This episode we look at THE SOCIAL NETWORK, Aaron Sorkin’s script about the rise of Facebook released in 2010. This won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
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And here’s the script to this episode:
Hi, I’m Joe Dzikiewicz, and welcome to the Storylanes Podcast, the podcast where every episode we do a deep dive into a movie or TV show. And to go along with this analysis, I publish a chart of the story we’re covering on the storylanes.com website, a chart I produced while preparing the episode. You don’t need to look at that chart – the podcast is standalone. But if you’re interested in diving a little deeper, check it out at storylanes.com.
This week we’re doing 2010’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK, the story of the creation of Facebook. It got an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. It was written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by David Fincher, and starred Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake.
But as usual, this podcast assumes you’ve seen the movie. There will be spoilers. And there won’t be detailed explanations of plot points. So if you listen to this without knowing the movie, you’re out of luck: the movie will be spoiled for you, and you may not understand what I’m talking about. It’s basically the worst of all worlds. But this movie is well worth watching, if for no other reason than because we all need to better understand the social media companies that dominate our world and the people who created them.
The Social Network is the story of Mark Zuckerberg, the real-life creator of Facebook. It gives a not-so-flattering portrayal of Zuckerberg and the rise of Facebook, how he created it, and the enemies he made along the way. And it structures this look through the lens of two lawsuits that Zuckerberg faced: by the Winkelvoss twins, who claimed that Zuckerberg stole their idea. And by Eduardo Saverin, who was Zuckerberg’s partner in the creation of Facebook, but who Zuckerberg cut out fairly quickly once he got real venture capital backing.
Now I’m going to start right out and say that I think this film has some significant problems. The characters all sound alike – well educated, fast talking, witty. There are some serious problems here with the representation of women, though to what extent that comes from the filmmakers vs the subject matter is worth exploring. And the script is built around a pair of central conflicts that, at the end, the movie says don’t matter. I promise we’ll get to all of these.
And there is the question of how accurately this film represents the facts of Facebook’s finding. That’s a question that can be asked about a lot of historical fiction, let alone fiction about such recent history: when this movie was made, the events it showed were less than ten years old.
And I’m going to start right out and lay down my marker on that question: I don’t think it matters. I don’t think one should look to historical fiction to be accurate. I don’t care if a story like this takes major liberties with the truth. That’s not what this kind of film is for.
Now I should note: I’m a huge fan of history. And a huge fan of historical fiction in any medium, whether it be films, plays, books, musicals, even paintings. But I know the difference between history and historical fiction, and I think everyone should just accept it and move on. This issue was settled at least as long ago as Shakespeare: just because they call some of his plays the History Plays doesn’t mean they are a good source of history.
And that’s my position on the accuracy of this film. I’m not even going to address how accurate this film is, because I just don’t care. And I’m standing by that position – fight me if you want.
But that still leaves a lot of problems that I find in this movie, problems that I will be addressing in this episode. So why look at this film?
There’s many reasons. First, I think that we learn by examining a flawed film, so doing that examination is never wasted time. But second, there’s clearly something of value to this film: note those Oscars that I mentioned. That itself makes it worth examining. Because if the film has big flaws, then it must have some pretty big strengths to overcome those flaws. Right?
Finally, one other thing I should note. When the events of this film took place, I was working at America Online. Not only that, I was working in the Social Networking group at AOL and working on another product in the same space as Facebook. In other words, I was competing with Facebook while the movie is taking place.
And I was doing it as a software engineer, doing many of the kinds of things that Zuckerberg does in this film. I actually understand the techno-babble found in this film. And I understand what it is that was special about Facebook, and what was standard in the field.
It all gives me a different perspective on this film. Though one that, by and large, I’m not going to dwell on. Because it’s not applicable to the things we’re looking at here – how the movie is structured, and what it is about this story that makes it effective.
I suppose that’s one more reason for me to analyze the film. It’s interesting to view a film that’s about a subject that I completely understand. It does give me a different perspective. And even though I don’t care that much about historical accuracy in watching this film, there are some things the movie gets wrong that makes it harder for me to suspend my disbelief, things that people not in the business might not notice.
All that said, let’s take a look at these characters. And one more caveat I should note: most of the key characters in this film are based on real people. But when I speak of characters, I’m talking about the characters as they appear in the movie. I’m not talking about the real people. I don’t know any of the real people, know very little about them. I don’t really care about them, truth be told. So unless I specifically note it, when I speak of Mark Zuckerberg, I mean Mark Zuckerberg the character in THE SOCIAL NETWORK, not Mark Zuckerberg the real guy who founded Facebook.
