In 2017, Mark Zuckerberg returned to Harvard for a victory lap that most people can only dream of. Twelve years after the Facebook CEO dropped out of school to run what would become the largest online social network in the world, the elite Ivy League would give him an honorary degree. Facebook celebrated the event as an opportunity to showcase the company’s history and display a more personal side of its CEO, organizing a few public broadcasts ahead of the speech. One of those included a visit to Kirkland House H33, the room where it all started.
“This is the first time that we’ve been back in this dorm since I left,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook Live video that he was filming from his smartphone. With his college sweetheart Priscilla Chan in tow, he directed viewers toward his old desk, and the rooms where his Facebook cofounders (and then-roommates) Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes worked and slept. After some reminiscing about tiny bed sizes and dining hall cuisine, he addressed an incident that has, over the span of the past decade, become millennial folklore.
“One weekend I wanted to build this prank website, FaceMash,” he said with his signature indecipherable smile. “I basically sat here for, like, three days straight, and just coded this thing. And it was a prank. It was kind of funny but also a little bit in poor taste.” He summarized how it spread quickly, froze his laptop, and caused Harvard officials to turn off the entire dorm’s internet connection. “That was probably one of my more memorable moments from Kirkland House, just sitting here, and, like, I’m trying to fix this, Dustin’s trying to do his computer-science problem set, Chris is trying to write some paper for social studies or whatever he’s studying, and all the sudden the internet goes dark.”
Live from my old dorm room at Harvard.
Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday, May 23, 2017
As Zuckerberg tells it, the story of FaceMash was nothing more than an innocent college gag that ended in a night of forced unproductivity. But chances are, most people watching that day remember it differently, as the riveting sequence of events at the start of a major Hollywood blockbuster called The Social Network. After conquering the business world, Zuckerberg had finally earned the approval of the elite institution he’d once antagonized. But sitting at his old dorm room desk years later, it seemed his one remaining challenge was to reclaim his past.
In the decade since The Social Network’s release, Facebook has become so omnipresent and unregulated that no misstep—whether related to privacy, anti-trust laws, geopolitics, or genocide—has managed to etch away at its dominance. Because Zuckerberg holds control of somewhere around 60 percent of Facebook’s voting shares, he alone can determine what people see when they log on to Facebook and Instagram, what privacy settings they have access to, and the difference between violent and incendiary speech. As Chris Hughes, that same cofounder he roomed with back at Harvard, wrote in a 2019 New York Times op-ed, “Mark’s influence is staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government.”
In tandem with that growing influence, Zuckerberg’s public persona is now so heavily managed that you’d have a better time deciphering the feelings of the AI assistant he once built to run his house than determining what he’s really thinking. Maybe that’s why Aaron Sorkin’s version of the ambitious boy hacker still clings to the public’s imagination. The more Zuckerberg has been shrouded in corporate armor, the more people have turned to his silver-screen depiction for clues.
How exactly did a Hollywood film beat the most powerful unelected man in America at telling his own origin story? It all begins with an enterprising science-fiction writer with a penchant for, uh, literary embellishment.
Before Ben Mezrich signed what was reportedly a million-dollar-plus book deal to write The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal, his reporting credentials had been dragged through the mud. His previous book, about a troupe of MIT students who used advanced blackjack techniques to win millions of dollars in Vegas, was the first “true” story he’d ever written, and it showed. Not long after his book Bringing Down the House came out in 2002, its main characters debunked its most lurid details: They did not collaborate with strippers to cash their chips, the underground Chinatown casino where they supposedly practiced didn’t exist, and a private detective with “narrow ice-blue eyes” never beat them up in a casino bathroom. Still, those flourishes helped Mezrich more than they hurt him. The book sold over 1 million copies, and eventually became a Kevin Spacey–produced heist film called 21.
