Aaron Sorkin earned a stellar reputation as the producer of "West Wing," an idealistic TV show about a smart and sophisticated American president with good ethics and equally good policies. Having high expectations for a Sorkin production, I was disappointed in his current release, "The Social Network."
"The Social Network" is the story of Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook, which has 500 million users worldwide and was estimated to be worth $25 billion at the time of the movie's release. That's no small feat for a 26-year-old entrepreneur. How did he do it?
Zuckerberg, played beautifully by Jesse Eisenberg, is a 19-year-old student at Harvard as the movie opens. He is having drinks with his girlfriend, and manages to insult her and offend the audience within less than five minutes of crisp, sardonic dialogue. Sorkin establishes immediately that Zuckerberg is arrogant, insufferable and Mensa material, and we cheer when his girlfriend, Erica, breaks up with him. A frustrated and intoxicated Zuckerberg returns to his dorm, thinking that he will create a social media site where Harvard men can rate female students in terms of their attractiveness. He calls the site "FaceMash."
It's a powerful scene, arguing that the birth of Facebook was motivated by teen angst and revenge. The only problem is that it never occurred. Zuckerberg didn't even know a woman named Erica, although he did drunkenly blog about a Harvard coed named Jessica Alona, but he denies that he ever went out with her or that she was the driving force behind Facebook. In fact, Mark has had the same girlfriend for the last seven years.
After the so-called romantic breakup, Mark conferred with his friend Eduardo Saverin (well played by Andrew Garfield), seeking a logarithm that would enable him to hack into various “face books” that were already in existence in individual Harvard dorms. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg was approached by Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, twins who asked if Mark would program a dating website for students that would be based on exclusivity; only Harvard students need apply. The site would be called the HarvardConnection (later renamed ConnectU). Zuckerberg was given the private server location and password for the unfinished HarvardConnection site and the code, with the understanding that he would finish the necessary programming.
He agreed verbally to this arrangement, exchanged 52 e-mails with the brothers and had several in-person meetings, but never delivered the work that he’d promised. Instead, he provided a long list of excuses as to why he couldn’t meet with the twins. Then one day, to their shock and dismay, they discovered that Mark had been secretly working with Eduardo and Mark’s roommate, Dustin Moskovitz, to launch what was then called “The Facebook.”
The twins sued Zuckerberg for stealing their idea and alleged that he used part of their programming code. They were awarded $65 million in damages; however, since then, the Winklevoss brothers claimed that Facebook stock was undervalued at the time and they’re really entitled to $466 million. This litigation has finally been resolved in Zuckerberg's favor.
Zuckerberg led the twins to believe that he was actively working with them when in fact he was working behind their back to establish something similar, but not identical, to their site. The twins wanted to devise a dating site for Harvard students and to expand this across the country. Zuckerberg’s site had little to do with dating. It was a place where people could make friends, network, find a date, or simply chat with their nephews, colleagues or children away at school. Moreover, Zuckerberg’s original hot-or-not, drunken FaceMash included both men and women. Sorkin omitted this important detail because he wants us to believe that Mark Z. was angry enough at the imaginary Erica that he would have created a website just for men to humiliate and insult women, and have fun doing so. But the site was never that way. Women could also rate men. And there was no Erica. Ergo, Sorkin’s hypothesis for Mark Zuckerberg’s basis for forming Facebook was false.
As “The Facebook” was catching on like wildfire, another young genius became involved. Sean Parker was one of the instigators of the now defunct Napster, an application that allowed people to download music for free. This infuriated and worried many musicians; ironically, Justin Timberlake played Sean Parker in the film — I hope he took some pleasure in that role since he must've lost a lot of money to Napster! Unlike Zuckerberg who was basically a studious guy with an obsession for programming, Parker was already leading the glamorous life in Los Angeles. He was a party boy who thought big and made Eduardo look small in Mark's eyes. Mark had to decide between the two of them. Would he pursue Parker’s vision of Facebook, funded through venture capitalists, or would he stick with his best friend and company CFO Eduardo and their smalltime advertisers, even though Eduardo had refused to move out to California when Mark wanted to advance the business there?
Ethically-challenged Zuckerberg opted for the latter and left his best friend in the dust by writing Saverin out of future Facebook contracts once they reached the 1 million user mark; his share went from 34% of the company to .03%. Saverin was enraged; he sued in April of 2005 and won back a 5% share of Facebook, worth 1.3 billion, as well as an undisclosed amount of money. Parker had a 7% share in Facebook which was revoked when he was busted for cocaine use. Zuckerberg maintains a 24% share although Sorkin leads us to believe he still owns 51%.
Sorkin relied entirely on interviews with Eduardo Saverin to make this production, which was based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. Not surprisingly, Mark Zuckerberg refused to be interviewed. Consequently, the movie can't help but be biased in Saverin's favor.
Since the courts had already established that Zuckerberg was guilty of intellectual property theft, there was no need for Sorkin to embellish. “The Social Network” would have benefited by sticking more closely to the facts, which were dramatic enough.
The movie poses hard ethical questions. It makes us ask ourselves if we are complicit. Do you have a Facebook account? Are you helping to keep the accidental billionaires rich? If you wouldn't wear a T-shirt that says, "Free Bernie Madoff,” why would you support Zuckerberg?
Finally, the movie acts as a Rorschach test — in exit polls, people under 40 viewed Zuckerberg as a visionary genius with drive, purpose and ambition: a young man who saw a golden opportunity and took advantage of it. Those over 40 saw him as cold, morally bankrupt and cutthroat. In that respect, “The Social Network” succeeds as a provocative film and it is excellent entertainment. But I fear that many people will mistake this fascinating half-truth for a documentary, and that it most definitely is not.
Sigrid Macdonald is a copy editor, a book coach, and a freelance writer. Originally from New Jersey, Macdonald currently resides in Nepean, Ontario. She’s written three full-length books including Getting Hip, D'Amour Road and Be Your Own Editor. Her articles have appeared in Canada's largest newspaper, The Globe and Mail; The Women's Freedom Network Newsletter in Washington, D.C.; the American magazine Justice Denied; and the Toastmaster, a publication of Toastmasters International which is read in 80 countries.
Sigrid edits fiction, non-fiction, short stories, websites and biographies, and helps people who feel stuck with their writing. She believes that a muse is someone who isn’t afraid to make mistakes because more is learned from failure than success.
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