The Facebook Privacy Row 2 – The Social Network

We went to see the film the Social Network last night, which is about how Mark Zuckerberg co-created Facebook, and the ensuing law suits with people who claimed he had misappropriated their ideas (in one case) and their money (in the other case).

What is shown on the screen must be pretty much law-suit proof.  We are talking about the bio-pic of a billionaire, after all.  There are other signs that the big spend was on lawyers.  It certainly wasn’t on special effects; the “outdoor” scenes at Henley Regatta were clearly filmed in a tank.  And it wasn’t on stars either; the only name star is Justin Timberlake playing Sean Parker who co-founded Napster. (We are of course meant to love the knowing irony of that casting).

In the first five or ten minutes of the film, Zuckerberg’s girlfriend when he was 19, Erica Allbright says:

You are probably going to be a very successful computer person. But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.

And that more or less positions Zuckerberg for the rest of the film.

Would you entrust your privacy to the Zuckerberg portrayed here?  Hell no.  But of course, film is a two-dimensional medium.  If you look for them, you can see the usual narrative compressions: two of the four people who co-founded Facebook are barely mentioned in the film, for instance, and neither is Zuckerberg’s current girlfriend who (according to Wikipedia (I know….)) who was with him throughout.  And that is an interesting omission, because he comes across as someone whose IQ is stratospheric but whose EQ (emotional intelligence) approaches zero.  Portraying him as maintaining a relationship all that time would undermine the idea that he’s a nerd and an asshole.

I was intrigued that Zuckerberg is portrayed not as someone who  has good ideas, but as someone who spots them.  In one scene a friend asks if a particular girl is dating someone and Zuckerberg realises that “relationship status” is the thing that will change Facebook from an app to a killer app. Likewise, he is portrayed as using the Winklevoss’s idea for a campus-wide social network in the first place, and borrowing Savarin’s algorithm to rank girls based on how hot they are, which is itself an idea he took from some one else.  So he’s portrayed as a harvester,  not a creator.  But if harvesting ideas was easy, everyone could do it. In the movie, Zuckerberg’s stance is summed up by his line:

If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.

And he has a point.

So was anyone in the film actually a good guy?  Savarin, the friend who stumped up the original seed money for servers, is the nearest thing to a good guy.  But our sympathies lie with him because of where he sits in the narrative: he’s portrayed as being out-maneuvered when Facebook got cool and Sean Parker got involved and they all went to California.  He’s the loyal friend, shafted by the asshole.  Then there are the other litigants, the Winklevoss brothers. In one of those unnecessary strokes of narrative cuteness occasionally thrown up by real life, they are olympic rowers and twins.  As one of them says when they are discussing whether they want lawyers or the Sopranos:

I’m six-five, 220 pounds, and there are two of me.

Quite.

Privileged, ambitious, with a sense of entitlement which is annoyingly substantiated by actual physical achievements?Just another kind of asshole, really.

If no-one touches the sympathy button, was anyone here a victim? No, not really.  Not as portrayed in this film. It’s an enjoyable movie about how the prospects of billions makes not particularly attractive people do not particularly attractive things. Im irritated that we are presented with Zuckerberg as a tragic hero in the last five minutes of the film. Heroism isn’t really something you can tack on at the end.

I’m wary of assuming that this bio-pic is accurate simply because it wasn’t made by Oliver Stone even if there are no actual law-suits against it, and it seems I am right to be wary.  An excellent NYT article quotes the film’s writer as saying:

“I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling” … “I feel like, had I met Mark, I would have felt a certain obligation to make the character sound like Mark, walk like Mark, all of those things. And frankly, I probably would have had an affection for him that I wouldn’t have wanted to betray.”

So there are lies, damned lies, and movie scripts.

That said, it’s an entertaining movie if you like that sort of thing, which I do. On top of that, the script is sharply clever, and I like clever.

But I still keep my Facebook settings shut down tight.

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4 responses to “The Facebook Privacy Row 2 – The Social Network

  1. Been meaning to watch this for a while Mark Kermode seems quite sweet on it, good analysis here.

    On the “privacy” thing, I wonder if it is too late and we are “all doomed Captain Mainwaring”? I got an email yesterday from the Open Rights Group about the new govt plan to store every bit of electronic information we engage in. Whilst angry, and up for joining the campaign I can’t help wonder if this is a battle already lost…

    If the internet means the concept of “privacy” is going to become less and less real until it finally just dissapears as a by gone from a previous age?

  2. I enjoyed this film as well. One of the things that made it most like a real life story and not like a flim was that none of the characters were good guys, and none were bad guys. There were all just people. Annoying people I wouldn’t really want to spend my time with, but real rounded people.

  3. I know people at work said this was boring, but I didn’t think it was.

  4. Oh God, yes, ‘would you buy a used car from this man?’ Very funny film, though. Enjoyed it hugely. And then went home and combed my FB account for data I could remove.

    I didn’t think of Zuckerman as a tragic hero figure at the end. More as a person who has suddenly had to do some of that pesky growing up.

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