I just came back from seeing The Social Network on opening night, in a packed theatre complete with a Tweetup filling the first two rows. I was impressed (especially after reading the rather disappointing ‘The Accidental Billionaires,’ the book the film was based on). But you can go read another much more excellent blog post about its cinematic, narrative or artistic merits. Instead, I’d like to offer my take on The Social Network as a Facebook researcher.
In 1997, when I was a nerdy teenage girl sitting in my basement talking to my nerdy internet friends on IRC and ICQ, I never ever would have thought one day I would be seeing a Hollywood movie about the creation of anything to do with the internet (and written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by David Fincher, scored by Trent Reznor and starring Justin Timberlake, no less!) Back then, the internet was like my private, secret thing. I got a weird twinge the first time I overheard the ‘cool girls’ in the hallway whispering about how they were talking to boys they liked on ICQ. I realise it wasn’t just mine anymore. I still get this twinge whenever I’m reminded just how mainstream socializing online has become (even that phrase seems so outdated) – like today, when I went to see The Social Network on opening night.
The thing that most interested me was how the film would portray Zuckerberg, his motivations and the events that lead up to the Facebook we know today. As Aaron Sorkin admitted on the Colbert Report last night, no one other than those directly involved really know what happened. In some places, the film was very true to the available evidence. In the scene where Zuckerberg is creating the original Facebook site, the blog posts he makes are pretty much taken directly from his actual online diary which was used as a court document and later put online by 02138 magazine (and then, taken down because of legal battle with Facebook). As a wonderful nerd reference, Zuckerberg is shown to be blogging on LiveJournal under the account zuckonit. As awesome as it would be, I don’t think Zuckerberg used LiveJournal to host his blog from back then (anyone know? the source code shown in the court documents seem to indicate no).
Like the LiveJournal reference, more often than not the film takes a lot of artistic license, especially with Zuckerberg’s motivations. The film’s plot revolves around Zuckerberg two supposed motivations for creating Facebook: women and getting into a final club. The scene where Zuckerberg creates Facemash (a pre-Facebook site like Hot or Not) right after being broken up by Erica Albright (Zuckerberg’s blog reveals this isn’t her real name) supports this notion because in the movie version, Facemash only compares female students. This assertion is also found in ‘The Accidental Billionaires,’ which is supposed to be non-fiction. However, the original Crimson story on Facemash (Harvard’s student paper) seems to indicate that both genders are comared, which makes Zuckerberg seem much more interested in creating something interesting rather than just wanting revenge on the general population of women for rejecting him. His preoccupation with Erica’s rejection runs throughout the film, which (spoilers!) closes on Zuckerberg looking lonely and deciding whether to Friend her or not. Again, the film leaves out an important detail – Zuckerberg had a girlfriend (Priscilla Chan, who is is still dating and will probably marry) throughout most of the events depicted in the film. The inaccuracies are not a surprise given that the film (and the book it was based on) are entirely based on everyone else’s accounts of what happened, with no input from any actual Facebook employee or Zuckerberg himself.
What the film does get totally right is that Zuckerberg is not motivated by money. Clearly, something else drives him, otherwise he would have sold Facebook to the hiddest bidder (and there have been many offers in the billions). But this something else probably isn’t as simple as women or getting into a final club. As Karel Baloun, an early Facebook engineer, reports in his book ‘Inside Facebook,’ Zuckerberg really believes he’s making the world a better place.
Like Temple Grandin‘s unique outsider perspective that enabled her to create more humane slaughterhouses (terrible analogy, I know) The Social Network ingeniously picks up Zuckerberg’s outsider-enabled ability to pick out the core social motivations and structures of humans that lead to the success of Facebook. Zuckerberg can only do this because he is on the outside looking in. This, on one hand gives him the critical distance to see what others can’t, but on the other leads, ironically, to the creation of a social network site that is actually profoundly anti-social.
All in all, The Social Network ‘underscores a cultural phenomenon‘ (duh). Go see it.
More? In time with the release of The Social Network, I was on MTV News this week to talk about Facebook and what it all means. Check it out (it’s clip 4).