The exploitation of women is the story of Facebook—but in a subtler, less crude way than the film can illustrate. The Social Network does not include one part of the Mark Zuckerberg origin story, first leaked several months before the movie premiered, that has since become infamous: an instant-message exchange in which the 19-year-old founder crows over the data Harvard students shared with him.
If you’ll recall, The Social Network ends with the dissolution of Saverin and Zuckerberg’s friendship. Saverin, the cofounder and chief financial officer, keeps pursuing advertising as a revenue model for Facebook, but Mark and his new friend Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) try a different, more lucrative approach: They go to the venture capitalist Peter Thiel, better known in 2020 as the guy who took down Gawker Media. Saverin’s approach is to treat Facebook like a publication, using ads to get a pittance of revenue off each page view. What Thiel puts money behind is a very different idea, one that uses Facebook’s users as a resource for data. The great tragedy of The Social Network is that Eduardo and Mark’s friendship is damaged by Mark’s greed; the great tragedy of Facebook though, is that Zuckerberg sold out his users for profit. The movie is so involved in an ultimately fruitless attempt to find Zuckerberg’s humanity that it misses the point by a country mile.
It has been argued to me that no one knew what Facebook was going to be in 2010, which is why The Social Network so misunderstands and understates the platform’s problems. But what is glaringly obvious throughout The Social Network is that few involved with making the movie had ever used Facebook. (If anyone did, it was Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose haunting soundtrack offers a tragic sense of disconnection that rest of the production the rarely attains.)
To be sure, the network hadn’t yet been used to incite violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar. Cambridge Analytica hadn’t yet harvested data from 87 million users to influence several elections, including the 2016 presidential election. We didn’t yet know that Facebook would create the bulk of its revenue by learning about us, through the data we gave it, and then relentlessly targeting advertising at us—not just on the platform, but off of it too. We had not yet watched mainstream publications become beholden to the Facebook algorithm, nor had we observed how Facebook Groups have become hot zones for disseminating misinformation. We were just at the beginning of understanding how Facebook filters and tailors the information presented to users, while simultaneously using addictive engagement algorithms to keep users on the site. The whistleblower Sophie Zhang had not yet said, as she did just a few weeks ago, that after spending several overworked years trying to prevent global political manipulation that “I have blood on my hands.”
But by 2010, Facebook was already both rotten and indispensable. It had demonstrated a way of crawling under your skin and staying there that I, at least, could attest to. (In a bid for improving my mental health, I quit Facebook in 2011; currently, I have an inactive profile as a placeholder account.) McNeil notes in Lurking that anxieties about Facebook are as old as the platform itself; the sleek exterior and ad-free environment prompted many users, if not all, to wonder how Zuckerberg’s product was planning to make money. Zadie Smith noted her own anxieties about Facebook’s usage of her data in her graceful 2010 takedown of the “wildly enjoyable, wildly inaccurate biopic.” The movie has to alter the real Zuckerberg to make sense of him; it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the user experience of the literal social network it’s named after.
Fincher and Sorkin’s portrait of a fictional man’s fictional ambitions to produce a social networking website has power; there are lessons in there about humanity, and not being a dick, that have resonated with many fans. But it has nothing to do with the actual Mark Zuckerberg, and even less to do with Facebook. And for that, I cannot entirely forgive it. There was much that needed to be said; there is much that company still needs to be held accountable for.
I imagine it will be bizarre to future audiences that The Social Network was so lauded. Already, in 2020, it is a laughably naive portrait of Zuckerberg, a story about what’s wrong with Facebook that simply doesn’t understand what’s wrong with Facebook. Even Sorkin has more or less repudiated his portrait of Zuckerberg. In 2011, accepting his Golden Globe for screenwriting, he apologized for being too harsh on Zuckerberg, noting that the technocrat was a “great entrepreneur, a visionary, and an incredible altruist.” But last year, in an opinion piece for the New York Times, he wrote a kind of brotherly scold to Zuckerberg, calling Facebook’s irresponsible framing of false, politically motivated posts an assault on truth. “If I’d known you felt that way, I’d have had the Winklevoss twins invent Facebook,” he quipped.
Sorkin is still too dazzled by the skills of a tech genius, I think, to really blame Zuckerberg for what Facebook has become. Much as the movie relentlessly tries to be on Mark’s side, despite his atrocious behavior, Sorkin’s op-ed approaches Zuckerberg with reverence, certain that he just doesn’t understand the ramifications of what he’s done. But what those who live in Facebook’s world know is that regardless of what Zuckerberg understands, he just doesn’t care. This is a man whose motto once was “companies over countries.” His ambition has not diminished with success; Facebook is currently gathering data on users who don’t even have Facebook profiles, in an effort to index every single person on the planet.