“The Social Network” has been the top movie for a couple weeks now, and I’ve had a couple friends who have commented about how much it opened their eyes about what kind of person Mark Zuckerberg is, only to be surprised by my pointing out that this movie isn’t exactly a documentary concerned with getting its facts right. Is there some truth in the movie? I’m sure there is. But I figured it might be worth reminding folks that the movie (as should be expected) plays pretty fast and loose with the facts to create a more compelling story. (Perhaps the best place to start is this piece by one of Zuckerberg’s old dorm-mates, Rebecca Davis O’Brien, quoted a bit below.
The biggest departure? Well, um, the main plotline of the movie—the motivation for the creation of Facebook—for starters. Apparently Zuckerberg was not an outcast who wanted to break into the in-crowd (and, according to Zuckerberg himself, he has been dating the same girl since before launching Facebook). Rather, he was already something of a big figure on campus upon his arrival (having turned down big bucks from Microsoft to go to Harvard) and promptly joined a fraternity early in his college career. We’re not looking at a “little big man” who finds his way to the top here, we’re looking at a really smart, confident guy who became very successful. If anything, he was a true “hacker” in every sense of the word, right down to the intelligent disregard of norms and rules. An old high school classmate explains:
“The whole notion of Mark as either an evil genius or as a deeply status-obsessed person doesn’t ring true to me at all,” says one of Mark’s classmates at both Exeter and Harvard, who knew Mark in high school through several classes and extracurricular activities. “He always struck me as kind of oddly comfortable in his own skin.”
“The whole anti-authority thing,” he continues, “rings true with me. He took a certain amount of enjoyment out of not necessarily breaking rules, but just pointing out that people who have responsibility for things are kind of stupid. I think he did enjoy kind of demonstrating his own superiority by skirting things.” At Exeter, for example, Zuckerberg kept finding ways to evade firewalls and sites that were blocked.
“It was this mundane, competitive narcissism,” the Exeter classmate says. “Kind of believing that the rules you’re expected to live by are just not really legitimate.”
And there’s the rub: movies aren’t quite as compelling when the supremely talented, confident, smart guy succeeds in a rather straightaway fashion. People need something to identify with, some sort of dramatic tension (and having girls far more buxom than any I saw my last time on the Harvard campus doesn’t hurt, either). That’s not to say such tensions haven’t existed—Zuckerberg is by no means a saint and has made his share of enemies—but the movie works a lot better if it can tap into that “underdog” sense so easily understood by large portions of its audience. That is to say, the movie works a lot better if it can paint Zuckerberg as something of an “everyman”—even better still if it can then turn that around as a sort of critique, so there is conflict on all sides, internal and external. This is what the movie does, and does quite well, to the point of causing a bit of a generational divide in how Zuckerberg is understood by movie-goers:
“When you talk to people afterward, it was as if they were seeing two different films,” said Scott Rudin, one of the producers. “The older audiences see Zuckerberg as a tragic figure who comes out of the film with less of himself than when he went in, while young people see him as completely enhanced, a rock star, who did what he needed to do to protect the thing that he had created.”