How ‘The Social Network’ Nailed the Evils of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook
Ten years later, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s “The Social Network” stands as a remarkably prescient portrait of the social media giant and its Machiavellian founder.
In the opening scene of The Social Network, which came out 10 years ago, scored eight Oscar nominations, grossed some $224 million at the box office, and foreshadowed the decade of relentless growth and privacy gaffes Facebook would unleash on the world, we meet a college-aged Mark Zuckerberg, played by a perfectly stiff Jesse Eisenberg, spitting neuroses at a girl about to dump him. The dumping doesn’t happen right away. It comes after a textbook Aaron Sorkin back-and-forth about Zuckerberg’s desire for distinction. At a college pub, Zuck drones at his girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), rattling off unique qualities (perfect SAT scores, a capella skills, a rower’s physique), before homing in on the reason for his obsession: final clubs—Harvard jargon for frats, only far richer. “You have finals club O.C.D.,” Albright says. “If I get in,” Zuck responds, “I will be taking you to the events and gatherings and you’ll be meeting a lot of people you wouldn’t normally get to meet.” He goes on to sneer at her school, Boston University, and accuse her of sleeping with a bouncer. Cue breakup.
When Zuckerberg goes home that night, drunk and bitter, he logs into his LiveJournal and writes a post about Albright, calling her a bitch, claiming she stuffs her bra, and musing over whether to make a website comparing photos of girls to farm animals. The proto-incel monologue is real, pulled from Zuckerberg’s actual blog, Zuckonit. Also real is what follows: the future billionaire coding his infamous website, FaceMash, where users could sift through classmates’ photos, ranking the hotter out of two. That opening sets the stage for what The Social Network director David Fincher called “the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies.” It was a droll tagline, but an apt one. The movie both became an instant classic and placed the rise of Facebook in a familiar, if trite, narrative—the misunderstood, socially inept nerd seeking revenge for the girls he didn’t get and the jocks who didn’t accept him. The facts behind screenwriter Sorkin’s neat psychological rendering were disputed (it’s unclear, for example, if Zuckerberg ever dated the girl on whom Albright is based), but for years, his portrait of Zuckerberg as awkward misanthrope hovered over the “boy CEO’s” public persona.
Ten years after The Social Network debuted, a lot has changed for Facebook. The movie’s tagline, “You can’t make 500 million friends without making a few enemies,” seems modest next to the platform’s 2.45 billion users who’ve signed into Facebook at least once a month. That’s nearly a third of everyone alive right now. “Fourteen years after it was founded,” reporter Evan Osnos wrote in a New Yorker profile of Zuckerberg last year, “Facebook has as many adherents as Christianity.” If Facebook was a religion, The Social Network would be something like its dystopian Synoptic Gospels: four stories—of Zuckerberg, the Winklevosses, Napster playboy Sean Parker, and exiled co-founder Eduardo Saverin—presaging the arrival of a new king. A decade out, so much of the movie holds up, predicting, through Zuckerberg’s unflinching betrayals, the website’s evolution into a sprawling conglomerate with few allegiances beyond unfettered growth and acquisition. But for all that rings true, the most revealing parts of The Social Network lie in what no longer does—namely, mapping the motivations of a now-omnipresent global corporation onto the insecurities of a single, impish boy.
The genesis story is now common lore for anyone sentient this past decade. After FaceMash goes viral at Harvard, landing Zuckerberg with academic probation, he’s approached by twin WASPs, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, and their partner, Divya Narendra, with an idea for a website: a digital “facebook” for their classmates. But rather than develop it, Zuckerberg takes a similar idea to his best friend, Eduardo Severin, and begins coding a site of his own. After stringing the Winklevii along for months, Zuckerberg launches “thefacebook.com,” which becomes an instant hit.
As the site expands, Zuck links up with Napster founder Sean Parker, moves to California, drops the “the” from Facebook’s name, and begins to pursue venture capital funding. When the Winklevii hear about the site’s success, they sue for intellectual property theft. At the same time, Zuckerberg’s relationship with Saverin deteriorates over money and Parker, whom the latter perceives as an interloper. After Saverin freezes the money in Facebook’s account, Zuckerberg screws him out of the company, diluting his ownership stake, once valued at 34 percent, to just 0.03 percent, and removing him from the masthead. In response, Saverin also sues. The movie weaves all four narratives together through flashbacks, scenes from depositions, and a grimly gorgeous soundtrack from Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, documenting Facebook’s rapid uptick as Zuckerberg’s relationships rot around him.
The Social Network remains one of only a few movies to tackle Big Tech (the other major addition to this relatively small cannon is another Sorkin production, Steve Jobs), and its grasp of Facebook’s implications for society, just six years after its founding, is both on point and tragically fun to watch. The movie crushes along at a ferocious pace, not only from Sorkin's dialogue, but in its fanatical reminders of the website’s urgent growth—first to hundreds of members, then thousands, tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands, before wrapping up right after the million-member mark. It also skewers Zuckerberg’s Machiavellian power grabs and ability, now notorious, to say one thing while doing another.
As Zuckerberg emails the Winklevii with excuses while realizing their idea on his own, or invites Saverin to Palo Alto under the guise of celebration before diluting him out of nearly all his shares, or dumps Sean Parker over a cocaine bust, the movie develops a tight thesis about Zuck’s regard for honesty or loyalty—namely, that he doesn’t give a shit about either. It’s easy to see the seeds of a company that would covertly sell user information to advertisers, cover up faulty data on video viewership, and allow consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to harvest data from 87 million accounts for highly personalized political ad campaigns in support of then-candidate Donald Trump, while failing to disclose it for nearly three years.
