If I had not been a programmer for the past 42 years and a missionary for Marxism on the Internet for the past 14, I doubt that I would have found “Social Network” so compelling.
I can see the logic of my NYFCO colleague Armond White who, even more so than me, has little use for such over-hyped movies:
Hollywood and the journalism industries—both cowed by the Internet breathing down their necks—have perfected a method to curtail individual response to movies, thereby dictating widespread enthusiasm for this shallowly complicated film. To Fincher and Sorkin, Zuckerberg represents a new cultural avatar who (like other snarky Internet avengers) must be worshipped, not held to account. They inflate Zuckerberg’s story as a “creation myth” (as one lawyer calls him), the better to concede victory to a tycoon of new technology rather than apply normal social or professional standards to his hostile relations with people. The Social Network sucks up to successful, wealthy young powerbrokers.
Prairie Miller, my other favorite NYFCO colleague who is one of the country’s sharpest radical film journalists, wrote:
And while the film is always about brains rather than brawn, The Social Network is strictly guy territory with mental bawling providing the main action, in a peculiar Harvard essentially sexed up and dumbed down. And a main character spouting such an insanely intellectualized rowdy rap minus the music, and seemingly psyching himself into a fast forward run-on sentence karma of hyper-capitalist high, that any social logic to this unfocused infomercial in biopic clothing, falls by the wayside.
Despite my alienation from the main characters, I found the movie to be an extraordinary look into the process of software development with a scrupulous attention to the technical details. After Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg in a superb performance) gets the inspiration for what would eventually becomes Facebook as a Harvard sophomore, he begins to cobble together a web application using the same combination of programming and database tools that I use at Columbia University for more mundane tasks, like keeping track of the school’s billions of dollars. When I got into the profession (a craft, really) 42 years ago, the programmer’s workbench was a lot less accessible to the non-professional but with the dissemination of personal computers and tools such as spreadsheets, html, etc., it becomes a lot easier to identify with the main character even if his personality traits are as off-putting as a bucket of phlegm.
The movie is something of a morality tale about the new media but with much less of a bite than “Citizen Kane”. If Orson Welles’s newspaper magnate, based on William Randolph Hearst, is a monster of monstrous proportions, David Fincher’s Zuckerberg is a garden gnome by contrast. Hearst used his newspaper to start imperialist wars, while Zuckerberg ‘s biggest sin, according to the screenplay written by Aaron Sorkin, is stabbing his business partners in the back. Most people realize that this hardly amounts to a sin in the business world; a mere peccadillo is more like it.
By now, everybody has probably heard that the movie is based on a paradox, namely that the inventor of a system that provides an automated “social network” had no social skills to speak of. Throughout the movie, we see a brilliant geek after the fashion of Bill Gates acting like a total prick, starting with the opening scene when he tells his girl-friend from Boston University that she is lucky to be dating a Harvard man who will introduce her to the elites there, even if at this point they would regard him as a dog with fleas. She breaks up with him on the spot, saying:
You’re going to be successful, and rich. But 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.
Zuckerberg dreams of being accepted at one of Harvard’s old-boy’s clubs, especially something like the Porcellian—Harvard’s version of Yale’s Skull-and-Bones that included Theodore Roosevelt as one of its members. So when two of its members–twin brothers Cameron Winklevoss and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer, the great-grandson of the oil tycoon who had close ties to the Kremlin)—show up one day asking him for help in creating a social network website for Harvard students, you’d think that he would ingratiate himself to them to gain their acceptance. They were everything he wasn’t: wealthy, tall, athletic (members of the crew team who would participate in the Olympics) and WASP (he was the son of a Jewish dentist.)
After agreeing to do the programming for the brothers and their partner, an Indian business major named Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), he almost immediately begins work on his own project behind their backs. Silicon Alley Insider got hold of some I.M. communications between Zuckerberg and a friend that revealed how he planned to deal with the Winklevoss’s:
FRIEND: so have you decided what you are going to do about the websites?
ZUCK [a nickname used only by his friends]: yea i’m going to fuck them
ZUCK: probably in the year
In another exchange leaked to Silicon Alley Insider, Zuckerberg bragged about his access to student body information:
ZUCK: yea so if you ever need info about anyone at harvard
ZUCK: just ask
ZUCK: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns
FRIEND: what!? how’d you manage that one?
ZUCK: people just submitted it
ZUCK: i don’t know why
ZUCK: they “trust me”
ZUCK: dumb fucks
Dumb fucks indeed. One of the biggest complaints about Facebook today is the cavalier treatment of the privacy of its members as ZDNet reported:
Social-networking sites such as Facebook are eroding their members’ privacy in the interests of their business model, according to BT’s chief security technology officer Bruce Schneier.
