The Facebook Drama "The Social Network" Won't Show You

I think I can safely say that The Social Network is not the feel-good movie of the year – certainly not for Mark Zuckerberg, or for the dozens of exceptionally talented men and women who created Facebook. They were, and are, brilliant, hardworking and imaginative people who, mostly by design and occasionally by lucky accident, managed to survive the uniquely fraught early moments of an online start-up and the more established dangers of real-world Valley venture capital. It was a swirl alright, but not the way the film would have you think.

There are, of course, exceptions to the exceptional: Eduardo Saverin and the Winklevii. (The goofy name that Zuckerberg stamped on the preternaturally entitled Winklevoss twins appears to be true. It delighted the audience.) The movie was based on Ben Mezrich’s book, The Accidental Billionaire, an entertaining read that was so breezily fictional that Janet Maslin of The New York Times skewered it: “The Accidental Billionaire is so obviously dramatized, and so clearly unreliable, that there’s no mistaking it for a serious document.” I’d read the script for the movie earlier this year and winced.

Here’s the sour irony: After all the fretting about online privacy and reputation management, two of the slowest, least nimble and most expensive media—a paper book and a feature film—have left the biggest scar. A lasting impression of Zuckerberg and the early Facebookers that is largely unfair. it is also unfair to shareholders, partners, and Facebook users.

By now, there are plenty of people attempting to micro-factcheck the movie. (One of the best efforts  comes from my friend and former colleague, David Kirkpatrick, who wrote The Facebook Effect.) Here’s the short version: Adidas sandals and zipline scene, true. Also, they all went to Harvard. Most everything else—including the creepy dialogue—is slightly, mostly, or totally spun to make us believe that the motivating factor behind the creation of thefacebook.com was the revenge quest of a rejected, hyperarticulate, and semi-psychopathic robot nerd who wanted to get laid.

This strikes me as impossibly sad. As a business writer and someone who finds the entrepreneurial impulse to be truly compelling, it takes our attention away from all the things that make Facebook truly interesting. What we have instead is a poorly sourced non-cautionary tale that turns real businesspeople into nerd Flat Stanleys for no good purpose than mild entertainment.

Facebook Team
22-year-old Mark Zuckerberg with Dustin Moskovitz, also 22, and Matt Cohler—an old hand at 30—in this photo from our 2007 cover story.

It also distracts us from the pressing issues of real social networks—privacy, digital literacy, intrusive marketing—that we need to understand to make better decisions for ourselves, our families, our causes, our communities and our businesses.

I’ve written three feature stories on Facebook in as many years, with a couple of Web stories thrown in. The first one is here. I’ve logged over 100 hours of reporting with early Facebook employees, including Mark Zuckerberg, Dustin Moskovitz, Chris Hughes, Adam D’Angelo, and others—including some exceptional female engineers and technologists who don’t seem to exist in Sorkin’s world. (And by reporting, I don’t mean hanging out at nightclubs and chatting with Victoria’s Secret models.) Moskovitz comes off as nothing more than a coding lapdog, Hughes stands around looking good-naturedly blonde, and D’Angelo isn’t present at all. Neither are the many truly interesting and established business thinkers—Donald Graham, Reid Hoffman, Ron Conway, Jim Breyer, Owen Van Natta and Matt Cohler to name but a few, who brought their own non-salacious drama to the mix. And Sean Parker who may be a lot of things, is portrayed as paranoid, delusional and mean. Which he is not.

Many of these people have spent hours with me, letting me watch them run meetings and solve problems, or explaining, in painstaking detail, how and why they do what they do. Their philosophies. The conflicts. What went wrong, what went right. The truly messy business of responding when they move a button and 10 million people complain. And the exhilaration of planning to execute the next big idea, when no one knows what it is yet. I recognized little of the people I know in the film, Zuckerberg chiefly among them.

They're more like this.

Facebook was created by hackers, people who use distributed effort and knowledge to make things bigger, better, and faster than an individual can do alone. They strive to make existing things more efficient, to make new stuff out of old stuff, and elegant sense out of spaghetti code. Zuckerberg and the people who threw themselves into Facebook chose to create a platform that was a simple idea hiding in plain sight, but was exceedingly hard to execute. They have made plenty of mistakes along the way.

There was real early drama. The newsfeed backlash. The wrenching decision to open the site to non-college consumers—a debate that threatened to tear the company apart. Figuring out how to keep the site stable as it grew. (Deciding on random server assignment turned out to be as lucky an accident as a technologist can have.) These and other true nailbiters are the more interesting stories about young Facebook—particularly if you want to grow a business, run a team, vanquish others by prototype, or understand the world we live in now.

