Hollywood fails at Facebook. So what else is new?

Hollywood fails at Facebook. So what else is new?

Summary: The Social Network, the movie about Facebook, has been the weekend's hot topic following its release on Friday. I've not seen it yet, but opinion seems pretty much split between ordinary moviegoers, who think it's a great movie, and people who actually know about the subject.

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TOPICS: Tech Industry
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The Social Network, the movie about Facebook, has been the weekend's hot topic following its release on Friday. I've not seen it yet, but opinion seems pretty much split between ordinary moviegoers, who think it's a great movie, and people who actually know about the subject. The latter point out that the character "Mark Zuckerberg" in the movie is not recognisable as the real thing, and that the writer -- Aaron Sorkin, famous for The West Wing [corrected] -- doesn't have much of a clue about Facebook.

Jeff Jarvis, Guardian columnist and associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York, puts the case against in a blog post, The antisocial movie. He says:

"The movie violates privacy, smears reputations, makes shit up -- just what the internet is accused of doing, right? Oh, it's entertaining, in a dark way, as much as watching the pillorying of witches used to be, I suppose. For The Social Network, geeks and entrepreneurs are as mysterious and frightening as witches. Its writer, Aaron Sorkin, admits as much in New York Magazine. 'He says unapologetically that he knows almost nothing about the 2010 iteration of Facebook, adding that his interest in computer-aided communication goes only as far as emailing his friends.' Sorkin himself says, 'I don't want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.' Making shit up."

As a comment points out, this is in striking contrast to Harry Knowles's review at Ain't It Cool News. In Harry was kind of blown away by THE SOCIAL NETWORK both times he's seen it!, he says "the film ... changed a direction in my mind that will absolutely change my life".

"Everyone of my friends loved it. Many of them sticking it with 'Best Film I've Seen All Year' and when you combine just how brilliantly written the film is. I mean. It's just so well written."

Lawrence Lessig, Harvard law professor and originator of the Creative Commons, sees both points of view but finds a more original one. In Sorkin vs. Zuckerberg in The New Republic, he recognises that the film is well made and entertaining but points to a greater evil. He says:

"In Sorkin's world -- which is to say Hollywood, where lawyers attempt to control every last scrap of culture -- this framing [between lawsuits] makes sense. But as I watched this film, as a law professor, and someone who has tried as best I can to understand the new world now living in Silicon Valley, the only people that I felt embarrassed for were the lawyers. The total and absolute absurdity of the world where the engines of a federal lawsuit get cranked up to adjudicate the hurt feelings (because 'our idea was stolen!')* of entitled Harvard undergraduates is completely missed by Sorkin.

We can't know enough from the film to know whether there was actually any substantial legal claim here. Sorkin has been upfront about the fact that there are fabrications aplenty lacing the story. But from the story as told, we certainly know enough to know that any legal system that would allow these kids to extort $65 million from the most successful business this century should be ashamed of itself.

Did Zuckerberg breach his contract? Maybe, for which the damages are more like $650, not $65 million. Did he steal a trade secret? Absolutely not. Did he steal any other 'property'? Absolutely not -- the code for Facebook was his, and the 'idea' of a social network is not a patent. It wasn't justice that gave the twins $65 million; it was the fear of a random and inefficient system of law. That system is a tax on innovation and creativity. That tax is the real villain here, not the innovator it burdened."

So, according to people who know, The Social Network is a well-written movie that portrays Harvard students talking and acting in ways that they don't talk and act, that falsely portrays named leading characters, that shows little understanding of either Facebook or the Internet, and that indulges in what Jarvis calls "making shit up".

So what else is new? This is Hollywood! Movies take exactly the same approach when they create compelling stories about police detectives, hospital doctors, soldiers, travelling archaeologists and everybody else. Movies are lies, and we only ask that they be entertaining and reasonably plausible.

The real problem with The Social Network is that it's dishonest and exploitative. If you don't want to make a documentary about Facebook -- and Sorkin doesn't -- then that's fine. If you want to try to make an honest fictionalisation of Facebook origins, that's also fine, if you stay as close to the facts as you reasonably can. But if you want to make up shit about living people and recent events, then you should change the names. If you don't, a lot of people will know you're not telling the truth, and that's bound to detract from the movie.

The Social Network is exploiting Facebook's popularity and misusing Zuckerberg's name for its own purposes, of which the most obvious is to make money. This will always taint the movie, no matter how "good" it is.

* A recent story in Slate, The Other Social Network, points out that Columbia University's Campus Network was a lot like Facebook and was launched before Facebook.

Asia's Next Media Animation has made a funny version: The Facebook Movie in One Minute http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VosUQQlgYxo

Topic: Tech Industry

Jack Schofield

About Jack Schofield

Jack Schofield spent the 1970s editing photography magazines before becoming editor of an early UK computer magazine, Practical Computing. In 1983, he started writing a weekly computer column for the Guardian, and joined the staff to launch the newspaper's weekly computer supplement in 1985. This section launched the Guardian’s first website and, in 2001, its first real blog. When the printed section was dropped after 25 years and a couple of reincarnations, he felt it was a time for a change....

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  • You haven't even seen it? Instead of spending time borrowing other people's point of view, why not go see the movie yourself? We'd like to know what Jack thinks. Otherwise it sorta seems you may be guilty of using social media to spread disparaging comments about people's work that you haven't experienced yourself.
    davefales1
  • I'm in Ipoh, Malaysia, for a family wedding (hence posts at some odd UK times). The full cinema experience will have to wait until I get back. Sorry!
    Jack Schofield