Hollywood and Facebook: Are apologies owed?

Keith Boag on Aaron Sorkin's Oscar-nominated movie on Facebook. Tremendously entertaining but it slurs a generation.

I, for one, can hardly wait for Academy Awards night this weekend to see whom screenwriter Aaron Sorkin apologizes to this time.  

Sorkin wrote the screenplay for The Social Network and when he won a Golden Globe for that effort in January, he offered an olive branch to real-life Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg whom he pretty much savages in the movie.

"Rooney Mara's character makes a prediction at the beginning of the movie," Sorkin told the audience.

Then, addressing Zuckerman directly through the TV camera, he continued, "She was wrong. You turned out to be a great entrepreneur, a visionary and an incredible altruist."

Maybe Sorkin could widen the lens a bit at the Oscars. It's not just Zuckerberg who's hard done by in the movie.

More worthy of an apology is the generation of imaginative and visionary people, including those who helped power the recent uprising in Egypt, who Sorkin makes look like version 2.0 of a Wall Street creep.

Nerd-based altruism

For those who haven't seen The Social Network, here's what Sorkin was talking about when he addressed Zuckerberg at the Golden Globes.

New media: An opposition supporter holds up a laptop showing images of celebrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square, after Egypt's Hosni Mubarak resigned on Feb. 11, 2011. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

In an opening scene so mesmerizing that it's the intellectual equivalent of a high-speed car chase, Zuckerman and his girlfriend, the Rooney Mara character, spin through some of the most deliciously nasty bits of dialogue to be found in a film that is delightfully overflowing with that sort of thing.

Over beers in a dark pub she calls him out for his exhausting superciliousness and then dumps him hard with this:

"You are probably going to be a very successful computer person," she says. "But you're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole."

The rest of this enormously entertaining film tracks Zuckerberg as he builds Facebook.

It's a tale of deceits and betrayals through which Zuckerberg is revealed as a social misfit with an emotional range no broader than a memory stick. He's sometimes excitable, often contemptuous, always mechanical.

By the end, whether he's an asshole seems like a fair question.

Generational warfare

Sorkin is a master of impossibly snappy banter. His rapid-fire dialogue drove the long-running TV hit The West Wing, where no one was ever lost for words.

Writer and producer Aaron Sorkin, accepting a Critic's Choice award for the the screenplay to The Social Network in January 2011. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

The Social Network is just that kind of fun: smart, timely and sharp-witted.

But no one in it is particularly likeable. Nothing wrong with that, except that it's what gives the film it's whiff of generational warfare.

If it weren't so much fun to watch, I'd probably hate it.

As Zadie Smith put it in her thoughtful take on the film in The New York Review of Books last fall, "This is a movie about 2.0 people made by 1.0 people.

"The Social Network is not a cruel portrait of any particular real-world person called 'Mark Zuckerberg,'" she went on.

"It's a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore."

Smith knows the appeal of 2.0 social media because she's a recovering Facebook addict herself.

But she sees the Facebook generation losing touch with what it means to have real relationships, be real people. And The Social Network helps her case enormously.

Has to be believed

Of course, judging social media by standards that make a 1.0 person comfortable is inappropriate. To borrow from Bono, it's a place that has to be believed to be seen.

There is a reason why social networks were shut down in Egypt last month. The reason is that they work. They are hugely efficient and effective ways of mobilizing people.

What's more, some of them are unquestionably noble.

For example, a year ago in San Francisco, a couple of young computer science types pulled some all-nighters frantically writing code in an urgent race against time.

One, Rob Munro, was a computational linguist. The other, Lukas Biewald had founded a social network for businesses.

In a scene that could have come straight out of The Social Network, they hunched over laptops building a site that could handle unpredictable volumes of traffic and absolutely never crash.

It had to be extremely simple for users to access through mobile phones around the world and it had to be ready soon. Overnight if possible.

Its sole purpose was to create a network of people around the world who understood the language and geography of Haiti.

The urgency, of course, was the enormous earthquake that had just devastated Haiti and Munro and Biewald were building a 2.0 lifeline to its victims.

Disaster relief

"It's one of those problems that sounds really hard on the surface? And it turns out to be really, really hard!" Biewald told me with a pleased look recently.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Time magazine's Man of the Year for 2010. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

Biewald's business, Crowdflower, exists to scale up large temporary workforces around the world to perform small tasks for a little bit of money.

It's controversial in the way that all schemes that pay people as little as possible for their work are controversial. But it's also ideally suited for disaster relief.

"Suddenly you need like 1,000 people, you need 10,000 people. There's no way you could staff for that," says Biewlad. "All you can do is react and try to get the people to come."

People did come. From 46 countries on six continents.

They formed a social network that allowed a stricken person in Haiti to send text messages to the number 4636.

Somewhere in the world the messages were translated from Creole into English. Somewhere else the location of the victim was pinpointed. And somewhere else the precise need was categorized and prioritized for emergency workers.

That process took minutes. Not hours.


Fred Michel, a Haitian ex-pat living in Montreal, joined Biewald's network and recalls his team getting a message from a pregnant woman in Haiti who was in labour and bleeding while in the rubble.

"We got the text message (on 4636) and translated it and sent it to the people on the ground," he says. "And they got to the girl in time and they help her to deliver the baby and everything was fine."

These are people of the same generation as Mark Zuckerberg. They're his type, the type who get perfect scores on their college entrance tests. But the world they inhabit and the world they envision is nothing like the one depicted in Hollywood's The Social Network.

It's much more interesting. More imaginative. Better.

Maybe, if he wins on Sunday night, instead of apologizing to Mark Zuckerberg, Aaron Sorkin might say a word or two about how his screenplay, as wonderful to watch as it is, shortchanges a generation.

These people are doing much more than building a tricked-up dating site. The world they're creating is full of possibilities this film never imagines.

To twist Sorkin's own words a little bit, The Social Network can be greatly admired as a painting but it ain't no photograph.