But like many who are dazzled by their own ability, hackers can get into trouble, like grabbing photos from an unprotected student database and making something else with it. (Contrary to what the movie would have you believe, FaceMash was not designed just to judge women. No one was immune.) And the founding of thefacebook and the dust-up with the Winklevii was a messy bit of business that has ended up costing Zuckerberg time, money and embarrassment. (Nicholas Carlson does a tireless job documenting just how messy it got here.)

And putting an enhanced student directory online isn’t a stealable idea, any more than putting a magazine online is a stealable idea. (Facebook bested several other online Facebooks at Stanford, Columbia, and Baylor that began at the same time, and then later MySpace. Sean Parker discusses some of that here.) Zuckerberg ignored the twins to his detriment and behaved immaturely. That the twins have done little more with their lives than to be famous litigants is sad. And Eduardo Saverin, who ultimately negotiated a 5% stake in Facebook for marginal financial and strategic input is now worth over a billion dollars, something the movie fails to mention. He is the only true accidental billionaire in the plot. 

I’m sure Zuckerberg's parents, who despite having three other kids in private school or college also contributed significantly to keeping the fledgling site alive, watched that particular bit of the Social Network myth through gritted teeth.

Facebook has changed the way half a billion people around the world stay connected, has created myriad jobs and start-ups, generated millions of dollars in sales and economic value for brands big and small, and millions more for non-profits. And I can think of few products or services that has become so intertwined in the lives of everyone, and that make so many people so happy.

And yeah, we should definitely keep an eye on them. 

Last fall, a source from a major tech firm told me his early Facebook story. Everyone's got one. He was looking to do a marketing deal with the hot new start-up, and began cold-calling Facebook. Mark’s father answered the phone. Mark’s father is a dentist. “I didn’t know what to say to him,” my source told me laughing. “Um, can I talk to the CEO?” Dr. Zuckerberg is also a good dad and a better sport, one of many family members and friends who pitched in as Facebook nearly collapsed from the press of venture capitalists bearing term sheets and the sound of dying servers.

I’d like to see the dentist play himself in the next film.

For the record, I have enjoyed interviewing Mark Zuckerberg and the other early staffers. I’ve found them to be enormously serious and generous people. But Zuckerberg can ruffle feathers—he can occasionally be abrupt. He’s shy and doesn’t always do well in staged public settings like television interviews and keynotes. He’s clearly stubborn. But he’s not arrogant—he’s profoundly certain. It can be very hard to tell the difference. He can also be very funny, warm, and empathetic. He has done a better job than most at keeping cynicism at bay. And he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for making, keeping, and in many cases, repairing friendships of very longstanding, which were forged and tested under the most difficult possible circumstances.

But even if the facts and assertions of the movie were all true, Zuckerberg still looks like a visionary, even if he executed that vision harshly. Ignoring the twins made sense. Playing hardball with a partner who consistently can’t do what needs to be done happens every day. Lose the sepia tone and menacing music—throw in a few facts—and the story looks quite different, and far more complex.

Maybe get Clooney to play him next time.

Larry Lessig said it well: "But as a story about Facebook, it is deeply, deeply flawed. As I watched the film, and considered what it missed, it struck me that there was more than a hint of self-congratulatory contempt in the motives behind how this story was told. Imagine a jester from King George III’s court, charged in 1790 with writing a comedy about the new American Republic. That comedy would show the new Republic through the eyes of the old. It would dress up the story with familiar figures—an aristocracy, or a wannabe aristocracy, with grand estates, but none remotely as grand as in England. The message would be, 'Fear not, there’s no reason to go. The new world is silly at best, deeply degenerate, at worst.'

I choose to believe the lawyers were spot on, however.

Chris HughesThe band split up awhile ago. Chris Hughes left Facebook to run online organizing for the Obama campaign, and has rejoined the start-up world with a non-profit called Jumo designed to thoughtfully match people with opportunities to make a difference. I expect it will do incredible things. Adam D’Angelo, along with Facebook platform star Charlie Cheever and product design lead Rebeka Cox, has started Quora, a well-designed question-and-answer site that has attracted smart money and smarter fans. Dustin Moskovitz started Asana with another Facebook engineer, a start-up focused on enterprise collaboration. (Among his early angel investors were Peter Thiel, Owen Van Natta, and Sean Parker.) And the expressive and unpredictable Parker has continued to be a much sought after investor/adviser and entrepreneur: His “Causes” application has allowed millions of regular people to raise millions of dollars and infinitely more awareness for non-profits that they care about around the world. It may not be bringing sexy back, but it’s pretty righteous.