But for all the careful depictions of Facebook’s nascent workplace politics, it’s the analysis of Zuckerberg’s drive that, in retrospect, proves the largest indicator of how much has changed. From Facebook’s first coverage in the Harvard Crimson until recently, Zuck’s foibles were often ascribed to his naiveté, a Harvard drop-out bungling his way through unforeseen success. “I’m just like a little kid,” Zuckerberg told the Crimson in 2006. As recently as last year, it was common to hear Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg described as “the adult in the room.” And in October, Sorkin recalled in a New York Times op-ed how Sandberg, after watching a private screening of The Social Network, quipped to its producers, “How can you do this to a kid?” Sorkin mocked Sandberg in the piece, but his script buys into the same attitude, reducing the forces behind one of the world’s largest websites to the petty grievances of a high school dramedy. The movie ends much like it starts, with overt hints at Zuck’s twin obsessions with jocks and girls. Not long after Saverin accuses Zuckerberg of edging him out over final club envy, the closing shot lingers on Zuckerberg friending Albright on Facebook, refreshing the page over and over without response.
It’s not that the portrait isn’t plausible. Although when the movie debuted, plenty made the case. Zuckerberg claimed the movie “made up a bunch of stuff that [he] found kind of hurtful.” Others pointed out that the CEO had been dating his now-wife, Priscilla Chan, for most of Facebook’s early years, and that the tensions with Saverin over final clubs were never confirmed. But if you wanted evidence of vengeful impulses, there were plenty—in FaceMash, in Zuckerberg’s angry blog posts, in reports that he apparently hacked into the Winklevoss’ rival website, ConnectU, and altered one of their profiles, listing the twin’s height as “7’4,” hair color as “Aryan Blond,” and language as “WASP-y.” So plausible, yes. But what makes the movie odd to rewatch is that both Facebook and nerd culture, broadly speaking, have changed so much in the past decade that to ascribe basic human impulses to the former, or evoke sympathy through the latter, barely makes sense anymore.
For one, Facebook is massive now. It’s no longer a simple digital community where familiar human psychology lingers not far from every post, like, or poke. It’s a $460 billion business encompassing, sure, the signature social network, but also Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp, Oculus VR, the Ascenta drone-maker, the web-tracker Pixel, the fitness monitor ProtoGeo Oy, and soon, its own digital currency, Libra. Even on the namesake site, there’s widespread uncertainty about just how “human” it actually is. In November, for example, CNBC reported that the platform had removed 3.2 billion fake accounts between April and September of 2019. Not long before that, The New York Times chronicled the website’s statistics on fake profiles dating back to 2012, questioning whether Facebook actually knew how many of its users were fake, and citing the company’s own admission that the numbers “may vary significantly from [their] estimates.”
Add in the prevalence of false news and deceptive advertising, and Facebook all but embodies New York magazine writer Max Read’s thesis that, in the corporatized internet, “a healthy majority of it is bot.” In Evan Osnos’ Zuckerberg profile, he compared Facebook’s rise to “the curse of bigness,” a coinage from former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis which refers to “corporations large enough that they could achieve a level of near-sovereignty ‘so powerful that the ordinary social and industrial forces existing are insufficient to cope with it.’” Facebook has the curse of bigness in such extreme spades, that to look back at a time when it could be boiled down to something as small, real, and fundamentally human as nerd insecurity seems as quaint as trying to explain nuclear conflict with the physics of a bow and arrow.
Even if you were to buy the idea that, while it may not apply anymore, there’s some value in dissecting the psychic sludge from which Facebook emerged, the cultural signifiers Sorkin uses to evoke sympathy, or revulsion, or at least recognition for Zuckerberg, have been so distorted in the time since The Social Network’s release that they nearly mean the opposite of what they once did. The 2010s, as writer Alex Pappademas chronicled in an article titled “The Decade Comic Book Nerds Became Our Cultural Overlords,” oversaw a radical inversion in the meaning of nerd culture, from the niche purview of bespectacled Martin Starrs, to a dominant force that any failure to contend with could land someone smushed into the internet’s locker. Pappademas’ argument focused on Marvel movies, which transitioned, beginning around when The Social Network debuted, from Hollywood rarity to cinema staple. But the same trajectory can be found in all types of “nerd” media—the ubiquity of gamer jargon, the normalization of Silicon Valley, the basic tech fluency expected of anyone online. At the same time, the omnipresence of nerd culture disabused people of the notion that wounded guys who didn’t play sports and couldn’t get laid were simple victims—stories about incel culture, Gamergate, or pretty much anything on 4chan illuminated how quickly that complex could turn dark.
When The Social Network first came out, I remember marvelling at how the movie had made Zuckerberg seem both exquisitely sympathetic and eminently hateable. With a decade’s distance, though, it is hard to see him as any more than just one of those things, and it’s not the nice one. All that said, there is a way in which Sorkin’s nerdy portrait of Zuck totally holds up. If you accept that nerd culture now means corporate-packaged products, thought up by boardrooms of executives at billion-dollar conglomerates, tested on focus group after focus group, before being pumped out alongside omnipresent ad campaigns ad infinitum, then sure, I’ll put that in my pipe and Zuck on it.