The security expert said on Tuesday that social-networking sites deliberately encourage people to disclose personal details about themselves so the sites will have content to sell to advertisers.
“These CEOs are deliberately killing privacy — it’s their market — and Facebook is the worst offender,” Schneier told reporters at RSA Conference Europe in London. “In the end, Facebook will do its best by its customers, who aren’t you [but advertisers].”
Clearly, Zuckerberg must have anticipated how profitable Facebook could have become from the very beginning. This, after all, was how Google’s founders became billionaires, by linking their search engine to paid advertising geared to a searcher’s preferences. And Google, like Facebook, has postured as just a “cool” way for people to become connected, not some sleazy old-fashioned get-rich-quick scheme.
Despite Zuckerberg’s assertions throughout the film that he was only interested in providing some “cool” way for people to get connected, it was clear that he had baser ambitions from the start. As soon as he gets the idea for Facebook, initially a social network for college students, he recruits economics major Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), a Brazilian Jew, to be his Chief Financial Officer, largely on the strength of his business acumen and wealth. Saverin put up $18,000 as seed money for the new operation and received a 35 percent stock ownership.
Not long after the business begins to take off, one Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake in a bravura performance) learns about it from a Stanford woman he has spent the night with. What’s that cool website she had on her laptop, he asked. Oh, that’s something called thefacebook, she replied, referring to its original name.
Sean Parker turns out to be one of the co-founders of Napster (Shawn Fanning was the other) who has a sixth sense about which software is capable of being “revolutionary”. In a profile that appeared in Vanity Fair, Parker comes across as a mixture of Karl Marx and a hedge fund operator:
Reggae plays in the background at Shawn Fanning’s huge 40th-floor apartment, directly over San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. It is late at night. Parker stretches back on an easy chair and bemoans what he sees as the scarcity, in contemporary culture, of revolutionary thinkers on the level of, say, Jim Morrison and Jack Kerouac. “They were capable of folly,” he says, “and willing to take risks in terms of their message. We live in an extremely repressive era, and we fail to realize how repressive it is, because we’re told that all these outlets for rebellion, like listening to rock music, are no longer satanic. Smoking weed—that’s sort of O.K. and acceptable in some circles.” To Parker, the implication is that people in his position have almost an obligation to do what they can with the tools at their disposal—software and the Internet—to free up society through disruptive technology. As he muses, it is clear that he sees entrepreneurship and invention as handmaidens of social transformation.
Once Parker hooks up with Zuckerberg, a conflict develops between the two and Saverin, who is depicted as technologically and entrepreneurially challenged. Parker’s first contribution is to propose that the “the” be dropped from thefacebook. That was “cooler”. Parker also persuades Zuckerberg to move out to Silicon Valley and concentrate on the new company rather than wasting time at Harvard. Saverin remains on the East Coast trying to drum up advertising for the infant social networking site against the objections of Sean Parker who feels that it would distract from its “coolness”. He tells Zuckerberg at one point, ” “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.”
Parker also lines up venture capitalists that are eager to pump millions into the new enterprise, thus making Saverin’s wealth puny by comparison. Not only does Parker have access to venture capital, he introduces Zuckerberg to a life style filled with hot “babes” and drugs. The house in Silicon Valley that serves as the initial offices for Facebook development is like something out of Animal House, an ongoing toga party in effect. Eventually, the cops show up at one wild party and arrest Parker for cocaine possession.
It happens that Jesse Eisenberg’s character is very similar to the one he played in Holy Rollers, another film about a middle-class Jew who yields to the temptation of drugs and wild parties. He played a 20 year old named Shmuel who is recruited to a drug-smuggling ring made up of Hasidic youth who were able to avoid detection at airports because of their innocent appearance. Eisenberg has a flair for playing prodigal sons it would appear.
In a deal cooked up by Zuckerberg’s lawyers, Saverin is persuaded to sign a contract that appears on the surface to cement his role as co-founder of the company and trusted insider. It turns out to be a ruse that effectively all but fires him from the company.
In a series of flashbacks that run throughout the film, lawyers hear a case against Zuckerberg filed by the Winkelvoss brothers who argue that they have been robbed of their intellectual property. Saverin testifies on their behalf, making the case that his ex-partner cannot be trusted. Unlike most court cases that are dramatized in a Hollywood movie, this one lacks a likable protagonist a la Erin Brockovich. The Winklevoss’s evoke bruised WASP entitlement sensibilities while Zuckerberg is insufferable, arrogant and condescending throughout the proceedings. You feel that all of them belong in jail.
