Critics are calling it Citizen Kane, but in the tech heartland of Northern California, geeks are saying “ Meh” to the Facebook movie. Nicole LaPorte reports.
When asked, in the form of a long-winded question that went on for several minutes, about what he thought of all the hype over The Social Network, Ari Krupnik, a software engineer in Silicon Valley, gave a blank stare.
“I may be an outlier, but I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said. Krupnik, who is tall, bearded, and bespeckled, was sitting in the hardware lab at Hacker Dojo, a workspace for net-heads in Mountain View, California (hometown to Google), where he was working on a radio-controlled flight simulator iPhone application.
“I don’t have a TV,” he said, by way of explaining why he had not heard of “the Facebook movie”—i.e., the most talked-about movie of the year, as well as one that makes this area’s nerdy, tech look as sexy and glamorous as Manhattan bankers circa 1987. Peter Thiel, one of Facebook’s first angel investors, recently argued that, for better or for worse, The Social Network is to Silicon Valley what Oliver Stone’s Wall Street was to investment banking in terms of generating enthusiasm for the field among young people.
Thiel isn’t the only one making such grandiose statements about a film that has been described as this generation’s Citizen Kane. During the weeks leading up to its release this weekend, The Social Network—which chronicles the founding of Facebook by Harvard drop-out turned multi-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg—has been written about in The New Yorker, debated all over the blogosphere, and led this year’s Oscar conversation in Hollywood.
Yet here in this woodsy, Northern Californian enclave, where every coffee shop is full of underslept-looking young men staring into laptops, and every office has a whiteboard scribbled with code, the feeling toward the film—at least for those who are aware of it—is more of a dismissive Meh.
“We’ll probably see it once we can stream it illegally from the Internet,” said Ari, a Stanford engineering student, who was walking with his girlfriend, Erica (neither wished to give their last name) one evening from Trader Joe’s to a friend’s house, where they were going to cook dinner. Both were wearing tie-dye T-shirts and no shoes.
“They had a campus screening of it, but I haven’t heard anyone talking about it,” Ari continued nonchalantly. “Honestly, I don’t know much about it. I’ve seen previews. It looks good. But I don’t put a lot of stock in movies in terms of finding out the truth. I know that Zuckerberg’s a good guy. He just gave $100 million to public schools. So if the movie shows him in a negative light, I’m sure I’ll be skeptical.”
“Everyone in the company is pretending to not be excited (about The Social Network), but they’re all secretly excited for it to come out.”
The film, which is based on Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires, with which Zuckerberg did not cooperate, does in fact paint Zuckerberg as a conniving personality zero who’s willing to throw everyone, including his best-friend, under the bus in order to get what he wants. Unsurprisingly, the movie has rattled Facebook; Zuckerberg has called the film “fiction” and said he’s not going to see it.
“I have a friend who works at Facebook,” said Erica, who works as a legal assistant at Google. “She said that everyone in the company is pretending to not be excited (about Social Network), but they’re all secretly excited for it to come out.”
• David Kirkpatrick: What’s True in the Facebook Movie• Full coverage of The Social Network In a way, this dismissiveness is indicative of Silicon Valley’s general attitude toward the entertainment industry, and explains the tech community’s outward indifference toward Social Network. In this self-professed land of ideas, where 20-something moguls pride themselves in driving P.O.S. cars and dining at Baja Fresh, Los Angeles is viewed as a bastion of crass commercialism that would, of course, turn a mundane tale of overly-ambitious geeks into a hedonistic saga starring Justin Timberlake.
By snubbing the movie, Silicon Valley, as it loves to do, is, in effect, snubbing Hollywood.
As 23-year-old engineer Sumit Mahallar, said, “I don’t think people care that much about the celebrity of (the movie). People take a more analytical view here than an emotional one. People care more about the impact Facebook has on the way we live than on the drama of a movie.”
He went on to point out that the inherent drama of Social Network—that Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from other Harvard undergrads—is par for the course in these parts.
“I don’t care if he stole code to make Facebook. That happens all the time. Most of the time, it goes unreported because nobody makes any money, so no big deal.”
That said, locals are still obsessed with Social Network trivia, such as the fact that Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Zuckerberg, apparently has a cousin who works at Facebook. The two have “interfaced,” I was told by more than one person.
And not everyone buys the blasé front. “I think people are captivated by the movie out here,” said Ryan Tate, who writes Gawker’s ValleyWag blog. “Here it’s not just about the movie, it’s about the huge shadow cast by Facebook… which is having its moment in the world of venture capitalism. Right now, it can have its pick of engineers and it can hire from Google, something that was unimaginable a few years ago. It’s kind of seen as the ultimate engineers’ playground.”
Tate also noted how schadenfreude among people angered over Facebook’s handling of privacy issues and who dislike Zuckerberg, is fueling interest in Social Network.
Nowhere is this more potent than among the Google ranks (Facebook’s No. 1 rival). As one former Google employee wrote in an email: “I think the existence of this movie isn’t an accident. Frankly, anyone who has worked with Zuck knows that he is an asshole. He lies and fucks over his friends more than any Valley exec ever… In contrast, look at the Google founders. While they are very shrewd businessmen, no one ever thought to make a movie like this about them because they are nice guys who respect their friends.”
Whether driven by hate, love, or simple curiously, on Thursday night, troops of young men (and some women), many of them wearing hoodies, shorts and flip-flops, showed up at the midnight screening of Social Network at the AMC theater in Santa Clara. The movie played well for what was clearly the home crowd—Stanford references got loud whoops of approval, and when entrepreneurial visionary Sean Parker (Timberlake) says, “It’s time for them to see (Facebook) in Palo Alto,” the audience erupted in applause.
Afterwards, one young man wearing a Facebook T-shirt, who admitted he worked for the company, said the film “was a lot better than I was led to believe.”
But at the sight of a reporter’s notebook, he begged off, and jogged off with his friends, looking more than a little like Mark Zuckerberg.
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.