With Accidental Billionaires, it was more of the same. The book’s first cover advertised a tale of college debauchery with a slinky red bra and broken martini glass. Its narrative goes like this: Zuckerberg is a dorky nobody who, like everyone else at Harvard, is determined to join one of the school’s elite social clubs. (Mezrich, a Harvard graduate himself, emphasizes in vivid, knowing detail just how important this kind of membership is to meeting women and getting laid.) Scorned by a mystery woman one evening, Zuckerberg gets drunk in his dorm room and revenge-codes a campus-specific Hot or Not site.
That part, at least, was a real-life incident that was documented in the LiveJournal updates Zuckerberg used to narrate his creation of the burgeoning social media tool: “Jessica A— is a bitch,” he wrote. “I need to think of something to take my mind off her. I need to think of something to occupy my mind. Easy enough, now I just need an idea.” Another entry: “I’m a little intoxicated, not gonna lie. So what if it’s not even 10 p.m. and it’s a Tuesday night? What? The Kirkland facebook is open on my desktop and some of these people have pretty horrendous facebook pics. I almost want to put some of these faces next to pictures of farm animals and have people vote on which is more attractive.” Later: “Yea, it’s on. I’m not exactly sure how the farm animals are going to fit into this whole thing (you can’t really ever be sure with farm animals . . .), but I like the idea of comparing two people together.”
FaceMash goes viral and inspires Zuckerberg to make something bigger. Meanwhile, two pedigreed rowers named Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss ask him to help with their own campus social network. He leads them on, while partnering with his best friend, Eduardo Saverin, to create a fast-growing competing product. Eventually, Sean Parker, the cofounder of Napster, swoops in whispering sweet nothings of VC funding in Zuckerberg’s ear. The two hatch a scheme to push Saverin out of the company. (Parker’s affinity for women and parties, meanwhile, seals his fate.) Zuckerberg emerges alone atop the fastest growing social network in the world.
A year before the book came out, speculation about its sourcing was rampant. Gawker leaked Mezrich’s initial proposal, noting that the story leaned heavily on Saverin’s account and that “many facts seem off.” In particular, the blog questioned a bizarre scene in which one of the founders of Sun Microsystems invites Zuckerberg to eat koala on his yacht. When The New York Times later obtained an early galley, it highlighted other “possible fabrications,” including a moment where Zuckerberg leaves a San Francisco party with a Victoria’s Secret model. (At that point, Zuckerberg was already dating his now-wife, Chan.) When the Times reached out to the book’s publisher, a publicist shrugged off concerns of veracity, saying: “This is not reportage. It is big, juicy fun.”
Even with Gawker Media’s steady drumbeat of criticism and the occasional privacy flare-up, Zuckerberg still enjoyed a relatively peaceful, even flattering relationship with the media. His interviews with Wired and Techcrunch were never hostile, and mostly portrayed him as a young, awkward, and very, very smart entrepreneur. In the business press, he was genuinely admired for building a company that was well on its way to an IPO at the tender age of 25. Shortly after the movie came out, his blank expression even appeared on the cover of Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” issue—something that now seems unthinkable. “The Social Network is a rich, dramatic portrait of a furious, socially handicapped genius who spits corrosive monologues in a monotone to hide his inner pain,” the story’s author, Lev Grossman, wrote. “This character bears almost no resemblance to the actual Mark Zuckerberg. The reality is much more complicated.”
When The Social Network hit theaters in 2010, Facebook was the tech industry’s golden goose egg, and Zuckerberg its attentive countryman in menswear basics. It was the most visited website in the United States. Its hacker-friendly slogan “Move Fast and Break Things,” earned it a reputation in the Valley as a bold, forward-thinking innovator that wasn’t afraid to take risks. And, thanks in part to the growth of the company’s advertising operations, it would earn about $2 billion in revenue that year.