While most critics, including me to a very partial degree, have judged this film to be one of the year’s best (97 percent favorable on Rotten Tomatoes), there is acceptance pretty much across the board that is more fiction than fact.
To start with, the script is based on the book Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal that was written by Ben Mezrich last year. Saverin, who was looking for somebody to do a hatchet job on Zuckerberg, approached Mezrich with a proposal that looked like a potential blockbuster, even if it was likely to be as untrustworthy as a Zuckerberg contract. Mezrich cooked up a tale that the New York Times describes:
Though we cannot know exactly what went through Ben Mezrich’s mind as he wrote “The Accidental Billionaires,” his nonfictionish book about the creation of Facebook, we can perhaps speculate hypothetically about what it possibly might have been like. After all, wild guessing was, or could have been, or possibly seems to have been, Mr. Mezrich’s own working method. He didn’t have a lot of access. He didn’t have a lot of information. Most crucially, he didn’t have Mark Zuckerberg, the former Harvard student who is famed for having cooked up the Facebook algorithms and is at the heart of the Facebook story.
So Mr. Mezrich had to do some guesswork about Mr. Zuckerberg. And guesswork — long, lyrical, hash-slinging, protracted feats of guesswork, based only glancingly on the rare incontrovertible detail, like the fact that Mr. Zuckerberg liked to wear flip-flops in college — is Mr. Mezrich’s specialty. It served him lucratively, if not well, in “Bringing Down the House,” the book that became the basis for the film “21” (another story of smart college kids striking it rich in the real world, in that case in Las Vegas casinos). It should not go unnoticed that Mr. Mezrich started out as a writer of science fiction.
In “The Accidental Billionaires” he so enthusiastically favors hot air over specifics that he waits until the end of the book to offer up three little words that speak volumes about Mr. Zuckerberg’s Sphinx-like persona. However shy, vague, withdrawn, affectless and computerlike Mr. Zuckerberg is said by this book to be, he turns out to have business cards that say “I’m CEO — Bitch.” That phrase outweighs all 258 pages of Mr. Mezrich’s stalling. (The last two pages of this 260-page book are devoted to a list of published sources. Mr. Mezrich relied heavily on The Harvard Crimson.)
If Mezrich’s book took liberties with the facts, Adam Sorkin’s screenplay can best be described as a hot air balloon that has become detached from its moorings. For example, in the opening scene where Zuckerberg’s girl friend breaks up with him for being an “asshole”, no such thing happened in real life.
Also, despite the attempts to turn the Winkelvoss’s into technologically challenged jocks who are totally reliant on Zuckerberg’s skills, the facts are that they simply did not have the time. In an interview with the London Times, Cameron Winkelvoss states:
We had the ability. At the age of 13 we taught ourselves HTML [programming language] and started a little web-page company. We had the aptitude, but with our major and our rowing we just didn’t have the time.
Also, Zuckerberg was not quite the nerd of the film representation. He was captain of the fencing team at Phillips Exeter Academy, a prep school designed to place people in Ivy League schools. He also was a member of the crew team there, just like the Winkelvoss’s.
With respect to Sean Parker being busted for cocaine possession, this did happen but not in the house that Facebook used for its first office. He was arrested in North Carolina in a house that he was using during a kite-boarding vacation having nothing to do with Facebook.
Also, despite the movie trying to paint Eduardo Saverin as a victim left stripped of his Facebook holdings by Zuckerberg’s machinations, the truth is that he owns 5 percent of Facebook shares today, worth $1.3 billion.
Sorkin took elements of the truth and fiction and wove them into a saga about life in the fast lane. As we know, biopics often take liberties with the truth but Sorkin’s manipulations have come under more scrutiny than usual. You can find a pretty good dismantling of the movie’s authenticity at Slant Magazine that concludes:
Sorkin, too, has left us with a myth, and the mythmaker has washed his hands of the mythmaking process. Some critics call this a brilliant meta-disclaimer, an acknowledgment that there is no universal truth in the Zuckerberg story. It’s not. It’s an abdication of responsibility for a story that pantomimes Zuckerberg and is poised to transform Mezrich and Sorkin’s version of reality into whatever passes for truth these days.
Alas, here’s the rub: The Social Network is also a lot of fun. Go buy a ticket. Just don’t buy the story.
In my next post, I will review Catfish, a documentary about the role Facebook played in a strange relationship between a young, hip and handsome New York photographer and a lonely housewife in Northern Michigan. Like The Social Network, it also plays fast and loose with the facts.