnering Oscar buzz for his role), late of Napster fame, who met Zuckerberg and took him under his wing — and ultimately helped to push Saverin out of the company. Because of this, Saverin is the most obviously sympathetic party in the entire mess, although for my money, Zuckerberg is somewhat deserving of some understanding, at least. His ineptitude at relationships combined with the meteoric rise of Facebook and the overwhelming nature of the experience seem to have left him reeling. He was very young, very naive and impressionable, and was susceptible to “power players” like Sean Parker. What resonated with me was how detached he was, and how he didn’t really seem to realize or understand the effects of his actions, particularly in how he screwed over Eduardo. When he tells his lawyer (Rashida Jones) that he’s not as bad as he’s being portrayed, she astutely replies: “You’re not an asshole; you’re just trying so hard to be one.”
What fuels The Social Network and makes it so fascinating is the interpersonal relationships between Zuckerberg and his almost-business partners and between Zuckerberg and Saverin. Whereas in media reports and even in his own communications on Facebook, Zuckerberg has often come across as cold and insensitive, in The Social Network, he becomes an almost sympathetic character. His ineffectiveness in social situations was troubling, if only because it suggested extreme social discomfort on his part, and a detachment that made me wonder if he is on the Autism/Asperger’s spectrum (albeit, he is highly functioning). Certainly, his uncanny programming abilities suggest that he may be a savant in this area, perhaps at the detriment of his social skills and ability to empathize and connect with others.
In addition to this, The Social Network makes some interesting points about power, prestige, entitlement, jealousy and revenge. Harvard, like most prestigious institutions, is very inclusive and Zuckerberg was never able to work his way in to the precarious social networks of the Ivy League, and so he created one outside its boundaries.
When The Social Network project was first announced, many wondered how director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin could make the story of a website interesting enough to captivate audiences for two hours. In The Social Network, we got more than the story of the genesis of an internet website; for perhaps the first time, we got a glimpse at the wizard behind the curtain. How sad it is that the wizard who created a website connecting hundreds of millions of friends has almost none of his own.