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Face to Face

"The Social Network" straddles the line between fact and fiction

Two artists shape the story of Mark E. Zuckerberg's rise to fame.
Two artists shape the story of Mark E. Zuckerberg's rise to fame.
By Matthew C. Stone, Crimson Staff Writer

“Who are you gonna send it to?”

“Just a couple of people. The question is, who are they gonna send it to?”

Thus begins a scene from the upcoming film “The Social Network,” which tells the story of the founding of Facebook, the now-ubiquitous social networking service, at Harvard in 2004. The scene in question involves a young Mark E. Zuckerberg, formerly of the class of 2006, and his friend Eduardo L. Saverin ’05. The two have just created Facemash.com—a hot-or-not rating website that offered Harvard students the opportunity to rank their peers by attractiveness—and sent out a link to some friends. After a rapid-fire montage of students gleefully ranking their friends and roommates, the Harvard network crashes from the amount of traffic it has generated.

“Unless this is a coincidence, I think this is us,” says Saverin.

“It’s not a coincidence,” Zuckerberg replies bluntly.

Following the short-lived Facemash, Zuckerberg’s next creation was a site all too familiar to us now—Facebook.com. Soon after launching the site from Kirkland House in February 2004, Zuckerberg took a leave of absence—from which he would never return—in order to work on the site. Months later, he was engaged in a federal copyright lawsuit. Cameron S.H. Winklevoss ’04, Tyler O.H. Winklevoss ’04, and Divya K. Narendra ’04 had founded a site called Harvard Connection (later to become ConnectU), and claimed that Zuckerberg had stolen the idea from them. Later, he was also sued by co-founder Saverin, who felt unfairly shut out of the company.

Unsurprisingly, Zuckerberg’s story turns out to be rich dramatic material. In a digital culture with a ravenous appetite for stories, this drama has already been taken, adapted, interpreted and rewritten at an alarming rate. Just as quickly as Facebook took off—it has garnered 500 million users in less than seven years of existence—so has its saga rapidly been subsumed into public discourse, inspiring several books and now a film. Last year, author Benjamin A. Mezrich ’91—a former Crimson cartoonist—published his own account of the events in a book entitled “The Accidental Billionaires.” Weeks after Mezrich had begun this project, his book proposal caught the eye of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, creator of “The West Wing”. Sorkin, along with filmmaker David L. Fincher (“Fight Club,” “Zodiac”), has just completed  work on “The Social Network,” a film that will share Facebook’s story with a national audience on October 1.

The upcoming premiere of “The Social Network” raises vital questions of the line between fiction and non-fiction. The book and the movie reveal a vast multiplicity of perspectives on the controversies surrounding the creation of Facebook. Mezrich and Sorkin insist that their works are non-fiction, despite Zuckerberg’s persistent refusal to provide his own first-hand account of the events. Likewise, despite Sorkin’s meticulous attention to detail, a Harvard audience might recognize that the film’s creators have taken certain liberties in its portrayal of campus life. Thus while Zuckerberg has been partial to the creation of a culture that usurps and corrupts stories beyond recognition, he himself is subject to the same kind of transformative forces.

“NOT ONE TRUE STORY”

“I consider the book entirely non-fiction,” Mezrich says. “The Accidental Billionaires” is a self-proclaimed “dramatic, narrative account based on dozens of interviews, hundreds of sources, and thousands of pages of documents.” The author accrued as many first-hand accounts as possible and undertook field research in and around Harvard campus. While his research was exhaustive, Mezrich’s method of writing non-fiction is decidedly non-traditional. He has attempted to reconstruct the Facebook story as a thrilling chronicle of true events embellished with literary elements like composed dialogue and figurative language.

Mezrich openly acknowledges that his mission is not wholly straightforward: he found himself challenged to construct a coherent story from conflicting perspectives. “We’re talking about something that happened a number of years ago. We’re talking about people who have vastly different memories of what happened during [a given] scene,” Mezrich says. “There are multiple ways to write that scene… For me, I’m describing the scene as I believe it looked based on the research.”

Though written in an omniscent third-person voice, much of the book specifically reflects the perspective of Saverin, Mezrich’s primary interview subject. “Eduardo I found a very compelling character,” he says. The author identified with the malcontent; “he’s a bit of a beaten-down puppy,” Mezrich says. Saverin’s openness gave him a privileged position in “The Accidental Billionaires;” “He’s kind of the main character of the book,” Mezrich says. Conversely, Zuckerberg’s reticence limited his own voice in the narrative. “I really tried not to write in Mark’s voice as much because it wouldn’t be fair to him,” the author says.

