Think the Facebook Movie Ruins Mark Zuckerberg’s Reputation? Consider This

Mark Zuckerberg is the Dr. House of social media

Posted Oct 24, 2010

I was riveted by the Facebook movie, The Social Network. I didn't read much about it before I saw it. My custom is to read as little as possible beforehand, watch the movie and form my own opinion, then read lots of reviews.

The review in the Los Angeles Times captured much of the apparent consensus about the movie, including the characterizations of Mark Zuckerberg as "extremely unlikable," "self-absorbed and arrogant," and "socially maladroit" (and, it had to be acknowledged, "fearsomely smart").

Around the time that review was published, The Social Network was about to open at the New York Film Festival and Zuckerberg had donated $100 million to schools in Newark, NJ. The LA Times reviewer surmised that Zuckerberg was "probably worried that with all his billions he may forever be a prisoner of the film's uncharitable portrayal."

It is true that there was a lot not to like about Zuckerberg, based on the portrayal in the movie. His treatment of women in the despicable Facemash, for instance. The way he uses other people. Whatever else you want to add.

But think about it. What other character do you know of who is searingly brilliant, stunningly engaging in his rat-a-tat-tat conversational wizardly, totally and even smugly tactless and rude - and still adored? People want to be with him, they want to work with him, they can't get enough of him. Some even like him, personally, as a friend.

Do you know yet who I'm talking about? Here's another hint: He's not a real person, he just plays one on TV.

It's House, as in Dr. House.

I concede that the comparison of Zuckerberg to a make-believe person may be a stretch, but think about it anyway. Did you revel at Zuckerberg's intensity, passion, and joy in working so devotedly on one thing and being so stunningly good at it?

Remember those moments in the movie when Zuckerberg is struck with a bolt of insight and walks away from a conversation in mid-sentence? You've also seen that on House. It is a dramatic technique that makes insight exciting. What is created in those memorable moments is a connection. It's not a social connection but a mental one. Being smart is invigorating and fun.

If you come to this blog regularly and do not turn away even when I am telling you about studies from professional journals, admit it - you like to think! You're probably really smart. Isn't it refreshing, at a moment in American culture when cluelessness seems too often to be celebrated and rewarded, to find an elegantly crafted work of art in which smarts, skills, knowledge, and dedication to problem solving are what shines?

You know who struck me as pathetic in the movie (and granted, maybe they are not so in real life)? The twins. You say Zuckerberg was arrogant? I say the twins were, too, but in a different way. To me, part of the dramatic tension in The Social Network was the pitting of the arrogance of achievement against the arrogance of inheritance. I have nothing against inheritance, but I know which one I find more inspiring.

As we were leaving the movie, my friend - who does read reviews in advance - said that she thought the portrayal of Zuckerberg was unfair. The movie begins in the fall of 2003. According to a recent profile in the New Yorker, Zuckerberg has been involved with the same woman (with just one brief interruption) since 2003. The two of them spend most weekends together and travel together. So in a matrimaniacal culture - one in which couples get especially fawning treatment in movies - why was this real storyline buried? Could it be that if a character (even a real one) is depicted as "extremely unlikable," "self-absorbed and arrogant" and "socially maladroit," then that character can only be shown as uncoupled? As single and pining. Single and sitting in front of his computer, thinking not about his incredible successes and the work that he so clearly finds engrossing, but hitting refresh again and again, hoping he'll be friended by the ex who dumped him.

[Note. If you are interested, check out my new little book, The Hows and Whys of Lies. You can find an overview, table of contents, and some excerpts here.]