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Movie Review: The Social Network
Film asks, Do nice guys finish last?
Sherilyn Blake

Chances are good that you have been on Facebook today; maybe you’re on it right now. In 2010 everyone knows this social networking site that connects people online and allows them to share details of their lives in a way that wasn’t possible before.

The hit movie The Social Network is based on the inventor of Facebook and the trials and tribulations he encountered as he was starting this beyond-popular site. Though Facebook is seen as a way for people to maintain relationships with others online, the irony is that the site’s inventor had plenty of problems in his own relationships, and some of them even happened because of Facebook.

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The inventor is Mark Zuckerberg, who was a Harvard student when he founded the site in 2004. The movie begins with Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) talking to his girlfriend in a bar in late 2003. Their intense conversation is mostly about Zuckerberg finding a way to get into one of Harvard’s “final clubs,” exclusive, all-male clubs or fraternities that are invitation-only.

During this conversation we see how Zuckerberg’s monotone voice and thoughtless and arctic comments lead to an argument with his girlfriend. As the movie tells it, this fight sparks a chain of events leading to the success of Facebook.

Facts and Fiction

The film has been controversial, since the book it was based on (The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich) and the screenplay (by Aaron Sorkin, creator of the TV show The West Wing) are called nonfiction, but are not careful about accuracy.

For example, the girl who supposedly motivated Zuckerberg to launch Facebook (the movie suggests he was trying to prove something to her for years) may not have been his girlfriend at all, nor a catalyst of events. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg has had a real-life girlfriend since he was at Harvard, and she is not even a character in the movie. And even though Sorkin makes the audience believe Zuckerberg wanted the prestige of being in a final club, Zuckerberg told a journalist who profiled him for the magazine The New Yorker that that wasn’t true.

But according to the New Yorker story, Zuckerberg does seem to have been an ambitious person even growing up. He was a computer prodigy who created a program for his family that was like an early version of instant messaging. During high school he created software that Microsoft and AOL wanted to buy from him.

It’s obvious that money is not what Zuckerberg is after, because he chose not to sell this software. And now, with billions to his name, he still resides in a modest, rented house. (As we went to press with this story, he publicly pledged to give at least 50% of his wealth to charity.)

We might never know what drives his ambition. Maybe he is just after the joy and warmth of knowing that millions of people benefit from his invention.

Making Enemies

But to feel complete sympathy for Zuckerberg may be a little far-fetched, since it seems obvious that he was willing to step on others along his climb to the top. Twice, people who claimed he cheated them to get ahead sued him, and one of these people was his former best friend. As the movie’s tagline puts it, “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.”

image by Sony

I can see how a person with a lot of ambition might try to get with the dog-eat-dog world. In the movie Zuckerberg’s friend, Eduardo Saverin, is portrayed as the typical “nice guy.” Anything Zuckerberg asked, he did.

Meanwhile Sean Parker, the founder of the website Napster, is portrayed by Justin Timberlake as an egotistical jerk who nevertheless makes us turn our heads in awe at his self-confidence and successful business strategies. He’s unfeeling, but he turns Zuckerberg into a moneymaking machine. Eager to get his idea off the ground, Zuckerberg manipulates Saverin and, at least for a while, follows Parker.

It’s a shame, but to me the idea that nice guys finish last holds truth. For example, the kids who make the most noise at school tend to get the most attention, even though they’re not always the sweetest people around.

Other times, I’ve seen people get the upper hand by using their connections. I know a girl who managed to land a job at a clothing store where most teens would kill to work, because she knew someone who had influence at the store. If she had decided to play fair and go through the normal process of submitting a résumé and waiting to get an interview, she would have been left behind.

So, I accept The Social Network’s suggestion that you can be too nice, or at least too trusting. Though there are some cases where a nice guy is recognized for his merits and rewarded accordingly, I think that often, he’s not the guy who gets to the top fastest.

Can We Judge?

Another message The Social Network conveys is that success isn’t the same for everyone. Sorkin shows how someone with natural born talent, plus the insight to create the right thing at the right time, can have incredible overnight success. But what are the odds of this happening to an average college kid? Most of us have to practice and work much harder than Zuckerberg did just to achieve a normal level of wealth and success.

Possibly this means we should not be the ones to judge him. While it may seem that he was ruthless in his approach, you have to wonder: If you had the opportunity to make billions building your own business, wouldn’t you do whatever it took to seize it?

Maybe Zuckerberg was bitter and rough around the edges, but he was also looking out for the interests of his company. It’s hard for those of us who have never been in this position to accept Zuckerberg’s tactics, but we should try to understand where he was coming from.

I thought the casting director for The Social Network chose the right actors. To my surprise, Justin Timberlake did a good job portraying Napster creator Sean Parker. Andrew Garfield, who played Saverin, made us believe that Saverin just wanted to help a friend and ended up being played, which made me feel sorry for him. I was not a fan of the fast-talking, socially awkward Zuckerberg as portrayed by Eisenberg, but since this Zuckerberg wasn’t supposed to be likable, that means Eisenberg also did a good job.

Not everything was believable. It’s hard to imagine that Zuckerberg was so detached from his friends that he didn’t show emotion over anything, since he was clearly a person who managed to make friends in the first place. In fact, the importance of friendship is another thing I took from this movie. It’s friends who give us the confidence and support to get started. That’s true in Zuckerberg’s case and many others.

But if our friends are the ones who get us off the launch pad, we are the ones to make sure we stay aloft. The question is how much we’re willing to sacrifice to do so.

This story is part of the media/news literacy series, which is generously supported by the McCormick Foundation.

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