However, the absence of Zuckerberg’s perspective leads to a character that feels almost inhuman in comparison to the others. One of the final chapters of the book declares that, “Now, we can surmise, Facebook was the only true love of Mark’s world—the computer, that glowing screen in front of his face… Mark wouldn’t let anything, or anyone stand in the way of Facebook.”

Mezrich’s writing has been met with heavy criticism in the past. “I get attacked a lot by… old-world journalists,” he says. Literary critic Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote in her review of the book, “‘The Accidental Billionaires’ is so obviously dramatized, so clearly unreliable that there’s no mistaking it for a serious document.”

Mezrich unapologetically admits that he writes with cinematic flair. “I get really, really bored by non-fiction,” he says. “I want to live vicariously through my stories. For me, I want to entertain and be entertained myself. I think it’s a very good way to tell a story.” Ultimately, though, he stands by his work, pointing out that there is a substantial amount of gray area surrounding the Facebook saga. “There’s really not one true story,” he says.

DOWN TO THE LAST DROP

Mezrich’s dramatic writing style may be one of the reasons his 14-page book proposal captured Sorkin’s attention. Before Mezrich even began serious work on the book, his publisher circulated the proposal around Hollywood, where it quickly caught Sorkin’s eye. “When I was on page three, I said ‘yes’,” Sorkin says. “It’s the fastest I’ve ever said ‘yes’ to anything.”

The following months saw the two writers working concurrently on the their respective projects, composing two similar but essentially distinct stories. “Ben and I began at the same time. We were working separately but along parallel paths of research and then writing,” says Sorkin.

Sorkin insists on the veracity of his work: “Attention to truth and attention to detail were incredibly important to us,” he says. “When the truth was absolute and the truth was known, we gave you the truth.” In the scene where Zuckerberg creates Facemash, Sorkin adds, Zuckerberg is drinking Beck’s beer—the brand confirmed as the actual brand of beer he drank that night. Sorkin stresses how important their inquiries were, noting the exhaustive amount of research it takes to recreate such minutiae.  “The fact that we know what kind of beer he was drinking on a Tuesday night in October seven years ago when there were only three other people in the room should tell you something about how close our... research sources were to the subject in the event,” says Sorkin.

Sorkin is also careful to point out that disputed claims do not detract from the movie’s status of as a work of non-fiction. “It’s absolutely non-fiction,” he says. “There were two lawsuits filed against Facebook at roughly the same time… What emerged were three very different versions of the story. Instead of picking one and deciding that’s the truth, I liked that there were three different versions of the truth. It is non-fiction about facts that are in dispute… The movie doesn’t take a position on what the truth is.”

While the Sorkin’s script largely follows the trajectory of Mezrich’s book, Sorkin seems to have taken a much stronger interest in Zuckerberg. The product is a much more sympathetic approach to Zuckerberg’s character. “I can’t write characters that are built out of one-dimensional evil,” he says. “I have to like the character and be able to empathize and identify with the character.”

To this end, Sorkin’s take on Zuckerberg is not that of a man singularly obsessed with Facebook, but that of a deeply flawed antihero who acts out of insecurity rather than greed. Sorkin praises actor Jesse A. Eisenberg for his portrayal of Zuckerberg. “[He] never judges the character, never comments on the character, and never asks the audience to like him,” Sorkin says. “So that’s an incredibly courageous performance.”

CHARACTER SHOES

“I really tried to kind of understand who the real person was to help me prepare for the character.” Eisenberg’s words read as an understatement when one considers the pains he went through to emulate Zuckerberg effectively on camera. According to Eisenberg, his preparation for the role involved extensive research of Zuckerberg’s mannerisms and speech through pictures, videos, audio, and interviews he found. Eisenberg also took fencing lessons because Zuckerberg had been a fencer in high school—“I wanted to emulate that posture,” Eisenberg says. He even obtained Zuckerberg’s application to Harvard.

“Aaron Sorkin’s characterization of Mark was thorough and rich and nuanced in every way you want a character to be,” Eisenberg says. He adds that he felt a sense of sympathy toward the character of Zuckerberg. “I can only view him sympathetically because that’s what I was hired to do,” said Eisenberg, “I spent six months, 14 hours a day in his shoes.”

Armand D. Hammer, who played the Winklevoss twins in the film, expressed similar sentiments about Sorkin’s characterizations. “There’s not really a villain in this film. There are occasional moments when each character becomes an anti-hero… Each character has that sort of relatable sense of being a real person in a real situation.”

Thus the cast of the film engaged in a great deal of deeply personal work to portray their real characters authentically. However, both Hammer and Eisenberg seemed hesitant to judge how truthful or how dramatized the overall product was. They cite Sorkin’s script as their primary point of reference while building performances, and seem reluctant to comment on how dramatized or factual the events of the movie actually are. When asked about such issues, Eisenberg replied matter-of-factly, “I’m happy to not have to account for that.”

