In March of this year, Facebook surpassed Google as the most visited website in the United States. Its rise has been so meteoric that few remember how it began or what life was like without it. Enter The Social Network, the film which will forever link the ever-expanding global phenomenon to its morally questionable beginnings.
The problem with making a movie about Facebook is that everyone knows how it ends. We all have Facebook profiles, and at 26, Mark Zuckerberg is a wunderkind turned billionaire CEO. But The Social Network doesn't treat this as a problem; it runs with it.
Basing their film loosely on Ben Mezrich's 2009 The Accidental Billionaires, director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) and writer Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing) revisit the birth of Facebook at Harvard University in 2003. Sophomore Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) creates a social-networking site for students, only to be bombarded in under a year with lawsuits that cast doubt on who should get credit for the lucrative creation. The film jumps back and forth between Facebook's first two years and a contentious deposition room where Zuckerberg defends himself against the suit brought by three fellow students, the millionaire twins turned Olympian rowers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer) and their partner, Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), as well as one from as his former partner and best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield).
Most of the hype around the movie has centered on how faithful Sorkin and Fincher would be to the actual events. According to Sorkin, initial reaction to the idea of a Facebook movie was negative: "People friending each other and poking each other and falling in love on the social network" sounds boring. That Sorkin and Fincher took a darker route is what makes the film work.
The real Mark Zuckerberg claims that the film misjudges him. Producer Scott Rudin reached out to Zuckerberg, but attempts to involve Facebook's lead fell through. Sorkin describes the character of Zuckerberg as a "brilliant guy who's socially awkward and who's got his nose up against the window of social life." Facebook declined ads for the film, and in a profile in The New Yorker, Zuckerberg said tersely, "I know the real story." It's too bad Zuckerberg has said he is not planning on seeing The Social Network , because Sorkin's Zuckerberg is more sympathetic than the actual man has come across in recent months. Endowed with Sorkin's famous wit, Zuck is a hardworking American success -- if a bit of a jerk as well. But what CEO isn't?
The genius of Facebook, according to the film, was in putting the college experience online and making it exclusive. But those basic premises no longer define the service. Facebook may still transcribe social interaction into ones and zeroes -- but it has replaced insular cliques of Ivy League universities with Internet ubiquity. One in 14 people worldwide use the site. According to Pew Research, Facebook is the preferred social-media tool for Americans both young and old; of those online, 86 percent of millennials and 47 percent of Americans over 50 use Facebook.
Facebook today aims to be limitless. In 2007 Zuckerberg turned Facebook into a platform on which outside entities could run applications. In 2008, the site announced Facebook Connect, which linked users' actions on thousands of sites across the Web to their profile. In one scene of the film, Zuckerberg and Saverin argue over Facebook's future; Saverin wants to generate revenue with ads while Zuck fears ads will destroy the one thing Facebook has going for it: its cool. But Saverin, despite having been forced out of the company, seems to have won the battle: Facebook, which has yet to go public, is estimated at more than the value of Harvard's endowment, $25 billion. This has been achieved, of course, by giving marketers more and more access, and users giving up more and more control over their personal information.
But what the film shows is that we shouldn't be surprised that this is where Facebook ended up. If Zuckerberg, as The Social Network would have us believe, chose Facebook over his best friend, there's little indication he's out to protect his 500 million users. If more lawsuits cloud the story of Facebook, they won't be about who had the idea first; they will be about the meaning of privacy in the modern era.
The Social Network is not the first time Sorkin has taken a current story and retold its early years. In 2007, Charlie Wilson's War took a step back from the United States' messy involvement with Afghanistan to tell the story of how we supplied the Afghans to fight the Russians during the Cold War. Our involvement in the region today has little to do with our involvement then, but the mistakes of both come from the same misguided hubris. The Social Network offers the same lesson. Sure, watching Zuckerberg outmaneuver the elitist Winklevoss twins, and even his best friend, is good drama, but the film is clear -- Facebook was always No. 1. Moments after Saverin is shoved out of the company, Zuck's personalized business cards arrive: "I'm CEO … Bitch."