By the end of David Fincher’s The Social Network, you almost feel sorry for Mark Zuckerberg. The film aims to tell a true story about how Facebook became one of the most powerful companies in the world, but Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay takes certain liberties with that truth. It gives Zuckerberg’s story a dramatic scope that—despite painting him as cold and ruthless—also humanizes him, inviting our natural sympathies. And this story has affected how we perceive the real Mark Zuckerberg, with real-world consequences. Here’s our Take on how The Social Network turns Mark Zuckerberg into a character, and what responsibility movies have when it comes to shaping our impressions of real-life people.
By the end of The Social Network, you almost feel sorry for Mark Zuckerberg Sure, David Fincher’s film about the Facebook founder suggests Zuckerberg built his empire on lies, betrayals, and selfish grabs for power.
Yet it also ends with him all alone, waiting in vain for an ex-girlfriend to accept his friend request. Fincher has called The Social Network “the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies”. And like Citizen Kane, it’s a tragedy — the story of how one man’s ego and ambition got him everything he wanted, but nothing he needed.
Unlike Citizen Kane — which only takes loose inspiration from tycoons like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer — The Social Network isn’t fiction. It aims to tell a true story about how Facebook became one of the most powerful companies in the world. But Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay does take certain liberties with that truth.
It gives Zuckerberg’s story a dramatic scope that — despite painting him as cold and ruthless—also humanizes him, inviting our natural sympathies. And this story has affected how we perceive the real Mark Zuckerberg, with real-world consequences.
Here’s our Take on how The Social Network turns Mark Zuckerberg into a character, and what responsibility the movies have when it comes to shaping our impressions of real-life people.
The Myth of Mark Zuckerberg
The Social Network opens by telling us exactly how we’re supposed to feel about Mark Zuckerberg. Over the course of an awkward bar date with his girlfriend, Erica Albright, Zuckerberg is painted as ambitious and arrogant.
Mark Zuckerberg: “How do you distinguish yourself in a population of people who all got 1600 on their SATs?”
But he’s also self-conscious and socially awkward, with a noticeable chip on his shoulder.
More than anything, he’s condescending and rude. When Erica finally breaks up with him, she says what we’re all meant to be thinking.
Erica Albright: “You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a tech geek. 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 a-[BLEEP].”
In its final scene, The Social Network circles back to this, as the lawyer who’s tasked with defending him tells Zuckerberg what she thinks.
Marilyn Delpy: “You’re not an a-[BLEEP], Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be.”
Ultimately, Fincher’s film has it both ways: It gives us Mark Zuckerberg the megalomaniacal villain who double-crosses nearly everyone he meets, facing lawsuits over whether he stole his company from people who trusted him. But it also invites us to sympathize with Zuckerberg — to understand his motivations and even root for him.
As screenwriter Aaron Sorkin explained at the time, “I can’t write characters that are built out of one-dimensional evil. I have to like the character and be able to empathize and identify with the character.” The Social Network gives us plenty of reasons to dislike Zuckerberg — beginning with the very origins of Facebook. He goes straight from being dumped by Erica to blogging nasty things about her.
He channels his anger into developing a site that rates the attractiveness of female students. The film suggests that Facebook — a site meant to bring people together — was really inspired by misogyny and spite. It also shows us Zuckerberg’s total lack of scruples. He starts off stealing his classmates’ photos and quickly moves on to stealing their ideas.
Cameron Winklevoss: “It’s called the Harvard Connection. You create your own page, Interests, bio, friends, pics.”
He takes an idea for an exclusive social networking site from the Winklevoss twins and runs with it to build his own. When the brothers become aware of his betrayal, they respond with honor — expecting the same in return. But this proves to be their fatal flaw: Mark Zuckerberg believes honor is for suckers.
Mark Zuckerberg: “A guy who builds a nice chair doesn’t owe money to everyone who has ever built a chair okay? They came to me with an idea, I had a better one.”
He extends this amoral indifference even to those closest to him. The Social Network is structured around two lawsuits from people Zuckerberg betrayed — one from the Winklevosses, and another from Facebook’s co-founder, and Zuckerberg’s closest friend.
We watch how Zuckerberg uses Saverin for his money and connections, and how he begins to shut him out the moment the more charismatic Sean Parker enters the picture.
We witness Zuckerberg and Parker conspire to force Saverin out of the company he helped them build.
This establishes the main theme of The Social Network — that the guy who built his empire on bringing friends together has no use for them himself.
