Facebook and "The Social Network"

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 12:50 PM EDT

 You've probably seen this trailer for "The Social Network," a fictionalized account of the founding of Facebook:

It's hard to take the film entirely seriously. But the New York Times reports that Facebook is worried:

After fretting for months over how to respond, the company appears to have decided that its best bet is to largely ignore the movie and hope that audiences do the same — that "The Social Network" will be another failed attempt to bottle a generation, like "Less Than Zero," and not culturally defining, as it aspires to be, in the way of "Wall Street" or "The Big Chill."

Behind the scenes, however, Mr. Zuckerberg and his colleagues have been locked in a tense standoff with the filmmakers, who portray Facebook as founded on a series of betrayals, then fueled by the unappeasable craving of almost everyone for "friends" — the Facebook term for those who connect on its online pages — that they will never really have.

Mr. Zuckerberg, at 26 a billionaire, and his associates are wary of damage from a picture whose story begins with the intimacy of a date night at Harvard seven years ago and depicts the birth of a Web phenomenon in his dorm room.

By his account, and that of many others, much in the film is simply not true. It is based on a fictionalized book once described by its publicist not as "reportage" but as "big juicy fun."

If "The Social Network" is a stinker and bombs at the box office, Facebook's strategy might work. But it's going to be a lot harder to ignore the film if it is critically—or even just commercially—successful. David Fincher (the director) and Aaron Sorkin (the screenwriter) have certainly made good movies before, and the film is being "rushed into awards contention," the Times reports. The world has changed a lot since the advent of the Internet, but Hollywood still wields vast cultural authority. A well-reviewed, blockbuster movie about Facebook will affect how people see the company, whether it's fictionalized or not. Facebook should be considering that possibility and deciding what to do if "The Social Network" clicks with people. If that happens, the company will have a clear choice: embrace the film or push back—hard. 

One factor that will certainly affect Facebook's decision-making is the film's depiction of its central character, company founder Zuckerberg. I'm curious to see how audiences will respond to fresh-faced Zuckerberg doppelganger Jesse Eisenberg in the lead role. It's hard to know where Sorkin will go with the character. Will Eisenberg's Zuckerberg ultimately prove flawed yet sympathetic? Even if Zuckerberg ends up a through-and-through villain, it's going to be hard to feel too sorry for him. Zuckerberg is a public figure, and the price of fame (and billions of dollars) is steep.

In the end, it's hard to blame Hollywood for being Hollywood. It shouldn't be a surprise that they're making a movie about one of the most interesting companies in the world. And attacking "The Social Network" for being fictionalized is missing the point. "The West Wing" was fiction, too—but it rang true. If Aaron Sorkin can give us a mini "West Wing" in Cambridge, set to the tune of the Internet revolution, it'll be worth the price of Zuckerberg's hurt feelings.