The Mark Zuckerberg we meet in the opening scene of David Fincher’s The Social Network is a particular kind of jerk. It’s the fall of 2003, and Zuckerberg, an overly wound-up Harvard brainiac, is sitting in a bar with his girlfriend, Erica. He’s rattling on about his perfect SAT scores, his musical gift, the vital importance of pledging the right fraternity. His conversation is pure stream-of-consciousness, and Erica has about had it. “Dating you is like dating a StairMaster,” she says. Then, unthinkingly—as always —Zuckerberg says something insulting, and she walks out. Zuckerberg is puzzled. He’s not really a hostile guy; he doesn’t mean to hurt anyone. It’s just that his mind is always somewhere else. Several somewheres else, usually.
The movie tells the story of the creation of Facebook—the epochal social-networking website—from the dueling POVs of its principals. We see Zuckerberg (played with crackling intensity by Jesse Eisenberg) launching a primitive early site in his dorm room. When it draws 22,000 hits in its first four hours (crashing the Harvard computer system), Zuckerberg—who is himself a study in social disconnection—begins to contemplate the larger possibilities of online interconnection. Soon, with the help of three friends—key among them financial wizard Eduardo Saverin (the magnetic Andrew Garfield)—he creates a new site, the forerunner of Facebook. It’s an instant hit, and it just keeps growing. Zuckerberg sees a new culture emerging: “You go to a party with a digital camera, and your friends re-live the party online.” Welcome to our world.
As the Facebook community swells into the millions—and the site’s valuation into the billions—Zuckerberg falls under the sway of Sean Parker (a beguiling Justin Timberlake). Parker is the playboy cofounder of Napster, the file-sharing site that was shut down by music-industry lawsuits in 2001. He’s a digital hipster, and full of shrewd advice. First of all, he says, Zuckerberg should think bigger and relocate to California to be near Silicon Valley venture capital. Saverin, with his east coast financial connections, is opposed to this, but Zuckerberg makes the move anyway. After a sneaky stock-dilution, Saverin realizes he’s being edged out, and regretfully decides to sue. Also going to court are two insufferably snotty Harvard twins, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (a computer-assisted Armie Hammer), who claim they had the idea for a networking site first, and that Zuckerberg stole it. (Says Zuckerberg: “A guy who builds a nice chair doesn’t owe money to everyone who ever built a chair.”)
Much of the back-and-forth on these legal issues plays out in wonderfully prickly deposition hearings. The Winklevoss suit seems dubious (although Zuckerberg eventually settled with the twins for $65-million); but Saverin has clearly been wronged, and he’s hurt. “I was your only friend,” he tells Zuckerberg. “Your one friend.” Amid the contending viewpoints, the movie is artful in never attempting to clarify who Zuckerberg really is: a scheming little snake, or simply a nerd-naïf caught by surprise on the cusp of his own revolution? At the end, the truth is still anyone’s guess.
The movie’s screenplay, by Aaron Sorkin, is a sleek weave of dense technical data and rich emotional interplay; and David Fincher—who managed to make information-overload so gripping in Zodiac—is the ideal director for it: He sweeps you up into this unexpectedly vibrant world. Sorkin’s most pungent lines are rocket flares illuminating the online-all-the-time culture we now inhabit. After Zuckerberg writes a drunken blog rant about Erica (Rooney Mara), the woman who dumped him, she upbraids him in a restaurant. “You wrote your snide shit from a dark room,” she says. “That’s what the angry do these days.”
Even more telling, in terms of the fundamental economic changes that digital media have wrought, is a passing confrontation between Saverin and Parker. Saverin, no fan of the older wiz-kid, pointedly notes that the big record companies were successful in their campaign to shut Napster down: “They won,” he says. “In court,” Parker replies, with the indulgent smirk of a new-breed mogul. “Do you wanna buy a Tower Records?”
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York. This column first appeared at Reason.com.