Eduardo Saverin: “I was your only friend.”
Most importantly, we see that Mark Zuckerberg just doesn’t care. He’s unapologetic about hacking into Harvard’s database. He thinks he doesn’t owe anything to the Winklevosses or to Saverin.
Mark Zuckerberg: “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”
Throughout, he bristles at every challenge, believing that any supposed transgression pales next to his brilliance. All this is how the film makes Zuckerberg a villain — yet it’s also how it suggests him as someone to root for. He’s positioned as the outsider, desperate to find a way in.
And contrasted against the wealthy, athletic Winklevoss twins, Zuckerberg comes off like the underdog, locked in a symbolic class war between grit and privilege. A similar dynamic plays out in the film’s clash between old money investors and the brash young upstarts of Silicon Valley. A scene of Zuckerberg meeting with a group of potential investors in his bathrobe — just to tell them off — is staged as a rebellion. And his rags-to-riches triumph over all those elites who shut him out can’t help but feel inspiring.
Sean Parker: “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.”
But more than anything, The Social Network asks you to pity Mark Zuckerberg. The film’s ironic subtext is that Facebook’s creator doesn’t know how to connect with people. The Revenge of the Nerds-style rise of his site is made to feel motivated by a lifetime of rejection from jocks and girls.
By beginning and ending on Zuckerberg’s lingering heartbreak over Erica, the film frames her as the Rosebud in his Citizen Kane.
Jedediah Leland: “That’s all he ever wanted out of life… was love.”
We’re left to think about Mark Zuckerberg not only as a cold, ruthless, back-stabber but as someone who’s been hurt — and who’s empathetically human.
The Myth Vs. The Truth
Mark Zuckerberg: “I’m not a bad guy.”
Marylin Delpy: “I know that. When there’s emotional testimony, I assume 85% of it is exaggeration.”
When The Social Network was released, it faced immediate criticism for its fabrications.
Mark Zuckerberg has noted that the real story isn’t exactly the glamorous stuff of movies.
Mark Zuckerberg: “It’s such a big disconnect from I think the way people who make movies think about what we do in Silicon Valley, building stuff.”
Aaron Sorkin has insisted that “There was nothing in the movie that was invented for the sake of making it sensational,” saying that, at most, he’d conflated a couple of people and changed some names. Still, the fact remains that The Social Network embellishes and even rewrites several aspects of Zuckerberg’s story — and while many are minor details, they dramatically change how we feel about him.
Most obviously, Erica Albright doesn’t actually exist. Zuckerberg really did write an angry LiveJournal blog about another woman, named Jessica Alona, which Sorkin then inserted almost verbatim into the film. But there’s no evidence that Alona or any other woman set Zuckerberg on his path. Zuckerberg insists he was already dating his now-wife, Priscilla Chan before Facebook began — and while there’s been some dispute of that, it’s doubtful Zuckerberg was motivated to create Facebook because of girls.
As Slate’s Luke O’Brien points out, Facemash — the site he created in supposed retaliation — had photos of both men and women. And despite what the film implies, it also didn’t bear much resemblance to Facebook — something which, as O’Brien says, “cuts against the depiction of Zuckerberg as a horny dude out for revenge.”
The film also posits Zuckerberg as the perpetually striving geek, desperate to get into the “final clubs” where Harvard’s patrician elite enjoy lavish, exclusive parties.
Again, this is a key conflict — supposedly even motivating Zuckerberg’s eventual falling out with Eduardo Saverin. But as their fellow Harvard alums have pointed out, the final clubs are hardly the desirable, debaucherous centers of power the film makes them out to be.
As Zuckerberg told The New Yorker, he had “no interest” in joining any of them. His former classmate Nathan Heller also disputes the idea that Zuckerberg was the kind of neurotic, tormented shut-in captured by Jesse Eisenberg’s performance. Writing in Slate, Heller described Zuckerberg as “outwardly friendly, often smiling, confident, inclined, if anything, to talk at outdoor volume.” About the only thing they got right, Zuckerberg says, is his wardrobe.
The Social Network takes some obvious liberties for dramatic effect — it is, after all, a movie. But crucially, it creates a myth around Zuckerberg, portraying him as the unpopular geek who got his revenge on all the girls and gatekeepers who doubted him.
The real story is surely both more complicated and less sensational than that. But as Sorkin himself told New York Magazine, “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.”
This is a common thread in Sorkin’s works.
