There’s an old saying that goes something like, “Behind every successful man is a woman.” Already a billionaire and still under 30, Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook and TIME Magazine’s 2010 Person of the Year, is a modern-day success story. Like other technological pioneers before him—Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs—Zuckerberg took an idea in college and turned it into one of the world’s top corporations. But in each case, there was that first moment of inspiration that set everything in motion. Was it a woman? Is it possible that an ex-girlfriend is to thank/blame for Facebook?
The Social Network opens on Zuckerberg (convincingly portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend at a restaurant in 2003. There are a few details about Zuckerberg that become evident during this initial conversation—he’s extremely arrogant, has no sense of tact, and he’s completely unaware of it. We wonder how his girlfriend maintained a relationship, while he doesn’t understand why she’s breaking up with him.
A frequent blogger, Zuckerberg goes home and begins ranting online about his ex, and then… that first spark ignites. The correct combination of alcohol and rejection comes together to make magic. The time appears at the bottom of the screen the same way it does in a film based on a true story that says This is an important moment in history, and we realize we are watching the birth of Facebook.
By hacking into the online photo directories of Harvard’s residence halls, and with the help of his math whiz roommate, Eduardo Saverin, he builds a Web site (“FaceMash”) that allows users to pick the hotter of two random female coeds. (The computer geek in me delighted in listening to Zuckerberg explain to us the techniques he uses to bypass the various firewalls, as well as Eduardo’s method of ranking photos with the same algorithm a chess program uses to rank players.)
The site is an instant success (over 20,000 page hits in four hours), and the drain on bandwidth nearly causes the campus’ network to shut down. Although this results in the first of Zuckerberg’s many clashes with authority (not to mention the female student population), it grabs the attention of the Winklevoss twins—two affluent upperclassmen—and their business associate who hire him to code The Harvard Connection, their idea for a university-based social network. Zuckerberg agrees to help, but the innovator in him decides to build his own site and improve on their concept. After a couple months of work and collaboration with a team of Harvard’s brightest, thefacebook.com becomes a campus phenomenon with half of the student population registered and expansion to other schools before “the Winkelvi” are aware it exists and that their idea is now irrelevant. Drama ensues.
As Facebook’s popularity spreads to other universities across the country, it captures the interest of entrepreneur and Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake playing the smarminess to a hilt) who realizes the once-in-a-generation potential behind the site. His big picture visions appeal to Zuckerberg, and in no time, Facebook makes the move from cool Web site to a presence that brings in such business partners as PayPal and Microsoft. Meanwhile, Eduardo, now Facebook’s CFO, finds himself increasingly left out and estranged from the company’s progress. In all fairness to him, Zuckerberg is never actually shown as a bad guy, and indeed, he wants to include his friend, but business is business, Eduardo is in over his head, and a lot of it seems to be happening even faster than Zuckerberg can control it. More drama ensues.
Based on the book The Accidental Billionaires and directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) from a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, A Few Good Men), The Social Network is a fast-paced, dialogue-intensive story of big ideas, big brains, betrayal, and seduction. The creators have made a point to let us know that this a somewhat romanticized version of real events. I read the account of one team member from the early days who said their lives were much less exciting than their film counterparts. Let’s face it, though—there’s a part of us that wants to believe that the creators of Facebook weren’t just slaving away at computer screens day and night. We don’t mind imagining they lived in a world of pool dives from the roof, all-night parties, and college girls who drank and played video games in their house all day.
More than just drama and partying, though, The Social Networking is a celebration of Zuckerberg’s genius. To hear him explain everything from the visual layout to the status wall is like watching the pieces of a puzzle come together. One brilliant takeaway involves a friend asking Zuckerberg if a certain girl in his class is dating anyone. While remarking that girls don’t wear around signs indicating such information, he realizes people will be more than happy to let everyone know their personal details. Bam! The “relationship status” line in a Facebook profile is born.
Ultimately, though, this is the story of online communication, how it has affected our daily lives, and how the lack of communication, especially in the digital age can strain the closest of friendships—those who can’t keep up with it get left behind. I must admit, I graduated from college a few years before Facebook made its debut, but I often wish it had been around in those days. Back in the B.F. (Before Facebook) years, we always wondered what happened to old friends or significant others. Are they married? Do they have kids? What are they doing these days? I’ve heard numerous firsthand accounts of people (including myself) who have reconnected with others through Facebook after years or even decades. We can instantly share our day-to-day lives and thoughts with anyone who agrees to be our “friends.”
It’s interesting, then, that the man behind Facebook is able to correctly intuit how people want to interact with each other while lacking his own close-knit relationships. It’s even implied that his lawsuits were settled out of court because a judge or jury wouldn’t be particularly sympathetic to his personality. Mark Zuckerberg is a young man who has it all—wealth, fame, and his own company with cross-generational appeal and more than 600 million subscribers worldwide. But when it comes down to it, he still thinks about that one girl. The one who started it all. The one friend he doesn’t have.