Most importantly, the public had come to see Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg as one and the same. When the website launched in 2004, the phrase “A Mark Zuckerberg Production” was stamped at the bottom of every single page. In subsequent years, the CEO was frequently quoted in The Harvard Crimson and other Ivy League newspapers discussing new features. At one point, he even returned to his alma mater to recruit people to work there. As his cabal of engineers rolled out new features from their raucous Palo Alto incubator, Mark led by example, tagging himself in photos and feverishly “liking” things. I was in the final class of students who received their college emails and joined Facebook, before it was opened up to the public, and seeing a tech CEO use social media at all felt intimate, novel. I recall thinking of Zuckerberg as a kind of millennial icon who was using his superior coding skills to enhance our social lives. A somewhat bland one, but an icon nonetheless.
Whatever goodwill Zuckerberg had earned by making a fun platform ran thinner as Facebook pushed to expand. In 2006, the company premiered “News Feed”—the now-standard homepage that summarizes the profile changes, posts, birthdays, and upcoming events of everyone in a user’s social network—and faced its first real privacy scandal. People complained the update made it too easy for other people to track their individual activities. A “Students Against Facebook News Feed” group was started, and gained over 100,000 members in a day. TV stations and protestors lined up on the street outside of the company’s Palo Alto office. Zuckerberg responded to the fervor in a Facebook post titled “Calm Down. Breathe. We Hear You.” “Stalking isn’t cool, but being able to know what’s going on in your friends’ lives is,” he wrote with frat boy confidence, promising to add privacy tools.
But after the dust settled from that incident, little versions of the News Feed saga kept happening again and again and again. Journalists soon began to posit that Facebook’s cavalier privacy efforts were not a result of inexperience, but of its leader’s stubborn indifference to criticism and disdain for users. In May of 2010, Nicholas Carlson unearthed an instant message exchange from Zuckerberg’s Harvard days in which the CEO offers an unnamed friend access to his fellow classmates’ information. “I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS,” he wrote. “What? How’d you manage that one,” the anonymous recipient of these messages responded. “People just submitted it,” Zuckerberg concluded. “I don’t know why. They ‘trust me.’ Dumb fucks.” In a mostly flattering New Yorker profile that Facebook timed to come out ahead of The Social Network’s release, Zuckerberg said he regretted these messages, but they nonetheless seemed to confirm an increasingly frustrated public’s suspicions that, no matter how many public pledges Zuckerberg made to protect user data, he was sitting in a giant mansion somewhere, snickering at all the chumps who’d trusted him.
The team entrusted with making The Social Network would only build off that impression. Once Gawker leaked Mezrich’s proposal, the film adaptation was set in motion. Aaron Sorkin, then famous for his loquacious political drama The West Wing, signed on to write the script, and David Fincher, who’d earned a reputation for composing intellectual thrillers like Fight Club and Zodiac, would direct. Together, they cast a trio of hot 20-something actors: Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg, Andrew Garfield as Saverin, and singer Justin Timberlake as Parker. Scott Rudin, one of the film’s producers, attempted to secure Facebook’s cooperation, but the company considered any material sourced from Accidental Billionaires to be fiction. In the end, the team felt it had enough public records to stick with the Mezrich treatment anyway. Sorkin said he nevertheless took “extra care” knowing his subjects were real people. “You feel a special responsibility, knowing what a loud sound a Hollywood movie makes,” he later told The Hollywood Reporter.
Though Sorkin’s script contains no koala entrées, the moments in which he chose to exercise his creative liberties were some of the most memorable. Specifically when he imagines a breakup between Zuckerberg and the woman who inspired FaceMash in the first few minutes of the movie. In the subsequent drunken code-a-thon that follows, Sorkin embellishes Zuckerberg’s LiveJournal rant by adding a few more cruel lines about the fictitious ex’s last name and bra size. Tonally, his version wasn’t so different from Zuckerberg’s original entries, or even your average Reddit post. But—combined with the made-up breakup and the fact that Chan was completely left out of the film—Sorkin’s additions made Zuckerberg seem extra callous. In the movie’s closing scene, after the Facebook creator has betrayed his collaborators and claimed his place atop the social totem pole, he returns to that same ex’s Facebook profile, refreshing it over and over again to see whether she has accepted his friend request. As history would prove, it was just the right amount of real and fake to burrow deep into people’s brains as Facebook canon.
