Sunday, October 10, 2010


Is Mark Zuckerberg a dick? And if so, is it still okay to use Facebook?

Ten years ago, Mark Zuckerberg was an IT student at Harvard. He was pissed off that his girlfriend had dumped him. He was pissed off that his friend Eduardo was getting into an elite club. He was pissed off that he was smarter than everyone but that nobody seemed to notice. So, in a fit of pique, he created a website called Facemash by stealing other students’ photos and uploading them to a photo-ranking site he created, in one evening, while drunk. The site got so many hits it crashed the Harvard network. You get the whole story right there in that scene: the motivations born of insecurity; the disregard for other people’s property; and the insanely brilliant ability.

Mark moves on to helping out elite rowers’, the Winkelvoss twins, with their social networking site, Harvard Connection. He looks around, keeps them hanging on the telephone, and meanwhile mashes the best of their idea (the Harvard exclusivity) with his own talent in creating cleanly designed, functional space. The result is Facebook. They, eventually, sue. (The delay due to being "Gentlemen of Harvard".) The next step is to take Facebook from being a Harvard phenomena to a profitable business. But where Eduardo, co-founder and financial backer, wants to go for advertising and a quick return, Mark is a purist – he wants the site to develop – he wants to know what they have. Of course, this doesn’t stop him being seduced by the charismatic Steve Parker – renegade founder of Napster and Plaxo – taking private equity dollars, and essentially pushing Eduardo out. And when Steve Parker lands himself in trouble with the law, Zuckerberg coolly moves to protect his company again.

When we leave him, Mark Zuckerberg is five years older, some billions richer, invisible no longer. But he's still bitter, insecure, and alone.

In David Fincher’s new film, featuring Jesse Eisenberg in the leading role, Zuckerberg is far more complex a character than I had expected. He’s not a quasi-autistic IT genius who is oblivious to the feelings of the people he screws over, and thus exempt from blame. Neither is he is a mono-dimensional, egomaniacal dickweed, hell-bent on pushing out anyone who dares interfere with his vision for “thefacebook”. Rather, he’s a complex mix of deep insecurity and complete self-confidence. And while he is undoubtedly equivocal with the truth when he needs to manipulate a situation, he’s also as liable to be manipulated by others, especially Justin Timberlake's Steve Parker. He IS an asshole, but a pitiable one at that, and not without redeeming features. He is smart, and creative, and he's usually right.

This is the kind of even-handed, nuanced reading that writer Aaron Sorkin (THE WEST WING) brings to the rather banal, thin source material provided by Ben Mazrich's book "The Accidental Billionaires". Everyone other than Parker gets a fair hearing. Sorkin does this by scrupulously avoiding championing one side or another. Rather every conversation, every action, is shown and then discussed by the people who disagree. We see everything as someone's opinion rather than objective fact - and most things from more than one point of view.  And David Fincher is just the director for this kind of slippery narrative - bringing the adrenaline and excitement of CGI heavy thrillers to what is essentially a movie made up of hacking and depositions. The result is a movie that is fast-paced, emotionally fascinating, and gives us a clear steer on where the film-makers stand:

Sorkin's Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook and no-one else in this movie had the talent to - but he was also willing to brush past obstacles without pity. Eduardo Saverin - the best friend with money - comes across as nice but naive - never assume the lawyers are your own - and truthfully out of his depth on how to take Facebook forward. The Winkelvoss twins are perfectly summed up by Zuckerberg in a throwaway line - they're pissed off and fighting because in their entitled lives this is the first time something hasn't gone their way. Still, as played by Armie Hammer, they have a kind of anachronistic nobility that's utterly charming. And as for Steve Parker, he's a little kid high on phat cash and hype. Yes he uses Zuckerberg, shamelessly, but you also get the feeling that he genuinely gets him too, and wants FB to succeed. Ultimately, I want a movie on Parker, with Timberlake playing him, all on its own.

I find it quite amazing that Sorkin/Fincher were able to deliver a movie about complicated legal wrangles, populated with complicated characters in a world far from the everyday and yet still make it comprehensible and exciting. I think it's because they tapped into the basic emotions: jealousy, greed, insecurity. They get that Zuckerberg just wanted to be noticed, and was protective of his creation. Which is why I'm really upset that they felt it necessary to introduce two rather cheap tricks to top and tail the narrative. First off, the inclusion of a pretty young lawyer (Rashida Jones) who reaches out to Zuckerberg, and is essentially there just to soften his edges and make us think he's less of a dick. Clumsy. And second, and more serious, the introduction of the fictional ex-girlfriend, Erica Albright as the neat motivating device behind the original facemash hack. I get that she's meant to serve as the amalgamation of all the social hurt he's ever felt, but it's just too pat, and why would she have ever dated him in the first place. It makes the movie stronger in a way - partly because of Rooney Mara's great performance - and because of the strength of the final scene - but it's also pretty weak and obvious for a film that, in general, is a lot more sophisticated.

So is Mark Zuckerberg a dick? Yes. Do I sympathise with him? Yes. Am I still going to use Facebook? Yes!

THE SOCIAL NETWORK is on release in the US, Canada, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. It opens on October 15th in France, Switzerland, Denmark, Bulgaria, Estonia, Iceland, Spain and the UK. It opens on October 21st in Greece, Finland, Lithuania and Sweden. It opens on October 28th in Belgium, the Philippines, Australia, Croatia, the Netherlands, Singapore and Norway. It opens in November in the Czech Republic, Portugal, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Italy, Malaysia, South Korea, Russia and Colombia. It opens in December in Brazil, Argentina and India and on January 15th in Japan.


  1. Zuckerberg is portrayed as a kniving genius that betrayed his only friend. He seems a little more normal and well-adjusted in real life, but still seems very awkward. The movie was really intriguing, and is one of the best movies of the year so far.

  2. BillFenner196719/12/10 8:06 PM

    Agree with your comments on the movie, Bina007. So I'll only add this ...

    Didn't know what to expect before watching this. I knew it would be good (from a purely technical point of view, as both Fincher and Sorkin as excellent story tellers) but was suspecting more style than substance. As I write this now, slowly disgesting the film I finished watching a few minutes earlier, I'm beginning to wonder what the point of it was.

    The moral of the tale was the same as Citizen Kane and countless other cautionary tales of ruthless, ambitious men who rise to the top and find it's a lonely, empty place. So was Zukerberg refreshing the old girlfriend's Facebook profile the modern day Rosebud sled burning in the incinerator, then? It was a pretty obvious Message! in place of a proper ending, I thought.

    On a side note, I can't help but think that, while I'm sure this film is wildly inaccurate and depicts the protagonists as scheming, soul less, cold and cruel assholes, the real Zuckerberg, Parker, et al, are actually quite happy to have such a portrayal out there. Kind of like how all those Wall Steet guys actually ended up worshiping Gordon Gecko, despite being the villain of the piece.

    Finally, I didn't think Eisenberg was that good. Didn't seem to be much acting going on, unless scowling and being moody counts. Then again, that's also Sorkin and Fincher's responsibility. Of all the cartoonish characters, he was the least animated.