The Social Network's Science Fiction

The new movie, the Social Network, is a great human drama for all the right reasons.  There’s friendship.  There’s betrayal.  There’s plenty of greed.  And I had a lot of fun watching it.

But there’s not a lot of engineering in the big screen version of the Facebook story.  In fact, the movie seems kind of hostile toward engineers.  Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s young and intrepid creator, is portrayed as a geek who starts his path to dot com glory after getting dumped by a girl. The rest of the movie proceeds as essentially a giant Revenge of the Nerd thriller.  In the final scene (and this isn’t much of a spoiler) we’re left watching Zuckerberg alone in his empire as he “friends” the girl who broke his heart.  It's Rosebud for Generation Net. 

If it were true it would be a lot more compelling.  Back in 2005 and 2006, shortly after the film is set, I interviewed Zuckerberg on several occasions, and he wasn't much like the guy on-screen.  In addition to actually having a girlfriend, a fact left conveniently out of the film, he had a lot of thoughtful things to say about the world he was creating online.  He spoke fondly of eliminating the need to give someone your phone number; just have them Facebook you instead.  He also talked about how he was trying to create a new way of communicating online, something lightweight – even featherweight – that connected people in a more elegant manner than MySpace.  He shared one of the essential qualities I’ve found in just about every programmer I’ve ever interviewed – an earnest ambition to build something incredibly cool. 

The fact that the Real Mark bears little resemblance to Movie Mark shouldn’t come as a surprise.  As a friend of mine who’s an engineer observed, who wants to watch big screengrabs of PERL script?   But why reduce Zuckerberg to such a cornball stereotype – the scorned, borderline Autistic, nerd devoid of emotion who only wants to be part of the cool crowd?  The movie posters have the tagline:  Punk.  Genius.  Billionaire.  They left out one word.  Cliché.  Most engineers I know could care less about being in the cool crowd, which is what makes them compelling in the first place.

The Movie Mark is merely a projection of what the old media generation fears about the new world online.  (It’s telling that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin brags about how little time he has spent on Facebook).  The filmmakers seems to think that their man can only be sympathetic if, deep down, he just wants to be part of their club. Movie Mark is like some corny pencil-necked Dr. Doom, ignored by girls and bullies, only to come back as a super-villian who wants to reclaim the world...he'll show them!  It’s a lot trickier, and weirder, I suppose, to fashion Zuckerberg as an innovator and not a reactionary.  But, oh well.  Filmmakers can take artistic license if they want, and so be it.  But at least they could have come up with something more original.

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