Not to give away the ending or anything, but the “message” of Aaron Sorkin’s and David Fincher’s movie The Social Network is pretty much flashed up in neon lights from the opening scene and is devoted to what the New York Times reviewer calls “the conspicuous paradox that… the world’s most popular social networking Web site was created by a man with excruciatingly, almost pathologically poor, people skills.” Except that it wasn’t. Not in real life, I mean. But the question of how far real life matters anymore is one that the film also raises and that is much more interesting than its ostensible message.
It’s a given, for instance, that the actual founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, bears little resemblance to the character of that name in the movie, who is played by Jesse Eisenberg. But that no doubt piquant irony, mentioned above, of the latter’s excruciatingly, pathologically poor people skills would have been lost if they had portrayed him as he was. In short, they created a different Mr. Zuckerberg because it makes a better story that way. They are disarmingly frank about it too. Mr. Sorkin, the screenwriter, was quoted in New York magazine as saying: “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.” The movie’s producer, Scott Rudin, went even further — and in doing so suggested another message for the movie — when he claimed to Michael Cieply and Miguel Helft of the Times that “There is no such thing as the truth.”
Well, not in the movies anyway — or on Facebook, for that matter. You might think that the real-life Mr. Zuckerberg would have an open-and-shut case against the movie-makers for making up stories about him that are bound to be taken as the truth by millions of movie-goers, but the laws of libel in America, at least as they apply to public figures more or less agree with Mr. Rudin. The truth, in other words, whether there be such a thing or not, is irrelevant to the question of libel or no libel. The only thing that is relevant in the case of public figures is the malice with which the lie is or is not told, and malice, though it undoubtedly exists, is even harder to pin down than the truth. Besides, any action on his part against the film-makers, even if it could demonstrate that he was not the skunk they portray him as being, would be bound to bring to light any skunk-like behavior of which he actually had been guilty. And which of our lives could stand such scrutiny?
It’s true that, as we are so often told, Shakespeare adapted the facts of English history in the 14th and 15th centuries, insofar as they were known at the time, in order to make a better story. Falstaff was as much his own creation as the “Mark Zuckerberg” of Aaron Sorkin, David Fincher, and Jesse Eisenberg is their own creation. But it seems to me not an irrelevant consideration that Mark Zuckerberg is a living person — the fictional Falstaff and those who were said to have known him lay nearly two centuries in the past when Shakespeare gave them what life they ever had — and therefore a person who ought to have some rights of self-defense against misrepresentations of himself. So, for that matter, ought Harvard University, which is similarly made more movie-genic with the help of Mr. Sorkin’s trademark clever dialogue. But I fancy that Harvard might actually be pleased at its depiction here as a bizarre community of hyper-intelligent and insanely competitive sociopaths on the one hand and old-money snobs on the other.
Indeed, the fictional Mr. Zuckerberg is probably meant to be perversely admirable too. The appeal by his Waspy-jock adversaries, the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer with the help of body double Josh Pence), to the traditions of the “gentlemen of Harvard” is seen as laughable, if not contemptible, while Mr. Eisenberg’s version of Mr. Zuckerberg, who pretends to work for them while he is really stealing their idea and making it his own, appears admirably entrepreneurial in doing so. It is his treatment of his (fictional) girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara) and his supposed betrayal of his (real) best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), which is meant to mark him out as, in the word of the former, an a******. This is later modified by another character who tells him, “You’re not an a******, Mark; you’re just trying so hard to be one.” It’s kind of hard to see the difference.
That Mr. Saverin is the nearest thing the movie has to a hero may not be unrelated to the fact that the movie was based on a book, The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, largely based on interviews with him. Along with the Winklevosses, he also managed to extract a lot of money from Facebook, once it took off, by legal action. Much of the story of the film and of Facebook is told in flashback as this legal proceeding forms the foreground. The fictional Mr. Zuckerberg is slashingly rude and combative to his adversaries and their lawyers — there are those poor people skills again — but we are meant to be left in no doubt that the company would not have been there for them to shake down in the first place if not for his vision and ruthlessness. Even Eduardo, though always sympathetically treated by the movie, comes off as a necessary sacrifice. He’s a quintessential nice guy, but his foil, the slightly satanic Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), is there to remind us where nice guys finish.
Success here, as perhaps in the real world, means that “We have groupies,” as the sexually awkward Mark and Eduardo marvel at one point, and that they get the chance to snort (like the film’s version of Mr. Parker) a line of cocaine off the naked body of one of them. If that’s what it’s cool to be known for, then Mr. Zuckerberg might have a hard time proving defamation even if he wanted to. It may be that he has not (so far) sued, as it is said that the “gentlemen of Harvard” don’t do — though they eventually do — not only because he would stand little chance of winning and because he would have to expose too much of his private life but because, also like Harvard, he’s not altogether displeased at the film-makers for making him into what looks so much like a hero and his story so much like a myth for our times.
But what about the rest of us? Being genetically predisposed to side with the gentlemen of Harvard — or the gentlemen of anywhere else for that matter — against boors and prigs and social revolutionaries, I find it hard to view Mr. Zuckerberg’s success story apart from the prism of honorable behavior, which neither he nor the film-makers appear to have any use for but which would once have been in the forefront of most people’s idea of what to make of the man and his legend. Because Facebook itself could hardly exist without the prior assumption of non-judgmentalism (if that’s a word) as the animating feature of our social intercourse, and because it is also a place where people are invited to create their own legends without regard to truth, it must be appropriate for the movie to give its creator this kind of morally and factually agnostic biography.
At one point in the film, Sean Parker, the inventor of Napster, says of the supposed Facebook revolution he helped to promote that once people lived on farms, then in cities, but now they will live on the Internet — which means living where there really is no such thing as the truth. I’d be sorry to think that that is the case, but it may be so. Yet I wonder if it means that, 50 or 100 years hence, Mr. Zuckerberg will have taken his place in the national pantheon alongside such old-time capitalist heroes as Thomas Edison or Henry Ford, or if his invention of yet another form of the artificial life that our age mass-produces will have been forgotten along with his (by then) ancient technology? I don’t know the answer to this question, but if The Social Network has anything to do with how he is remembered, it seems unlikely by that time that anyone will care about Mark Zuckerberg one way or the other.