It’s hard to go anywhere and not see, hear and read about Mark Zuckerberg right now. Last week and the week before, the Facebook founder and CEO was getting attention for giving away $100 million. This week he’s talking about two long-awaited Facebook features — a way to easily get your data out of Facebook and a better way to parse friends into subgroups. On Tuesday night, satirist Andy Borowitz wondered on the radio — only half in jest — if he should win a Nobel Prize in economics.
Sandwiched between all that, of course, is the reason for all this publicity: Hollywood has made an uncomfortably excellent movie about the company, and Facebook’s image makers want to ensure that partially fictional account doesn’t become the real way the world sees Facebook and its precocious leader.
They’re doing their job well. But having finally seen the movie myself — no free screening for me — I can tell you that they should stop worrying. I don’t know if Zuckerberg stole the idea behind Facebook from the Winklevosses. I don’t know if he cheated Eduardo Saverin. What I do know is that it doesn’t matter. They didn’t build the company, Zuckerberg did, and in Silicon Valley, at least, that’s all that matters.
Remember three years ago when Yahoo tried to buy Facebook for $1 billion and Zuckerberg said “No”? Remember four years ago when he launched “newsfeed” and again said, “No” when outraged users and a few employees told him to shut it down? Gutsy decisions like that are why Facebook and Zuckerberg are where they are today, not because of who had what idea first.
Most have forgotten, for example, that the Google guys were accused of having stolen the idea for Adwords — the targeted advertising model behind much of the company’s success. Yahoo ended up owning well north of 5 percent of Google because of that and other legal settlements. Has it changed Larry Page’s and Sergey Brin’s place as technology visionaries? Not a bit. The list of ideas Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have allegedly appropriated have filled chapters in books.
I’m sure Zuckerberg doesn’t like the way he is portrayed in the movie — as a friendless, overly ambitious geek — because it isn’t accurate. But so what? Zuckerberg long ago lost control over what the world thought of him. If you start the most important company of the new millennium and are worth $7 billion at 26, no one is going to believe how down-to-earth you are, even if it’s true.
To me, what’s important about The Social Network isn’t how it well it hews to the truth about Facebook or Zuckerberg. What’s important is that such a good movie about Silicon Valley got made at all. Silicon Valley has been changing the world for more than a generation. But Hollywood’s stance has been “Who wants to see a movie about geeks and nerds making things few can understand?” Directors and screenwriters love movies about Wall Street and the media. But movies like The Social Network that have the main character doing riffs about Apache servers, Linux boxes, and computer code? Not a chance.
This makes The Social Network more than just a movie about Facebook, it makes it the first movie about Silicon Valley. It means Facebook — not Google, Apple or Microsoft — gets credit for making Silicon Valley truly mainstream. Sure there was Pirates of Silicon Valley, the made-for-TV movie about Gates and Jobs a decade ago. But to me that doesn’t count. The financial risk associated with showing a movie on TV pales next to the risk of putting it in theaters and relying on people to shell out $11 to go see it.
Why Facebook? Why Now? The Social Network is a great story about the American Dream, but that’s been true for every super successful Silicon Valley startup. Is it because what people do on Facebook — talk to their friends, instead of to their machines — is something that has universal and visceral appeal? Is it because Facebook is just the newest incarnation of what Google and Apple are doing just as well — creating 21st-century television networks and turning Silicon Valley into a new media epicenter? Just last week I heard Google CEO Eric Schmidt ask, “Why watch TV when you can watch the internet?”
I don’t know the answer yet. What I do know is that it took more than 20 years before anyone in Hollywood remotely cared about how Microsoft and Apple were changing the world. Google is 12 and there is no movie about it yet. Facebook is not yet seven and a movie about it and Zuckerberg is likely to be one of the blockbusters of the year. Mark my words: It will do so much good for the company and Zuckerberg that a year from now they’ll be wondering about a sequel.
Fred Vogelstein is writing a book about the intersection of media and tech in Silicon Valley. Follow him on Twitter @fvogelstein. And don’t forget to follow @crisizeppi