Those leaked IMs fit with his character in The Social Network, which came out just a few months later. As emails from the 2014 Sony hack showed, Zuckerberg had tried and failed to stop the film from being made. So ahead of its release, Facebook’s in-house PR agency, Outcast, devised a strategy to avoid slamming the film or attacking its creators. Instead, they would offer a counternarrative, in The New Yorker and, with help from cofounder Chris Hughes, in The New York Times. When NPR’s Guy Raz asked about the film in 2010, Zuckerberg called it “fiction.”
Internally, Facebook tried to embrace the film. On opening weekend, it held an all-staff showing at Century Cinema 16 in Mountain View (which, coincidentally, was also where I saw Independence Day, Jack, and many other classics as a kid). “We had some fun with it,” Mark Zuckerberg said during a Q&A years later, after it became clear the movie would not go away. “I mean we knew that everyone who works at Facebook was going to want to see it anyway, because how often does someone make a major movie about your company?” Zuckerberg added that, for a while after the showing, Facebook employees would make fun of Zuckerberg by mixing appletinis in the office—a reference to the scene in the movie where his character first meets Parker and consumes several of the cocktails.
But to viewers who didn’t work at Facebook, The Social Network depicted a more sinister version of the 20-something to whom millions of users had entrusted their photos, birthdays, and interests. A version who trampled over his fellow students’ security in the name of a tasteless prank, who willingly pushed his friends and classmates out of the way to get what he wanted, and who was far less interested in Facebook’s stated mission of “connecting people” than he was in consolidating power. As Times reviewer Manohla Dargis put it:
The price of that ambition, at least as dramatized here, is borne by those around Mark, who remains a strategic cipher throughout: a Facebook page without a profile photo. Charmless and awkward in groups larger than one, he rarely breaks into a smile and, if memory serves, never says thank you. He seems wary at some moments, coolly calculating at others: When his eyes haven’t gone dead, you can see him working all the angles.
His tech-industry peers took less precaution to separate fact from fiction. “It says something about the characters in a film, and in the valley, when the most likable characters are the lawyers,” one tech worker tweeted. Another chimed, “I don’t know whether to hate Zuck or Parker or try to become them. Or both.” Tech journalist Jon Dube summarized the public sentiment most succinctly: “Made Zuck look pretty bad.”
The movie was an immediate hit, grossing $224.9 million worldwide. It earned eight Academy Award nominations and three actual Oscars. The Times staff apparently covered it so much that it became the subject of a Variety column. And it soon became a beloved, oft-parodied fixture in popular culture. The same month the movie premiered, a Forbes poll found that “63 percent of Americans didn’t trust Facebook with their personal information.”
The Corporate Makeover
Following the release of a major-motion picture that made its founder look like a socially inept hacker, the company needed to run damage control, especially given the IPO on the horizon. Privately, Zuckerberg would spend the next few years ensuring he was protected from the public eye, spending $30 million on the four homes that surrounded his Palo Alto property, building a 6-foot lava rock wall around his 700-acre estate in Kauai, and hiring a private security detail to patrol the perimeters of his properties (and, apparently, protect his trash). But publicly, he embarked on a campaign to soften his image. The day the film premiered, he went on Oprah to announce he was giving a $100 million grant to the Newark school system. A few months later, he appeared on Saturday Night Live where he and the host, Jesse Eisenberg, made awkward small talk. He got a Hungarian sheepdog named Beast and made it a Facebook page. He reduced his annual salary to $1 a year.
Facebook later created an entire team to maintain Zuckerberg’s Facebook profile. Some of them deleted harassing comments on the threads he posted, others followed him around and took professional photos as he went for a run or hung out with his family. His annual New Year’s resolutions evolved from simple stuff like “wear a tie everyday” in 2009, to symbolic endeavors like “meet a person from every U.S. state” in 2017. His staff even went so far as to quietly delete all his old Facebook messenger conversations. Occasional telling tidbits—like Zuckerberg’s affinity for the game Risk—would filter through the press, buttressing the myth of the domineering nerd, but outwardly the CEO maintained the polished aura of a CEO, with more production value and much, much less personality.
