Freaks & Geeks: The Social Network

mark-zuckerberg-facebook-naked-cropped-150x150 (1) You may have been too busy having a life this weekend to notice but, the number one movie in the nation right now is the tale of an uber-nerd.

The Social Network, David Fincher’s much-hyped film about the origins of Facebook, hit theaters this weekend to rave reviews (though if you spend most of your waking hours on the InterWebs you might think otherwise). It’s already raked in $23 million at the box office, or about the amount Mark Zuckerberg’s personal wealth has grown in the last hour.

Full Disclosure: I too saw The Social Network this weekend (it’s my yob, mang) and I liked it. I give it a solid thumbs up for making the process of starting up an Internet leviathan– and getting your assets sued in the process — a lot sexier than it probably really is.

The Social Network is clearly a highly fictionalized treatment of Facebook’s origins, and in a weird way it makes me feel sorry for Mark Zuckerberg, something I didn’t think was possible. Yes, he is portrayed as a supreme anus (am I giving too much away here?) but it’s almost like he can’t help it — the same disease that makes him brilliant also makes him socially pathetic.

And, in case you’re wondering — plot spoiler alert — Zuckerberg did create Facebook primarily to meet chicks. Aside from one scene that takes place in the bathroom stall at a frat party, it’s not entirely clear that strategy worked. (Yes, I know in real life he has a fiance, but I’m talking about the movie here.)

Interestingly, what people think of the film depends a lot on how old they are, says the New York Times’ David Carr. He writes:

Many older people will watch the movie… and see a cautionary tale about a callous young man who betrays friends, partners and principles as he hacks his way to lucre and fame. But many in the generation who grew up in a world that Mr. Zuckerberg helped invent will applaud someone who saw his chance and seized it with both hands, mostly by placing them on the keyboard and coding something that no one else had.

Count me in among the old coots. And could you please hand me my cane? I have to go to the bathroom (again).

And though Roger Ebert calls it "splendidly well made" and Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers names it "movie of the year," it’s not all roses and chocolates from those who carry more sympathy for Facebook and its founder.

Jose Antonio Vargas, who wrote a puff piece about Zuckerberg for The New Yorker last month, slams the movie in The Huffington Post for making Zucky look like a developmentally challenged one-dimensional freak.

…it’s a movie that, at its core, stands on one glaring false premise: Zuckerberg as a flat-eyed, borderline autistic, humorless guy, a consummate outsider who wanted badly to get into one of Harvard’s "final" clubs, his considerable coding skills reduced to social awkwardness… Zuckerberg is presented as an alien from a faraway computer programming space, instead of a leading member of an entrepreneurial generation who’s grown up with the Internet and now tops Vanity Fair‘s ranking of the New Establishment, ahead of Steve Jobs, the Google guys and Rupert Murdoch.

I’m sure the Mark Z. one encounters in real life is more human and likeable than the one portrayed on screen by Jesse Eisenberg. On the other hand, I’ve watched video interviews with the man, and Cary Grant he ain’t. No normal human not wrapped in wool blankets inside a Native American sweat lodge perspires as much as Zucky did on stage at D8 last June.

Even when he’s attempting to convince the world he means well — as in his Washington Post op-ed defending Facebook’s changes to its privacy policies last May, which surely was massaged to a Kobe beef-like tenderness pre-publication by Facebook’s team of PR lackeys — he comes off as snotty and condescending.

BuzzMachine bloviator Jeff Jarvis takes the film as a personal insult against the culture of the InterWebs (then again, that’s pretty much how he takes everything):

The Social Network is the anti-geek movie. It is the story that those who resist the change society is undergoing want to see. It says the internet is not a revolution but only the creation of a few odd, machine-men, the boys we didn’t like in college. The Social Network is the revenge on the revenge of the nerds.

Except that the film doesn’t condemn the Internet or even Facebook — it just makes Zuckerberg (and his digitally-hip wingman/mentor Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake) look like tools. Given what we know about what did happen with the origins of Facebook — the non Hollywood version — I think that’s probably a fair assessment. Nobody gets that rich and powerful by being a nice guy, or a nice geek. 

Are you planning to see The Social Network? And if you already have, what did you think? Post your reviews below or email me:

This post appeared in slightly different form at InfoWorld.

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