The incredibly untrue adventures of Mark Zuckerberg

September 24, 2010, 7:00 AM UTC

Aaron Sorkin’s new film The Social Network may be a work of fiction, but it will become Facebook’s creation myth. That’s not entirely a bad thing.

Before the 500 million friends

I’ve known Mark Zuckerberg for a long time. We first spoke in the fall of 2005, just after his summer sublet had run out in Palo Alto, when he’d taken a semester off from Harvard and was crashing at a friend’s Menlo Park apartment. Since then I’ve written dozens of stories about the company he founded and I’ve spent many hours at Facebook’s headquarters—which is why my first thought upon leaving Sony’s screening room after watching The Social Network earlier this week was so disturbing: “Wow, so that’s how it really happened.”

Of course, Aaron Sorkin’s fast-talking film fails to capture the facts behind Facebook’s origin, but it will go down in history as the company’s creation myth, nonetheless. In the weeks to come, Zuckerberg’s friends will likely defend him and company historians will aspire to set the record straight.

But don’t worry too much for Zuckerberg and crew. This movie is the best thing to happen to Facebook since your mother signed up. There is no price for the free advertising the company stands to gain from film trailers flying through cyberspace, posters plastered in the subways, and a bit of Hollywood romance injected into the story of a web site’s creation.

The film opens with a conversational volley evocative of the best moments of West Wing, another Sorkin creation. Zuckerberg’s exasperated girlfriend, Boston University undergrad Erica Albright, is trying to keep up with his endless stream of non sequiturs. Perfectly depicted by Jesse Eisenberg, the computer geek trips through several conversations simultaneously, his eyeballs shifting back and forth, until Albright grimaces. “Dating you is like dating a stairmaster,” she says.

Of course, he doesn’t get it. It’s no surprise to anyone but Zuckerberg that Albright dumps him. He takes out his anger on the web—first in the form of a LiveJournal blog entry (Remember LiveJournal? That’s so 2003.) and then as a web site that lets people vote on which female students are hottest. Within a few months, Zuckerberg has turned this energy into creating a student directory for the web, billed across the bottom as a Mark Zuckerberg production.

This is a story about the cruel ways in which entitled adolescents can turn the tools of a brutal adult world against each other. The story unfolds as a series of flashbacks that happen during two simultaneous depositions. Zuckerberg’s former business partner and best friend, Eduardo Saverin, is suing him as are his Harvard classmates Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. Each feels he is entitled to a substantive share of the company. At the end of the film, a second-year associate played by Rashida Jones encourages Zuckerberg to settle, comparing the payouts to traffic tickets—the minor nuisances that become a cost of doing business.

Facebook’s role

One pivotal scene provides comic relief when reaching for help from authority backfires. Before the Winklevoss twins launch their lawsuit, they pay a visit to Harvard University president Lawrence Summers, student handbook in hand. They expect him to take up their cause. Summers laughs them away, telling them to think up a new business idea. That’s what students do, he explains.

The actual product over which these men obsess—the social networking web site called Facebook—is entirely beside the point. Zuckerberg could have invented a teapot or a skateboard for all we learned about it. The real-life Zuckerberg was maniacally focused on building a web site that could potentially connect everyone on the planet. As early as 2005, he told me, “It’s a social utility and what makes it work will be ubiquity.” By contrast, in the film he seems more obsessed with achieving the largesse that bad boy Sean Parker, an original Napster founder, portrays when he arrives to meet Zuckerberg at a New York restaurant.

Much of what makes this film brilliant is the cast. Rooney Mara’s Erica Albright is someone you’d actually want to be friends with. Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of Eduardo Saverin, the young hedge fund prodigy who becomes Zuckerberg’s best friend, business partner, and then enemy, is endearingly sympathetic. The privileged Winklevoss twins are both played by a young actor who is no stranger to privilege himself — Armie Hammer, the great grandson of the flamboyant oil tycoon Armand Hammer. Meanwhile, in a twist of irony, singer Justin Timberlake plays Parker, the partying entrepreneur who brought the music industry to its knees.

The real-life Zuckerberg says he has no plans to see the film, but ultimately it’s not that damning to his character. If Sorkin’s portrayal doesn’t quite capture him, it also doesn’t depict him as completely unsympathetic. And even if his reputation suffers among scores of moviegoers whom he’s never met, it remains solid among those to whom it matters—his friends and family, and the people with whom he does business. Most of them don’t show up on screen. Meanwhile, as Oscar Buzz heightens, new audiences are going online to check out this website called Facebook.

If this movie is meant to be a modern-day morality tale, it fails. At its end, Zuckerberg has gained a web site, but seemingly lost everything else: Parker’s erratic leadership, the Winklevoss twins’ respect, and Saverin’s friendship. But that outcome doesn’t seem so bad. Parker’s partying would have ruined the company. The twins continue to rely on the courts to address their differences with Zuckerberg. And Saverin proved to be the kind of friend—or ex-friend—who’d call up a writer to publish a denigrating expose.

Meanwhile Zuckerberg got Facebook, and it’s because of his conviction about its potential that five years later, we have it, too.