All in all, Facebook alums FTW.

Kevin Spacey, who worked on the adaptation of the material, had this to say in his Amazon review of the Mezrich book: “Thus, the initial concept of Facebook was born; what happened next, however, was right out of a Hollywood thriller. The Accidental Billionaires is the perfect pairing of author and subject. It's pure summer fun—a juicy, fast-paced, unputdownable Mezrich tale that adds to his canon of lad lit.”

A good story is a good story. I get that.

It reminds me of Aaron Sorkin’s own creation story. What most people don’t know is that he was an early acting talent—starred in his high school production of My Fair Lady. He started out as the understudy. Until he shanked the lead by planting weed in his locker, calling the principal, and getting him suspended. Spotlight! Makes sense, right? The relentless climb up the Hollywood ladder and all that goes with it? Now we know who he really is. Only, I’m not sure it was My Fair Lady. I didn’t bother to check with the high school. I also didn’t bother to check that the guy who told me the story really went to school with the Aaron Sorkin. And I made up the shanking part altogether. But, I mean, it sounds like something he could do. It’s a better story that way, right? Unputdownable.

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

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5 Comments

  • Carol Sanford

    Just saw the film finally. It lead me back to reread this piece this morning. it occurred to me how this finding the 'chinks in their armor' is the challenge to all great creatives. Somehow we want them to have feet of clay so we are so far below them. Steve Jobs was maligned as a control freak and destroyer of creative people and ideas for a very long time. And yet he kept taking on bigger and bigger challenges, and succeeding in far more than he failed. Now he is emulated and extolled. I think the article is a counter balance that we will all come back to in a decade and acknowledge how the drama overshadowed the complexity of all humans. I appreciated the insight it offered me in advance of sitting to be entertained by a real persons life. I kept wondering what it would feel like if it were my creative life. Uggh! I am remind myself and Zuckerberg than it is useful if we remember it is testing our metal and we rise to something else yet greater.

  • psvt

    This is a rather sycophantic article, as if you're trying to retain access and reputation by defending people that really don't need defending.

    The Social Network is a movie based on depositions, and is a rather accurate thematic portrayal of the wild accusations, mudslinging, and deep personal life probing that takes place at such depositions. Those depositions may have been unfair, but they're settled matters, and thus I don't see how the movie is unfair to Facebook shareholders or users. It almost played like a dramatization of two difficult divorce cases being played out, with one mildly sympathetic spouse (Eduardo, the under-performing partner that nevertheless due to right-time-right-place shouldn't have been squeezed out to the degree he was) and two very pathetic spouses in the Winklevii (who didn't really deserve a penny, but the movie brushed over the legal back & forth that went on between Facebook & their ventures that led to a settlement).

    You seem to wish they made a movie about topics that are completely pointless and boring to the vast majority of a movie audience. No one cares about the "real early drama" you wistfully enumerate, as it's boring business and technical crap. Yes, the readers of Fast Company may care about it, but you can't craft a Hollywood film for that small of a segment. People care about sex, relationships, and legal theatrics. Turns out Sorkin knows how to write those things very well.

    Moreover, I think the movie got the "right things" correct: the feeling, the essence, of a late night hacking session, of the passion involved coming up with entrepreneurial ideas, the pettiness of lawsuits, and the difficulty in being in a partnership with an under-performing partner (regardless of how hard they work), of the difficulty many technical people have in connecting with others (even if it's exaggerated for effect).

    Curious that you bring up drug placement in your last paragraph. Sean Parker really did get charged with cocaine possession. His history and actions speak for themselves for his strengths and weaknesses as a human.

  • rob robertson

    The movie never claimed to be a "documentary" or even a "docudrama"..it's a fictional movie loosely based on true events and rings thematically true. Yes a movie is maybe the least "nimble" form of media but the one that still has the most widespread impact in determining public opinion. Bottom line it's a fairly brilliant entertaining movie and if it didn't get every tiny factoid right, so what?? It's also a huge factoid that Aaron Sorkin is a far, far better writer than the author of this PR/defense "agitprop" rant writing on an obscure (sorry Fast Company, but you're not exactly the NYT or even Ain't it Cool) blog.

  • john

    Sorry Ellen McGirt but you sound a bit like a lapdog yourself. This reporting hardly can be considered balanced.

  • My Skin Concierge Ava

    Wonder if the added scrutiny will bring him out for more interviews or send him behind a curtain like The Wizard of Oz!