The new Facebook film, “The Social Network,” has garnered extremely favorable reviews. It gets a 97% critics rating and an 81% audience rating on rottentomatoes.com, four out of four stars from the finicky Roger Ebert, and plenty of Oscar buzz from the likes of Entertainment Weekly and MTV. What’s the reality behind the buzz?
I’m no film connoisseur nor do I have a vote on the Oscar ballot, but for what it’s worth I liked “The Social Network.” It kept my attention for the entire 120-minute running time with good acting, snappy dialogue, and bursts of humor. Is it Oscar-worthy? In my amateur opinion, no. But the movie, which explores the concept of how the Internet (specifically, social media) levels the playing field of exclusivity, is thought-provoking and relevant to our times. For those reasons alone you should go see it.
Positive reviews and Oscar mentions aren’t the only buzz “The Social Network” is generating. There’s also been much buzz about the veracity of the storyline and whether the movie tarnishes Mark Zuckerberg’s reputation. What’s the reality — or alternative reality — behind the buzz? I searched the Internet for more details (sources cited throughout article), and here’s what I came up with:
- Buzz #1 – The film is based on the true story, as quoted by Aaron Sorkin: “This movie is absolutely a true story, but with the catch that people disagree about what the truth was…”
- Reality – What do you get when you put together different versions of the same story and omit an account from the main subject? Mainly fiction. Read on for more details.
- Buzz #2 – The film is based on the book, The Accidental Billionaires, by best-selling author, Ben Mezrich, who is known for thoroughly researching his subjects.
- Reality – The film is considered a close adaptation of Mezrich’s book, which was based on limited research — according to this New York Times book review. Because Mark Zuckerberg, the main character, refused to be interviewed for the book (and the film), the author relied heavily on input from Eduardo Saverin, a former friend of Zuckerberg’s and one of Facebook’s co-founders. Saverin, one of a few people to sue Zuckerberg over co-founder rights, received an undisclosed sum of money as a settlement. For all his invaluable contribution to the research, many believe it’s no coincidence that Saverin is portrayed sympathetically throughout the movie. The bulk of Ben Mezrich’s research derived from the Harvard Crimson and reams of court documents from the various lawsuits involving Zuckerberg. This may contribute heavily to why the film pivots around legal deposition scenes.
- Buzz #3: Mark Zuckerberg is portrayed as a villain.
- Reality: The movie paints Mark Zuckerberg as a hardcore geek who may have pilfered the idea of Facebook and discarded friends on his rise to the top. Despite that, there is enough ambiguity in the portrayal of events to leave room for interpretation. In other words, the movie allows viewers to judge whether Zuckerberg is a villain or not. My judgment? The Zuckerberg of “The Social Network” is a social misfit who has the drive, capability and brilliance to seize an opportunity and turn it into something real and successful. Zuckerberg is the embodiment of American entrepreneurism and frankly, it’s inspiring. It seems I’m not alone in seeing Zuckerberg’s portrayal as an inspiration. In this interview with CNN, Zuckerberg says he receives messages “from people who claim that they have been very much inspired by what he’s done.”
- Buzz #4: In the opening scene, Zuckerberg’s girlfriend breaks up with him. In retaliation, he creates FaceMash, a site that ranks girls based on their level of attractiveness. FaceMash then evolves into Facebook.
- Reality – As this moviefone article states, Zuckerberg and his friends dismiss this opening scene as pure fiction, asserting that Zuck “been dating the same woman, Priscilla Chan, for about seven years — since before he founded Facebook.” FaceMash, however, did happen, according to numerous reports.
- Buzz #5: Mark Zuckerberg did not come up with the idea of Facebook on his own.
- Reality – As the film explains, shortly after Zuckerberg gets into trouble for the FaceMash shenanigan, he is approached by identical twins, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, and their friend, Divya Narendra. They offer to pay Zuckerberg for his programming help on an exclusive Harvard online social network. Zuckerberg accepts the job but then allegedly goes radio silent as he works in secret to create thefacebook.com (the site’s name before “the” was dropped). Eventually, the Winklevoss twins and Narendra sue Zuckerberg for stealing their idea, and ultimately receive an undisclosed settlement. Once again, the film presents the events in an objective way, leaving it up to viewers to think through the concept of intellectual property and the distinction between an idea and an invention. In an interview with the New York Times, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin says the the filmmakers “didn’t take a position…about who invented Facebook, [but] there is no question that Mark Zuckerberg is a genius. He doesn’t just have brains. He created something.” I couldn’t agree more with Sorkin on this point. The Winklevoss’ presented Zuckerberg with an idea not unlike the already existent MySpace.com, except that they wanted something exclusive to Harvard. If the movie’s account here is to be believed, the Winklevoss’ didn’t invent the concept of online social networking. They couldn’t code their own unoriginal idea. So based on this, it seems to me that at most, the twins inspired Zuckerberg with their concept. But the actual vision and execution was all Zuckerberg.
- Buzz #6: the depiction of Harvard University, the setting for most of the movie, is unflattering.
- Reality – “The Social Network” offers a stereotypical and myopic view of Harvard University as a place of exclusivity, privilege, and wealth. Hot, scantily clad girls are a dime a dozen, and you’re a nobody unless/until you’re part of one of the final clubs (highly exclusive, old-school social organizations). While I am not part of the Harvard community, I have a hard time believing that this is all Harvard represents. Sure, Harvard is exclusive in that it only accepts the best and brightest students. Sure, it’s a privilege to attend one of the best learning institutions in the world. Sure, a substantial investment is required for the steep tuition. But walk around the Harvard campus and you’ll encounter plenty of students who don’t fit the stereotypes in the movie. In fact, the Harvard grads I know are humble, low-key, and down-to-earth. Read this article, “What The Social Network Is Not Telling Us About Facebook,” for more on the cultural landscape of Harvard in 2003, when the film first takes place.
In short, “The Social Network” is not so much an accurate account of how, why, and who founded Facebook.com. The movie offers multiple perspectives and takes dramatization liberties. These factors taint it as disingenuous. But as I mentioned earlier, if you go into the movie expecting to be entertained by an Internet-age “rags to riches” story, you will not be disappointed.
- “Millions of Friends, but Not Very Popular,” The New York Times movie review
- “The Facebook Drama “The Social Network” Won’t Show You,” FastCompany