Does It Matter If The Social Network Is True?

I’m tired of writing about Facebook. I want to cover other types of social sites, and I’m sure you want to read about them.

But my beat is social media. And when every journalist from here to Timbuktu reviews the movie about Facebook’s founding, it looks bad if I walk away. So I thought about posting something glib: “10 Reasons Why I’m Not Writing About The Social Network.” There couldn’t possibly be anything more for me to say, I thought.

But, after leaving the theater Friday, I found myself with too much to say rather than too little. Because this movie isn’t just about a technological innovation. It’s about building a global empire. It’s also about the age-old themes of friendship and supposed betrayal. And it raises questions about the true character of the site’s founder–either a megalomaniacal villain, a socially awkward and misunderstood man, or something in-between.

So I pondered–do I talk about the movie portrayal of social media empire-building? Or, about how writer Aaron Sorkin, who admittedly hates Facebook, did telling its story? Or whether I believe that it’s possible, at least from the way the movie portrays him, that Mark Zuckerberg has Asperger’s Syndrome?

In the end, I’m not a movie critic or a psychological expert. What I am is a student in a nonfiction master’s in writing program at Johns Hopkins University. And so this is the lens that I chose to examine this movie. Truth–what is it here, and do we need to know the answer to that?

In every syllabus of every class I’ve taken at Hopkins is written a statement about truth and factual writing. It reads, in part:

“The program does not permit non-factual writing to be added to factual writing without informing the reader in some way…The program does not support and does not permit any erroneous interpretation of creative nonfiction to mean that a writer may intentionally make up something and then present it as truth to an unsuspecting reader.”

We nonfiction students are taught to scrupulously guard the line between truth and fiction, and if we blur it, to only do so with the full knowledge of our readership. However, there seems to be some confusion about whether The Social Network is fact or fiction.

Even Aaron Sorkin can’t seem to quite get it right. On The Colbert Report on September 30th, Colbert’s first question to the writer is, “This new movie about the creation of Facebook: fiction or fact?” Sorkin’s immediate response: “fiction.” He then correct himself. “It’s absolute nonfiction,” he says, explaining that he took material from depositions in two lawsuits against Facebook.

But New Yorker film critic David Denby explains, “[Director] Fincher and Sorkin, selecting from known facts and then freely interpreting them, have created a work of art. Accuracy is now a secondary issue.”

New York magazine writes, “The Social Network raises a number of questions about filmmaking ethics–specifically, about how much artistic license can and should be taken in turning a group of ambitious young men not far from 20 years old into movie characters.”

Zuckerberg declined to participate with the movie, so Sorkin “pretty much had to invent Zuckerberg,” according to the New York piece. The West Wing writer explains, “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.”

And so while one part of me tremendously enjoyed the movie for Aaron Sorkin’s masterful writing–and I am a fan of The West Wing–another part of me is deeply troubled that the movie takes so many liberties with the truth. While it could be argued that many historical movies do this, isn’t that history usually long-gone?

There’s also the question of the book The Accidental Billionaires, by Ben Mezrich. The movie is based on the proposal for that book–and although Sorkin says he did his own research–some believe that scenes in the movie could only have come from the book.

Mezrich has admitted his writing methods include exactly what I was taught not to do–make stuff up. For instance, he invents dialogue. Says Luke O’Brien, a journalist who has criticized Mezrich’s methodology in writing, “[Mezrich's] definition of non-fiction is perhaps quite different from what the average reader’s definition of non-fiction is.”

So, why does it matter whether the book and the movie are truth or fiction? Because Mezrich and Sorkin are playing with lives here. And I don’t mean Zuckerberg’s or any of the other characters in the movie or real-life drama.

I mean mine and yours.

I walked away from the movie with some sympathy towards Zuckerberg as a character. The question is, which part gives me the sympathy: the part that is true or the part that isn’t true?

After watching the movie, do I still think he is a cavalier young man throwing our privacy to the wind for his company’s gain, or am I now more inclined to believe he is a socially awkward guy who truly believes in the vision of a more open and personalized online world?

I’m starting to think there might be some basis for the second opinion, but I don’t know whether that’s based on facts or Sorkin’s characterization. (The writer calls Zuckerberg “an anti-hero for the first hour and 55 minutes of the movie and a tragic hero for the last five.”)

Without knowing what’s truth and what’s fiction, I can’t figure out what I really believe about Facebook’s founder. Is he a visionary god who has built us an exciting new online world, or a megalomaniacal devil only acting for his own gain? (As a character says at the end of the film–a line originally spoken by a Facebook publicist–”Creation myths need a devil.”)

Do we put our faith in Zuckerberg and trust this new world he’s built for us or jump to something else that allows us to have more control over our online selves?

While Sorkin gave us the story of Facebook’s founding from three different perspectives, not telling us which one is the correct one, in blending fact and fiction he prolongs the debate about the motivations and trustworthiness of Mark Zuckerberg.

That’s problematic when we place our whole lives online and in the hands of this man and his company.

So ultimately, just like we each must decide for ourselves about the existence or character of the diety in our real-life world, we must make our own estimation about the one in our online one. And, just as in our day-to-day lives, that will determine how we act accordingly.

Eva Kaplan-Leiserson first fell in love with technology playing Oregon Trail on an Apple IIE in the 1980s (a passion for all things Apple remains). Her early participation in social networking include ...read more

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