Even 26-year-old billionaires have bad days. And the past month has seen quite a few of them for Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer of Facebook.
First there was the angry user backlash over the latest round of privacy settings. Then came news of Diaspora*, a proposed competing site, which is selling itself as "user-controlled and privacy-aware." And now there are allegations that he paid off former partners with a bogus settlement deal.
But perhaps most distressing for the Internet mogul must have been the leaking of the script for The Social Network, a $60-million movie based on Zuckerberg's early years as an undergrad hacker at Harvard University, on the Web.
Why would it be distressing for a young Internet visionary to be lionized in a big-budget Hollywood biopic? Because the script - which I managed to peruse this week - is unflattering at best and a public-relations disaster at worst for one of the world's most eminent supergeeks. It's also a fantastic read.
Zuckerberg is said to be distinctly unpleased. He reportedly cancelled his birthday celebration in the Caribbean last weekend in order to hold a series of emergency meetings in California to discuss how to rehabilitate Facebook's (and by extension his own) tarnished image. According to The Times of London, the software genius told colleagues that he wants to establish himself as "a good guy."
But it's hard to imagine how he's going to do that once The Social Network is given wide release this fall.
The film, currently in post-production, has an all-star creative team behind it. Written by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher, it stars Jesse Eisenberg ( The Squid and the Whale) as Zuckerberg. Like the much-anticipated sequel to Wall Street, it is at the vanguard of a new group of black comedy-dramas that wreak cinematic revenge on the digital and financial whiz kids of the past decade. Call it the I-hate-the-naughties genre.
Based on the book The Accidental Billionaires - The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal by Ben Mezrich, Sorkin's script purports to tell the inside story of the beginnings of Facebook and its spectacular rise from Harvard-undergrad networking tool to worldwide media phenomenon. Some of the material is already familiar Internet legend: How Zuckerberg conceived of an early version of the site by posting pictures of female classmates so that other students could rank their hotness (original, huh?). How his early backers, the handsome, rich, athletic Winklevoss twins, ended up suing the geeky, awkward, middle-class Zuckerberg and settling out of court for $65-million (U.S.) - the same deal that's now being disputed in appeal courts - before going on to compete for the U.S. Olympic rowing team. And, of course, how Zuckerberg cemented his image as the sophomore CEO by attending meetings in
tracksuits and shower sandals.
What is surprising is the way the script explodes the myth of the idealistic, pimply software geek writing code in his dorm room in an attempt, as Zuckerberg writes on his own FB profile, "to make the world a more open place by helping people connect and share." This is the utopian vision that Zuckerberg has peddled all along - a vision that stands in sharp contrast to the increasingly invasive practices of the site (i.e., new settings that automatically default to share all your personal information with the world - including advertisers). In the movie, Zuckerberg's character comes off as a grasping, driven, sexually frustrated borderline sociopath who would gladly sell his best friend for a chance to get into the right nightclub, his inspiration for Facebook driven less by the hope of financial success than by the urge to control his own social destiny. While in real life Zuckerberg wasn't invited to the party, online he invented the coolest party in town.
I know what you're thinking. Stop the presses. Geek seeks social revenge through trappings of success. But there's more to be gleaned from The Social Network than a gossipy back story of the digital generation's answer to Bill Gates. Zuckerberg's dramatized misanthropy only makes him more enigmatic. What delicious irony that the wunderkind who connected hundreds of millions of people online has difficulty connecting with people himself. As his co-founder marvels in the script after finding out Zuckerberg has betrayed him, "I was your only friend. You had one friend."
The movie, which clearly takes liberty with historical details, is presumably relying on the fact that Zuckerberg is a public figure and won't have a case for libel. How else to explain the brazen use of real names and regurgitated conversations that couldn't possibly be confirmed by either the author of the book or Sorkin? (While successful and entertaining, Mezrich's non-fiction work has come under attack in the past for being less than accurate.) However, it's no secret that Zuckerberg can be a twerp. Watching his 2008 interview on 60 Minutes, he is awkward and sarcastic, appearing self-conscious on camera. When the interviewer warmly compares him to Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, he stares at her, face devoid of emotion, eyes blank, until she breaks the silence by asking him what's wrong. "Is that supposed to be a question?" he asks in a monotone punctuated, finally, by a cruel little smirk. If this moment is anything to go by, Sorkin has captured his character completely.
Perhaps what is most interesting about the recent Facebook/Zuckerberg backlash is the revelation that geeks can be bad guys, too. Google might do its best to not be evil, but that doesn't make it any less monolithic and insidious. Gates might run a charitable foundation, but he's still the master of the universe. Power corrupts and, in Zuckerberg's case, it may not have had very far to go.
I wonder if his "friends" - all 524,132 of them - will "like" the movie?