Posted on October 20, 2010 - by MG
I hugely enjoyed the movie of the story behind the founding of FaceBook. It reminded me of the heady days before 2001, when the dotcom bomb exploded. Good on all those guys for plugging exciting new life into the Internet, long after investors in the UK had pretty much stopped being excited about the potential of the Web.
In the movie, which is based on the non-fiction book “The Accidental Billionaires”, we watch 19-year old Mark Zuckerman (played by Jesse Eisenberg) take an idea for a Harvard U based social networking site, and run off with it, building a site that would extend far beyond Harvard; first to other Ivy League Colleges, then to Stanford in California, then to Oxbridge, then all Unis, then the World.
Which is when you and me and most of our friends started using FaceBook.
Did Zuckerman steal the idea? Yes, insofar as someone told him about a great chair they’d imagined, and then he went off and built a chair himself. The blueblood Winklevoss twins and their partner made the mistake of telling a smart geek about their flashy idea, without tying him in to a contract, etc. Well that’s a tad naive. Back in the day when we started our IT company, we didn’t even talk about an idea we were serious about without getting someone to sign a confidentiality agreement.
Anyway, technicalities of the plot aside, what interested me was how screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) chose to tell the story.
He chose to start the movie with an incident that Zuckerman claims is fictional – the dumping of arrogant, pushy Mark by a lovely young WASP girlfriend. In his jilted rage, allegedly, Zuckerman sets up Facemash, a Harvard-based site for comparing the hotness of girls from a bank of photos pulled from the Harvard online ‘facebooks’ (books of photos of all undergrads). The site crashes Harvard’s server and lands Zuckerman in hot water with the administration and outraged ladies of the campus. Facemash is a fail, but brings Zuckerman to the attention of the Winklevoss twins, who need a bright young programmer to build their site, Harvard Connection.
Sadly these gentlemen underestimate Zuckerman’s own drive to control his efforts, his desire to build something awesome (he admits he doesn’t know what he’s building but he knows it is cool), and they overestimate the importance of a verbal agreement between Gentlemen of Harvard.
But as a motivation, by Hollywood standards that is a bit thin.
So Sorkin adds something else – a subplot designed to suggest that Zuckerman is driven mainly by an urge to be in the Posh Boys Club. Now the kid seems plenty posh enough to me – he went to Philips Exeter Academy and Harvard, for goodness sakes. (OK, that might be presuming; maybe he was on a scholarship, who knows.) When Zuckerman doesn’t get into the Posh Boys Club (it had a name but I’ve forgotten it. It’s something far less exclusive than the infamous Bullingdon Club at Oxford Uni of which David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson were members) – he is so consumed with a desire to Prove Himself that he steals the social networking site idea, creates FaceBook, and eventually even fiddles his own business partner out of the 30% of the multi-billion concern that is rightfully his for lending penniless Zuckerman the princely sum of $19,000.
Now there’s a motivation that we can all get behind! Muaha ha ha, evil young entrepreneur driven by pride and jealousy.
Zuckerman, who of course few ordinary people really care about, what with him being super-rich, has objected to the portrayal. At an address to Startup School in Stanford he concluded that Hollywood writers, “can’t wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things.”
Well, I bet they can. Even, maybe especially, Aaron Sorkin. Hollywood is the planet’s most effective mass-communicator. If Hollywood doesn’t make movies about geniuses who want to build something terminally Cool, it’s because they know that in reality most ordinary people, who are the majority of film goers, cannot identify with such a motive.
Entrepreneurs cannot ever expect to get a fair hearing from Hollywood, because they do something that by definition is exceptional. They do what they do for reasons that are not always easy to fathom. Their success involves so much luck and factors that were beyond their control, that it’s impossible to map the clear route to success that others might emulate.
Complicated motives and the hand of fortune don’t make a good screenplay. The truth about almost any business success would leave 95% of filmgoers baffled.
So Sorkin did his job – he found an ordinary human motivation – sexual jealousy and societal envy – in a complicated tale.
It’s probably nothing to do with the truth, but the truth rarely makes a good, clean story.