After months of anticipation and speculation, The Social Network has finally arrived in theaters. In advance of the opening, many people wondered “could (the) film affect Facebook's brand?” and it was said that “inside Facebook, they think the movie will not be good for Mark's image, and that worries them." It is easy to understand these questions and concerns considering how Mark Zuckerberg and the early days of Facebook are portrayed in the film, but having seen it for myself, my strong belief is that The Social Network will have no impact on people’s perception of Facebook.
In many ways, The Social Network is as much about Facebook as Titanic is about the White Star Line. Certain aspects of the film’s fact-based but fictionalized plot may reflect badly on Facebook in a vague sort of way, but as with any great movie (and The Social Network is a great movie), the viewer is swept up in the human emotion of the story. In a world filled with real-life cautionary social media horror stories of people losing their jobs, their marriages or their lives, the tale of how a few geeks and freaks got caught up in an entrepreneurial frenzy, cheated each other, and destroyed their friendships is hardly an indictment of Facebook.
Nor is it an indictment of Mark Zuckerberg—or much of one, anyway. He doesn’t come off as the sort of guy you’d want to hang with, but neither is he the (only) villain in this story. Rather than the back-stabbing, shifty and ruthless character one might have expected from the pre-opening buzz, the Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network is instead brilliant, driven, hard-working and obsessed with keeping Facebook as appealing, useful and ad-free as possible.
Zuckerberg’s character has quite a few unappealing traits as well: He’s misogynistic, passive-aggressive, fanatically obsessed with climbing Harvard’s social ladder and is so socially awkward he may have Asperger's syndrome. The worst you can say about Zuckerberg’s character is that he’s a lousy friend; or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the man who made collecting friends a national obsession is portrayed as having absolutely no interest in friendship himself. In The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg is more akin to Mozart than Gordon Gekko.
So, if Mark Zuckerberg is not the villain of The Social Network, who is? Perhaps that’s why this film is so brilliant and watchable; rather than make The Social Network an uninteresting and clumsy hatchet job of a company or person, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin have instead created a fascinating and exciting story of people and change. None of the characters in this movie are left unscathed, even the two parties whose lawsuits against Zuckerberg drive the movie’s plot.
The Winklevoss twins are presented as privileged, arrogant and upset that the idea they first stole from Friendster and MySpace was stolen from them. The Winklevi (as Mark’s character refers to them) are unable to see that their idea was worth very little without the vision and capabilities of others. It’s as if someone said the word “automobile” to Henry Ford and then sued Ford after he invented the assembly-line technique that mass-produced cars.
Perhaps the most sympathetic character in the film is Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg’s closest—or only—friend. Both an emotional and financial supporter of Zuckerberg, Saverin is carelessly discarded (and, more to the point, cut out of his share of Facebook) once Mark is seduced by the heady world of VCs, money and fame offered up by Napster founder Sean Parker. But even Saverin is no hero or victim in The Social Network—he’s portrayed as a risk-averse small thinker whose instant distrust of Parker causes him to miss the big picture. By the end, the physical and emotional chasm that separates former friends Zuckerberg and Saverin is as much Eduardo’s fault as it is Mark’s.
If there is one clear villain in the movie, it is Harvard. In The Social Network, Harvard is less an institute of higher learning than an exclusionary, highly structured club for the wealthy sons of successful men to connect with gold-digging women willing to debase themselves for an opportunity to marry well.
One can fault the movie for this cartoonish portrayal of Harvard, but it reveals the true intent of the filmmakers; not to bring down Facebook or embarrass Zuckerberg but to convey the story of our generation: the transition of power from old money to new ideas; the flattening of social structures; how technology is altering not just the way we communicate but the way we live; and the quickening pace that leaves behind people who rely on old ways and favors those who rapidly adapt.
The Social Network is an exciting and entertaining film. It reminds me of one of my favorite movies, Frost/Nixon, which manages to make two guys chatting as exciting as any special-effects thriller. And in the same way Frost/Nixon humanized Nixon without letting him off the hook for this horrendous mistakes of judgment, The Social Network makes Zuckerberg a flawed but very human character.
No one will leave The Social Network and cancel their Facebook account. Nor will they see the movie and reevaluate their social behaviors. (For that, see Catfish.) For many, this will be the most (and perhaps the first) they learn about Zuckerberg, and it is likely they’ll have a diminished opinion of the man, but a tarnished rep didn’t seem to get in the way of folks like Bill Gates or Donald Trump. Despite all the speculation, The Social Network simply does not seem destined to change many attitudes about today’s preeminent social network.