The real Facebook story

Larry Ribstein —  16 January 2011

I originally wrote about “The Social Network” before having seen it, led by a Gordon Crovitz WSJ story quoting a Larry Lessig TNR review into thinking that Zuckerberg was the villain, and concluding that this was just another movie, like so many others I’ve discussed, in which

Hollywood’s view of business is shaped by the resentment of the artists who make films of the capitalists who make money from their art.  So, Zuckerberg is the capitalist who succeeded by sheer luck or theft or just crawling over the backs of the people who had the ideas. 

I have now seen The Social Network and see I was wrong.  Zuckerberg is not the bad guy, it’s the twins.  Who could like these snooty caricatures of old Harvard privilege? We get all the commentary we need from Larry Summers, who derisively throws them out of his office when they come to complain about getting ripped off, and from Zuckerberg, who likens them to the chair designer who wants credit for the concept of the chair, and says they’re suing because for the first time things didn’t work out for them the way they were supposed to.  The film backs up Zuckerberg’s assessment by adding a whole scene in which they act like spoiled brats for losing a boat race. 

Zuckerberg may have in some sense stolen the twins’ idea, but the film makes clear that it’s better that he did.  And this fits with my artist-centered analysis of business films:  While artists need protection for their ideas, they also need these ideas to be protected from others’ less worthy proprietary claims.

To be sure, the film is complex. Zuckerberg is in some sense Sarnoff in screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s earlier play, The Farnsworth Invention, using the law and brute force to steal Philo Farnsworth’s idea for the television.  I noted in discussing the play, as in my initial post on the movie, that this was the usual film-artist-complaining-about-moneybags-ripping-off-their-ideas plot.  And Sorkin evidently has a reputation about being particularly prickly and proprietary about his ideas.

Add filmmakers’ sympathy with the socially responsible businessman I discuss in my article linked above: Zuckerberg doesn’t want ads messing up the purity of his product, just as Farnsworth was portrayed in The Farnsworth Invention as wanting to preserve television for the public while Sarnoff commercializes it.  Interestingly, in The Social Network, Sorkin plays an ad man whom Zuckerberg obviously disdains. (But it’s clear even in the film that Zuckerberg isn’t interested in society, but in how to build a billion-dollar business.)   

But what really matters is that both Sarnoff and Zuckerberg were sympathetic characters. In the film, the twins aren’t sympathetic at all, and Zuckerberg is left as the only possible protagonist.  The near-autistic Zuckerberg character does come across as an unlikely hero in a Hollywood movie.  But then there’s a precedent for this sort of movie hero.

This may not be what Sorkin intended.  He’s obviously more interested in getting a good story with snappy dialog.  The film concocts a fake story about Zuckerberg inventing Facebook to get a girl, or get in a club.  It ends with his continued fruitless pursuit of the girl, refreshing his screen to see if she’s noticed.  The lawyer at the mediation gives what’s supposed to be the final pronouncement on his character — that he’s not actually an asshole.  (Who cares?  And why should we care what a lawyer thinks?) The film doesn’t seem to get that he could really have been pursuing the obvious goal of creating a successful business.  Worst of all, the film has the usual movie take on heartless capitalists, including the way they helped ripped off Zuckerberg’s original business partner.

And I wish, as in my Farnsworth post, that the real story about business had come out. How critical it was to get funding, the key role of angel and venture capital, and even the boring role in the Facebook story of LLCs. Also, the roadblocks that the law throws up, including the twins’ continuing opportunistic litigation and Facebook’s having to find ways around regulatory costs of going public

But you can’t really expect that in a film, which needs to tell a story the audience likes and make some money.  The heartening thing about the film is that the real story of the importance of creativity to business and the social wealth business creates does come through.  The film, including its title, is basically about the product Zuckerberg created, and its success.  It also turns out to be about entrepreneurs as rebels fighting the established order.  Just as wealth and privilege couldn’t protect the twins, so established firms aren’t safe from a scruffy and socially awkward Jewish kid in a sweatshirt.  As long as this idea holds sway in our society we can’t be in such bad shape despite the best efforts of politicians and filmmakers.

I’d like to think that it was this story about the romance of the entrepreneur that made the movie so popular and that maybe Hollywood will get the hint.

Larry Ribstein

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Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law