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<i>The Social Network</i> and the Real Social Network

Facebook can command everyone's attention, without ever really being vulnerable to disappointing people's expectations around the brand as Yahoo! and AOL before it managed to do.
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The Social Network is a work of inconsistently accurate but hugely compelling filmmaking. It is a rare highbrow popcorn flick, filled with obviously overly-literate college kids and the brooding air of espionage and urgency. It is best to assume that the storyline progresses somewhat linearly along a basic trail of real events, but also to remember that the details and many of the facts as presented represent only one possible perspective and are airbrushed neatly for Hollywood.

But Tinsletown rarely tosses a salad with ingredients as fresh as this one. The cast is impeccably selected despite the fact that people who know the real life players acknowledge that none of them are quite as cool as their sharply rehearsed impersonators. The script is predictably Sorkinian, with rapid fire dialogue batted around like Olympic ping pong balls, rarely stopping, and never allowing for any of the characters to have any of the inevitable lapses in eloquence that plague most humans. There is not a misplaced word, nor a lazy sentence anywhere. The cinematography is crisply dark, accentuating the relentless 24/7 sprint the company has been on from the very beginning.

But of the many remarkable things about this film, for me the most important and likely most to be overlooked, is the incredible Trent Rezner score. From the first moment, there is a kind of relentless buzzing, darkly compelling, and occasionally cloying music that creates a rich texture and intensity. This is created, I assume, to emulate the ceaseless grinding mechanics of Zuckerberg's mind and the frenetic sense of urgency that drove this kid to become both richer and potentially more influential than even the mighty Steve Jobs, in just six years' time.

The filmmakers argue vehemently that "Zuck" should be seen as a hero or at least as an anti-hero, but for those less familiar with the mythology, his on screen presence often veers to the side of villainy. For example, the film does a lovely job of highlighting Zuckerberg's inability to be genuinely happy for anyone else. After the first three or four times it starts to feel a bit heavy handed. But in Jesse Eisenberg's ever capable and always lovable hands (a bit of a reprise of his Adventureland role), the character seems at times softer and more impressionable than the real Zuckerberg. What is most important to take from this portrayal is that he is very, very smart. Perhaps you are to ask yourself throughout whether he might even be among that elite class of geniuses, with Gates, Jobs, and Bezos, who all possess a miraculous intuition about how people want to interact with technology. It is this odd juxtaposition of social awkwardness mixed with clairvoyant human insight that propels the film, the company, and Zuckerberg himself.

But the star who seems most destined for Oscar greatness, who has brief but red hot appearances as wunderkind Sean Parker, is Justin Timberlake. He glides through his lines on a charmed frictionless wave. Like the Napster and Plaxo founder he plays, he seems in both real life and in the film to have been the only person capable of getting under the young Zuckerberg's skin. But again this is a film, and the details around his arrival, influence and dismissal are designed to move the plot, not clarify the uncertain.

Perhaps not though. In many ways you should consider consider Facebook much like a significantly evolved version of email. For most people, email is a somewhat arbitrarily selected communication tool. Users of Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, Gmail, and Outlook have long since lost the passion for the brand associated with the tool. The only thing keeping most people from changing services more frequently is the high switching cost associated with migrating contacts, and that unique findable address that helps keep people tethered to each other even after years apart. Facebook both solves these problems and does so without any of the competitors that email faces. Bebo, MySpace, Hi5, Orkut, Friendster, are all but relics of another era. But for many, it is this platform sterility that deprives users of the emotional zeal that people used to feel for properties like AOL and still do for things like XBOX Live.

Herein lies much of the genius of Zuckerberg, whose "outsider-ness" and public persona compelled him early on to put his own name on the homepage of the site. The cool kids would never do this, but then again they never succeed like this either, just ask the Winklevoss twins. This detachment can be viewed as part of the reason for Facebook's success. The closeness the site creates actually significantly decreases the need for physical human interaction. It keeps people superficially close but increasingly robotic and, if efficient, distant. Just peruse your News Feed and try to locate genuinely well written sentences, not littered with clichés or banality, or merely introducing a link to someone else's words. Facebook can command everyone's attention, without ever really being vulnerable to disappointing people's expectations around the brand as Yahoo! and AOL before it managed to do. The slippery slope they faced will and has always been greased by data and privacy issues. I am going to assume that, unlike its predecessors, Facebook will continue to make mistakes but unlike them, course correct quickly in the future as it has done in the past. Facebook is a platform. For Mark perhaps the movie wants us to believe it is easier to be a platform than a person. You can hide behind a screen and just facilitate.

For those who enter the theater with only a fractional amount of the backstory and baggage that I had, it is probably most important to try to imagine the person behind the caricature on the screen. What is most remarkable and laudable about Mark Zuckerberg can be seen in a short history littered with almost inhuman will power. In 2002 legend has it, he turned down $30M from Google, which would today be worth a billion. Years later, he more publically walked away from $1B from Yahoo! at a time when world domination was much less inevitable. Clearly this voyage was and still is not at all about money. It is about maintaining the purity of your own vision, the belief in your own understanding of the future, and the embracing of the courage of your conviction. Facebook sits at the epicenter of the war for human attention. It is a battle being fought by advertisers, film studios, television networks, game makers, magazine and book publishers, the music business, and a whole host of others who are vying for your time. This war is brutal, vicious, and every bit as cutthroat as Wall Street. People forget that Sand Hill Road, despite its bucolic and peaceful exteriors, is as competitive as any trading floor. And so, the man at the center of the film and the company had to play the game just as effectively and unemotionally as any corporate raider or CEO fighting on the front line. Sure there were casualties, but if by being awarded a billion dollars or even $65M is what being a victim here means, all the victims need to acknowledge that without Zuckerberg, Facebook could just as easily have been Friendster.

Countless volumes have already been written about both the film and the company on which it is based. But when you live in the Bay Area and work in the internet business it is important to try to keep in mind that the current local infatuation is not necessarily indicative of a global preoccupation, which might explain why the film may not make as much money as it should. Fresh off an impressive $46M 10-day opening run, the film has garnered uniformly great reviews, and seems a lock for Oscars of all shapes and sizes. But quick and conservative math indicates that the film should gross $300M globally by merely selling a $10 ticket to 6 percent of Facebook's active user base. But with 500M people spending a very conservative few hours a month on the site, and the average user more like an hour a day, you would think 25 percent of its users would feel inclined to hear the story behind the company that now sits at the center of their lives.

The Social Network is a much hyped and over analyzed, but entertaining and educational in an Oliver Stone kind of way. The war for attention is now hotter than ever. Twitter is now officially open for business. Hulu seems destined for an IPO in the near future. Zynga, well, lots of people play lots of silly games and spend way more money on virtual stuff than anyone would have imagined three years ago. But Facebook, that dorm room epiphany, seems a shiny, immovable object, somewhat immune to faddishness, driven by a visionary whose many faults seem to have been the distinct recipe for realizing the future and creating a product for it.

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