He also made a point to improve his public speaking. The old Mark Zuckerberg preferred to let his employees run meetings while occasionally yelling the word “Domination!” into the ether. But in late 2014, the new Zuck 2.0 would stream live “Town Halls” from his Facebook page, answering questions on a range of topics from employees and users. During the very first session at the company’s Menlo Park headquarters, the mic was handed to a woman named Lori who had flown in from Povo, Utah, to repeat a question she had posted on one of the CEO’s threads. “I’m a huge movie fan, and one of my top-10 favorite movies is The Social Network, and my question has always been to you: How accurate is the story compared to the real-life story of Facebook’s beginnings?”
Zuckerberg laughed nervously. “Wow, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about that movie in a while,” he said, “I kinda blocked that one out.” He then went on to make several points. That, one, his life was far less interesting than the movie made it out to be: “The reality is that writing a code and then building a product and then building a company actually is not a glamorous enough thing to make a movie about, so you can imagine that a lot of the stuff they probably had to embellish and make up. Because if they were really making a movie, it would’ve been of me sitting at a computer and coding for two hours straight, which probably would’ve just not been that good of a movie. And these guys, I think, want to win awards and sell tickets. So that’s kind of where they went with it.” Two, that he had never met the people who’d made the movie about his life, aside from his brief encounter with Eisenberg: “I think he was a little afraid to meet me, after his portrayal, but I tried to be nice.” Three, the premise of the movie—that Zuckerberg was motivated to make Facebook so he could meet girls—was messed up. “They just kind of made up a bunch of stuff that I found kind of hurtful.” And four, he’d begun dating Chan before he even started Facebook. (This is technically true. The two met in the bathroom line of the preemptive “going-away party” his Jewish frat threw him after he’d met with Harvard’s administrative board about the FaceMash incident.) In sum: “I think the real story is just, you know, a lot of hard work.”
Zuckerberg’s motivations for maintaining an air-tight public persona have shifted over the years, away from his Social Network portrayal and toward a steady stream of scandals. After Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, and accusations of social media bubbles and Russian interference soared, Zuckerberg embarked on a public relations tour of roughly 30 states with a professional photographer in tow. He pet a service dog in Montana, drove a tractor in Wisconsin, and watched a rodeo in Texas. Each stop warranted its own crisp Facebook post, and each update seemed more careful and apolitical than the previous. After he’d finally completed the project he gave a Q&A about what he’d learned, concluding, blandly, that “the biggest takeaway by far is that community, and especially local community, are much more important to people than we realize.” It appeared Zuckerberg’s aim was to demonstrate to users he didn’t think of them as numbers, or chumps, but people—even if the way Facebook operates indicated otherwise. But without any kind of political bent or spice to his messaging, the campaign felt weird, like after years hidden away behind a computer he was on a quest to learn about the human race for the very first time.
The more canned Zuckerberg has become, the more the public has turned to his silver screen depiction for answers.The Social Network is stamped into the company’s DNA. As Steven Levy describes in the first chapter of Facebook: The Inside Story, Zuckerberg is asked about the movie in places as far flung as Nigeria. In 2018, The New Yorker reported that Facebook executives still refer to The Social Network resentfully as “the movie.” “From its facts to its essence to its portrayal, I think that was a very unfair picture,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said in the same piece. “I still think it forms the basis of a lot of what people believe about Mark.” Ahead of one of the most consequential presidential elections in recent history, the public continues to take stock of Facebook’s negative effect on public discourse, news, and democracy. And in those terms, David Fincher’s masterpiece has felt all the more relevant; spiritually, if not factually, correct. More than anything, in a 10-year vacuum of personality, the better story won.