Oct 2010 01

by Damon Martin

It’s funny to look back just over the last decade and realize how much social networking has changed everyone’s lives. From the musicians who were launched on MySpace, to the friends who reconnected on Facebook, to the endless (and often inane) updates on Twitter, social networking has become a ubiquitous part of everyday life for millions all over the world. It’s a way to stay connected, it’s a way to stay interested, and for the 26-yeaor old creator of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, it’s a way to become the world’s youngest billionaire.

The story of Zuckerberg, and the creation and launch of Facebook, will hit the big screens today. However, even pre-release, the critics have given high praise to The Social Network, which was directed by David Fincher (Fight Club) and written by Aaron Sorkin (West Wing). The movie follows Zuckerberg as he awkwardly tries to make his way in upper crust society while attending an Ivy League school. It was during his time at Harvard that Zuckerberg, along with some classmates, created The Facebook, as it was originally known.

In the case of both the film, and the book on which it is based, it’s the essence of the very story that has come under scrutiny. In 2009, author Ben Mezrich released The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal. The book was labeled as non-fiction by the publishers, but Mezrich has come under fire for sensationalizing characters and stories in his previous “non-fiction” works – such as Bringing Down the House, which was made into the film 21 (which starred Kevin Spacey) in 2008.

Mezrich, who’s a fellow Harvard alum, gleaned most of his information by speaking to Facebook co-creator Eduardo Severin, a classmate of Zuckerberg’s who would eventually be forced to sue his friend to even get recognition on the site’s masthead. Severin’s direct accounts of events are littered throughout Mezrich’s work. But though Mezrich interviewed many other key contemporaries of Zuckerberg & Co., the author has been accused of making up or embellishing incidents to cover gaps and heighten drama. Zuckerberg himself was never actually interviewed for the book.

[Emi in Distraction]

Mezrich’s book was optioned by multi award-winning writer Aaron Sorkin, who turned it into a screenplay. But though some parts of the story are under dispute, others are very much in the public record, and, as such, are obviously based on fact. Like when Zuckerberg was sued by two fellow classmates who claimed he had stolen the idea for Facebook; the much-reported case was ultimately settled for $65 million. The movie also covers the arrival and involvement of Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake), one of the founders of Napster, who served as Facebook’s president until 2005, when a drugs bust hastened his departure. (Though elusive when it comes to the press, Vanity Fair recently interviewed Parker for a profile in their October issue, which is well worth reading.)

Social Network will likely garner a few awards come event season, and concerns of fact vs. fiction don’t appear to be an issue for most who will go see the film. Is Zuckerberg a Gordon Gekko-like shrewd businessman, hell-bent on greed and capitalism? Or a Bill Gates-like awkward geek, who hopes his dot-com success will somehow turn him into a Prince Charming? The truth probably lies somewhere between the two stereotypes, and Zuckerberg likely a little bit of both. Did he step on a few toes and maybe even jab a knife or two into the backs of a few classmates along the way? The evidence says maybe. But if any group of friends was offered a similar chance to make billions, a lot of Lord of the Flies backstabbing would likely ensue.

Zuckerberg obviously isn’t a saint, neither is Parker, Severin, or anyone else that was involved with Facebook’s creation. What’s remarkable about the story isn’t the apparent social disfunction of these early online networkers that ultimately severed friendships (and cost millions). It’s that in a few short years, the work put in by a bunch of kids at college resulted in a service that currently boasts over 500-million users and a site that has toppled the mighty Google in terms of time spent by users.

In a world where suited corporate fat cats sitting in their plush chairs at Goldman-Sachs continue to collect paycheck after paycheck while robbing hard working folks blind, it’s refreshing to see a film follow the life and times of a pretty normal kid who came up with a pretty phenomenal idea, and who’s now living everyone’s dream life. However, the question the film may leave viewers wondering is how many true friends does the founder of Facebook really have?