His 2015 film about Apple founder Steve Jobs similarly portrayed him as tempestuous, petty, and vindictive — and it was met with a similar backlash from those who’d actually known him. Again, Sorkin defended the film as not being a straight biopic, but a story: “there’s a difference between what you do, journalism, and what I do. My obligation is to create something subjective”.
But Steve Jobs died before Sorkin’s film was ever released. Mark Zuckerberg was only 26 when The Social Network debuted. Interviewer: “I mean, you’re not happy about this movie coming out. Mark Zuckerberg: Well, I mean, I just wish that no one had made a movie about me while I was alive.” It framed how we saw Zuckerberg and Facebook before they had barely begun their dominance over so many aspects of our world.
Scott Galloway: “I actually think — and I’ve said this before — I think Mark Zuckerberg is the most dangerous person in the world. And this subjective tale would have objectively real consequences.”
When Myth Overtakes Truth
To Aaron Sorkin, the subject of The Social Network is almost incidental. “From a plot standpoint, you could’ve told the same story about the invention of a really good toaster,” Sorkin told WIRED in 2010.
Sorkin: “the fact that it’s Facebook just makes it ironic — that the world’s most successful social-networking device was the work of a socially awkward guy.”
But in the decade since the film’s release, Facebook has become far more than just a social network. It’s an institution that exerts enormous influence on our lives — on politics and journalism, on our notions of privacy and community, and even our mental health.
In the second quarter of 2020, Facebook boasted 2.7 billion active monthly users — more than a third of the world’s population. And yet — thanks in no small part to The Social Network — we still view this globally disrupting force through the prism of one, socially awkward man.
The Social Network does its part to suggest that Mark Zuckerberg is unethical, but it couldn’t imagine that, just a few years later, he would allow the private data of millions of users to be harvested for political and commercial gains. It portrays him as a rebel upending the status quo, but it couldn’t predict how this attitude would lead to Facebook all but destroying journalism or disseminating the lies and hate speech that has poisoned our elections — and even inspired a genocide.
To be fair, no one could have predicted the impact Facebook would have. But as The Daily Beast’s Tarpley Hitt pointed out, The Social Network still ends up “mapping the motivations of a now-omnipresent global corporation onto the insecurities of a single, impish boy.” Its portrait of Zuckerberg as a geek underdog increasingly rings hollow in a world dominated by nerd culture — and where those nerds have only weaponized their sense of victimization in ways that prove dangerously toxic.
Erica Albright: “You write your snide bullshit from a dark room because that’s what the angry do nowadays.”
Its overarching themes — about the dangers of giving enormous power to the unscrupulous and the vindictive — still ring true. But it also frames many of Facebook’s most destructive impulses as a series of understandably human mistakes, committed by one awkward, arrogant genius. Even when it shows us, Mark Zuckerberg, doing objectively terrible things, the movie can’t help but remain slightly in awe of his brilliance.
Tyler Winklevoss: “Cam, this guy hacked the Facebook of seven houses. He set up the whole website in one night, and he did it while he was drunk.”
As Aaron Sorkin has repeatedly said, this is a story — and it’s a compelling one. But the truth has become far more dramatic and damning than the fiction.
Hollywood has long approached true history as a springboard for telling stories. Films from Lawrence of Arabia to JFK, Amadeus to Pocahontas have played fast and loose with the facts, forgoing literal truth to create a far more entertaining myth.
Maxwell Scott: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
This instinct is understandable, not just from a filmmaking perspective, but from our own. We tend to look for narratives even in the everyday. We seek to make sense of life as a logical, linear progression of events. Even social media itself is built on this desire to tell a story about ourselves.
But with few exceptions, most biographical films are made after their subjects have died — and nearly all of them concern stories that are already complete. By telling Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s story when it had barely just begun, The Social Network ended up creating a narrative that’s continued to impact how we view him and his company. We still see Mark Zuckerberg as a larger-than-life character on a mythical journey, rather than a businessman who became one of the most powerful people in the world, largely through accident — and who continues to exploit just how little we actually know about him.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley: “You’ve proven that we cannot trust you with our emails, with our phone numbers. So why should we trust you with our hard-earned money?”
Even Aaron Sorkin himself seems to recognize that The Social Network may have told the story of Mark Zuckerberg a tad prematurely.
Any follow-up film would hopefully seek to address how the myth that The Social Network created actually fed into Facebook’s continued rise to power. But whether they make a sequel doesn’t really matter. We’re still living it.
Mark Zuckerberg: “Welcome to Facebook.”
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