A passage from Sorkin's 'The Social Network' screenplay.
Ever since its launch in 2004, Facebook has rolled along like a juggernaut. Users occasionally protest its policies and privacy changes, but the social network shrugs them off and just gets bigger andbigger.
Something different is afoot now. There was no immediate, intense reaction to what CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled at the f8 conference on April 21: systems that insinuated Facebook across the entire Internet. The earliest responses, in fact, showed something like awe. "Google had better watch out. There may be a new sheriff in webtown," TechCrunch wrote.
But over the next few weeks, sparked by a series of security flaws, serious unrest began to percolate—seemingly from all corners. That includes:
- a letter of concern from four U.S. senators,
- a filing with the Federal Trade Commission by 15 privacy groups,
- grave op-eds from the influential people at TechPresident, Wired, Thomas Baekdal, GigaOM, and elsewhere,
- helpful information to make sense of Facebook's evolution, including a timeline from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a clever infographic from an IBM researcher,
- and the launch of an idealistic NYU startup, Diaspora, to cheers—and a surprising groundswell of donations.
Later today, Facebook is reportedly holding an all-staff meeting to address escalating concerns about the company's approach to privacy. This comes on the heels of a less-than-successful Q&A session between a Facebook VP and readers at nytimes.com, which came off as insincere at best and Orwellian at worst.
If Mark Zuckerberg thinks this is bad, wait till what comes next. On Oct. 1, The Social Network, an Aaron Sorkin–penned movie about the site's controversial founding, hits theaters. A draft screenplay circulating now is a brutal read. Based on Ben Mezrich's 2009 book The Accidental Billionaires, it portrays Zuckerberg as a borderline autistic, entirely ruthless conniver. Nothing sways public opinion like a movie—and this scorcher could counteract the entire body of good press Facebook has received till now.
Sorkin's up-tempo script adds color to what are widely known moments—true, rumored, or somewhere in between—in the Facebook legend. The first is Zuckerberg's creation of Facemash, a Facebook forerunner that let Harvard students rank each other's looks, after he is dumped by a girlfriend; the then sophomore compares Harvard girls to barnyard animals during an drunken all-night coding session. Another scene depicts Zuckerberg and Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin hooking up with groupies at a Cambridge bar:
JENNY's got his fly unzipped. EDUARDO looks down at the space between the stalls. He sees a pair of Adidas flip-flops. Then the sound of moaning. Before EDUARDO has time to say anything, JENNY pulls her shirt open, revealing the red bra, and puts her hand down his pants as we CUT TO...
Campus follies aren't what will damage Facebook. It's the much more serious accusations about Zuckerberg's character—namely, that he stole the idea for the site from three Harvard students (twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Divya Narendra) and later betrayed Saverin out of his ownership stake. Sorkin's draft screenplay leaves no doubt as to who's in the wrong. Much of the movie takes place in a deposition room, with Zuckerberg's undergraduate machinations played out in flashback, and some of the film's final frames inform audiences that the Winklevosses received a $65 million settlement. Napster cofounder and early Facebook president Sean Parker also comes off poorly, as a high-flying but functionally homeless cocaine fiend who plies Zuckerberg with girls and venture capitalists.
October is a long way away, and Facebook will surely respond to its current privacy critics quickly. It had better be a substantial response, not just a smoothing-over of elite bloggers' rumpled feathers. Their objections run deep, and until Zuckerberg truly addresses them, the unparalleled ability of a major Hollywood film to capture public attention will rekindle a PR nightmare of blockbuster proportions.