Do Harvard students spend their weekends snorting cocaine and ordering caravans of strippers? Did the world’s most popular social networking site spark from one man’s envy of elite social clubs? No, not really.
But according to David Fincher’s The Social Network—the number one movie in America right now—it did. The Social Network may extrapolate from the truth; it might even contain some vicious lies about the culture at Harvard, the life of Mark Zuckerberg, and the nature of Facebook. But is that really so bad?
Since its release three days ago, the Internet has exploded with commentary about this film. The overwhelming majority of the articles praise The Social Network (one even dubbing it “the Citizen Kane of our generation”). But many others have scorned the film for its inaccurate portrayal of Harvard, Zuckerberg, and Facebook.
In an article in The Boston Globe on Saturday, a group of Harvard alumni who know Zuckerberg pointed out some of the film’s flaws. One alumni even said he felt “physically uncomfortable” watching something that cast Zuckerberg as a cold villain and Harvard as an outlandish meritocracy of superficiality. The film also makes it seem like Facebook grew out of Zuckerberg’s insatiable desire to join one of Harvard’s exclusive social clubs. Fellow students say that he had no such desire.
Another commented, “This movie’s going to sell really well, even get an Oscar nod. But people will walk out of there thinking about a Mark Zuckerberg that doesn’t exist.”
The problem is, basing your entire understanding of Zuckerberg on how a dramatic director, actor, and screenwriter creates him is like basing your entire vote in the 2004 election on Fahrenheit 911 or forming your entire opinion on mid-Atlantic Italian-Americans solely from The Jersey Shore.
None of the film’s creators pitched The Social Network as “The Mark Zuckerberg biopic” or “The History of Facebook” or “A look at Harvard.” It’s a drama based on a book Zuckerberg didn’t authorize: Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, a book rife with dubious sources.
The same sort of controversy erupted in 2008 from M.I.T. students a few years ago with 21, a film about MIT students who count cards in Vegas. That film was based on another book by Mezrich’s, Bringing Down the House, also rife with dubious sources and deliberately written in a “thriller-esque style” (as described by the author himself).
If you want a closer “truth” about Facebook, watch the documentary Catfish. If you want a closer “truth” about Zuckerberg, read his profile in The New Yorker and Rolling Stone, or better yet, send him a friend request. Get to know him. Enjoy the fiction, but don’t confuse it with the truth.