Thursday, October 7, 2010

Poor, poor Zuckerberg

Poor, poor Zuckerberg
Somewhere in Palo Alto, Mark Zuckerberg probably didn't sleep well last night. "The Social Network," the Aaron Sorkin-written, David Fincher-produced film about the invention of the global Internet phenomenon, opens tonight in New York, and the picture it paints of Zuckerberg isn't a pretty one.
I haven't seen the film, but it appears to be incredibly dark--the trailer and movie web site are downright eerie for a film about college students and the Internet--and the early reviews make Zuckerberg seem almost sinister and calculating. As a result, much of the early press coverage has weighed how much the film will hurt Facebook and Zuckerberg, casting the social-media king as a jerk. "It's a complex, not especially flattering, sometimes scathing portrait" of Zuckerberg, writes Mark Harris in New York Magazine, noting that it has "raised the company's hackles" to the point that a spokesman has already called the movie "fiction" in a story by The New York Times.
But will "The Social Network" really hurt Zuckerberg and Facebook? Or could it actually help it?

I'd argue the latter, despite all the buzz that the film is unfair and takes far too many liberties for a movie about a living 26-year-old, no matter how obscenely wealthy he may be. All of which the film may very well be, or do--Sorkin, after all, goes so far as to say he's glad Zuckerberg would not talk to him in making the film. "I don't want my fidelity to be to the truth," he told New York's Harris. "I want it to be to storytelling."
But beyond the damages to Zuckerberg's pride, ego or sense of self--all big things, to be sure--"The Social Network" probably won't have much negative impact on the company, and indeed, the net result could be positive. Here's why. For one, Facebook's users already shrug off the company's and Zuckerberg's at times arrogant approach to privacy protection. They get angry, they push back, they get Facebook to repeal new policies, yes. But they largely keep using the site. A film that shows a movie version of Zuckerberg betraying his friends is not likely to make fewer people use Facebook.
In addition, there are plenty of respected leaders who aren't necessarily warm and fuzzy guys you want to sit down and have a beer with. Zuckerberg, if that is his character, is not alone. Ruthlessness has never hurt Rupert Murdoch. Larry Ellison, founder of one of the world's largest technology firms, pens emails to reporters with the subject line "Hey Jerk." And Steve Jobs has a cult following that rivals God's, but it's never been hurt by the occasional grouchy email or a reputation for arrogance.
Finallly, Sorkin's "storytelling" might actually elicit some empathy for Zuckerberg, something that's no small feat for a 26-year-old who's now richer than Jobs and sits atop Vanity Fair's annual ranking of the power elite. Some reviewers have found the Zuckerberg portrayal entirely unsympathetic, which on its own should create some level of pity, at least, for the real person behind the caricature, who is likely more complex, more nuanced and less cold-hearted than the movie reportedly portrays. Even everyone involved with making the movie, reports New York's Harris, already views Zuckerberg "with intense sympathy."
I don't believe in the idea that all publicity is good publicity. And maybe I'll change my mind after I view the film and see just how scathing the portrait of Zuckerberg is. But I think people are more forgiving of leaders than we think, and very little can get in the way of a cultural phenomenon like Facebook.

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