VERITAS ET VANITAS

While certain aspects of the film have raised questions of factuality—be it the characters, plot, or overall tone—there is no question that “The Social Network” recreates the environment of Harvard in a stunningly accurate and excruciatingly detailed manner. The film is peppered with minute, but meticulously-crafted details that may only be appreciated by a Harvard audience.

The script is replete with Harvardisms—at one point, Mark Zuckerberg abruptly corrects his girlfriend when she mistakenly refers to the Phoenix S.K. Club as a ‘finals club’ instead of a ‘final club.’ The production design also does a remarkable job of recreating Harvard with excruciating accuracy—from editing the tower of Memorial Church into scenes shot at Johns Hopkins University, right down to the regulation “DO NOT USE FIREPLACE” sticker on Zuckerberg’s mantle, “The Social Network” spares nothing in its pursuit of recreating Harvard with total precision.

While most of these details had to be entirely re-created in studios, select scenes were in fact shot in Harvard Square. The film includes an establishing shot panning over the Pit, as well as several exterior shots of the Spee Club, a stand-in for the Phoenix Club in the film. According to Mark S. Hruby ’78, a Spee graduate member who helped arrange the shoot, the primary reason the production sought to film there was because its corner location allowed for more dynamic shots, and because the production staff felt it would best establish what a final club was.

Isabel Q. Carey ’12, hired as an extra for the shots in Harvard Square, characterized her filming experience as an exhausting one. Carey—who learned of the casting opportunity through another Harvard undergraduate—was one of roughly 10 Harvard students hired to be extras in the film. As many people involved with the film emphasized, David Fincher is a perfectionist on the set, and is known for filming shots a remarkable number of times—according to Eisenberg, the opening scene of the movie was shot ninety-nine times, and Carey says she had a fourteen-hour day just doing extra work in a few shots. She does not feel that her presence as an actual Harvard student added anything to the film, characterizing her role in the shots as relatively mundane. “The work of an extra in this particular film was to walk from one location to the other,” she says.

Eisenberg, however, spoke highly of Fincher’s rigor during the filming process, and greatly appreciated the experience of shooting in Harvard Square. “It absolutely added something to the film,” he said, “I was disappointed that we weren’t able to film more at Harvard.” Eisenberg particularly found his experience of the atmosphere and culture of Harvard to be informative as an actor. However, such authenticity in recreating the environment of Harvard does not necessarily ensure that Harvard was depicted with complete verisimilitude in the final product.

INSIDE OUT

Given its carefully crafted portrayal of campus culture, Harvard students may view “The Social Network” with more scrutiny than the general public. Students had their first chance to see the film at an advance screening on September 22 at the Harvard Film Archive. Sorkin, Eisenberg, and Hammer were all in attendance and spoke briefly about the film at the event.

Benjamin J. Nelson ’11, a self-described “film buff,” was highly complimentary of the film on the whole. “The screenplay is well crafted, approachable, funny,” he says. “I thoroughly enjoyed it.” In spite of all the Harvard-specific information presented in the film, Nelson thought that a public audience would be able to fully appreciate the film. However, he expressed doubts that the average moviegoer would be able to distinguish fact and dramatization.

“I think they’ll be able to give themselves over to the conceit that’s presented in the movie a little more than we are,” Nelson says. He specifically referenced one scene in the film depicting a party at the Phoenix, where a bus full of women arrive at the club’s front door. They join an extravagant party replete with partial nudity and designer drugs. “I think if I had no idea, I would totally buy that the Phoenix does bring in buses of extremely attractive girls,” Nelson says. “I’d believe that if I weren’t a Harvard student.”

Nevertheless, Nelson thought the movie generally captured the feeling and atmosphere of Harvard accurately. “It got a lot of the basics right… Some things are taken a little bit too extreme, but not in a way that was blatantly unrealistic.” He also appreciated the authenticity of seeing familiar Harvard Square locales in the film: “Those places wound up having a bit more of a realistic feeling.”

Nelson’s concerns about the film lead back to an interesting set of questions about the boundary between fiction and non-fiction. The story of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook, and its origins is one that is still evolving every day. It’s a story that has reached remarkable heights of cultural prominence in a remarkably short amount of time. Multiple versions of this story have already been told at this point. “The Social Network” will be yet another. For Sorkin, it isn’t necessarily definitive: “We want those kinds of arguments—what’s true, what’s not, who’s good, who’s bad… We want those arguments to happen in the parking lot.”

—Staff writer Matthew C. Stone can be reached at mcstone@fas.harvard.edu.

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