So, let’s talk about Mark Zuckerberg. He’s a wonderfully complex and flawed character, but one that the film ultimately sides with. When we meet him, he’s a Harvard student being dumped by his girlfriend. He’s arrogant, self-obsessed, obnoxious, with limited social skills, few friends, and a real bug up his butt about Final Clubs, a special kind of club that they apparently have at Harvard.
Mark’s the kind of guy who, when you bother him, will lash out and do something stupid on the Internet.
But he’s also a creative genius. He’s an incredibly skilled programmer. He comes up with some great ideas. He’s definitely held up by this film as a model of genius. And if you listen to Aaron Sorkin talk about this film, it’s clear that he’s on Zuckerberg’s side, even in the face of Zuckerberg’s moral compromises.
The second key character is Eduardo Saverin. He starts out as Mark’s partner in founding Facebook. And he is sympathetic throughout: when Mark cuts him out of Facebook, it’s his biggest betrayal. And Eduardo is always decent – he’s presented as Mark’s good shadow.
But Eduardo is also shown as having too small a vision. He doesn’t realize just what Facebook can be. And for a business major, he seems strangely unaware of how startups work and how they can explode with venture capital.
This is one of those times when I view this movie through the lens of my own experience, both at AOL and at a series of early-stage startups. Eduardo seems remarkably ignorant of just how Internet startups work. How the venture capitalists come in and provide the big money to get the company off the ground if you’ve got a big enough thing going. And how the thing that really gets a company going at this early stage is not ad sales: it’s venture capital investments. From my own perspective, this might be the most unbelievable thing about this movie, especially given that it takes place after the dot com boom when a budding entrepreneur could be expected to know this stuff.
(Of course, this might be a totally true part of the story. Doesn’t matter. I’m still not convinced – and Eduardo’s general ignorance of these things makes him far less sympathetic. The fact is, Mark and Sean are right, and Eduardo is wrong. The company is better off without Eduardo, even if the way that Mark disposes of him is way too heavy-handed.)
The next major character is Sean Parker. The founder of Napster, a revolutionary music-sharing platform. He’s presented here as a complete jerk who nevertheless possesses the connections and savvy that Facebook needs to take off. He sleeps with lots of pretty young girls, does a lot of drugs, holds grudges, is needlessly cruel, and is Mark’s mentor in the world of starting a business. He’s the one who gets Mark to move Facebook to Silicon Valley. He’s the one who introduces Mark to venture capitalists. He’s the one who ushers Facebook from being a niche social networking product catering to college students to the monolith that it is today.
And you may notice a trend here: there are a lot of jerks in this film. But they are generally right about the course of Facebook. It’s not clear what the movie is saying about this. I find that a problem with this movie – the movie seems to say it doesn’t matter if you’re a jerk, as long as you’re a smart jerk.
The next key characters are the Winkelvoss twins. Cameron and Tyler Winkelvoss, scions of a wealthy family, Olympic-level rowers in crew, members of the Porcellian Club, the most prestigious of Harvard’s Final Clubs.
And, of course, their friend and business partner Divya Narendra.
Together, these three have an idea for a social network for Harvard students, where the key discriminator is that it will only be available to people with Harvard.edu email addresses. They are established, good looking, athletic, and rich. We’re in definite silver spoon territory here.
They are also an impressive pair. As one says, when considering the possibilities if dealing with Mark will require violence:
No, I wanna hire the Sopranos to beat the shit out of him with a hammer.
We don’t even have to do that.
We can do that ourselves. I’m six-five, 220 and there’s two of me.
They will spend much of the movie chasing after Mark, trying to stop him from what they think of as stealing their idea. And ultimately, they are not presented sympathetically. Again, it’s clear that Sorkin is on Mark’s side in this conflict.
But there is one thing I want to note about these two. It’s almost impossible to distinguish the Winkelvosses from each other. They are played by the same actor, and while the script makes some effort to distinguish between them, with Tyler being the more aggressive and Cameron more restrained and determined to play by the old rules, in the movie this difference doesn’t come over at all. I find this a problem with the film, though admittedly a minor one. And, I should note, I say this as a man who is married to an identical twin, one who I would never mistake for her sister.
And those are the major characters of this film.
And notice something interesting about them? They are all men.
There are some minor female characters in this film. There’s Mark’s girlfriend Erica, who, when she dumps him in the opening scene, provides the film’s inciting incident. There’s Marylin, one of Mark’s lawyers, who manages to form a real connection with Mark. There’s Christy, Eduardo’s crazy girlfriend. And that’s really about it. No other female character stands out at all.
Which raises the question: is this film misogynous? Or is it just an accurate depiction of a misogynous culture? Because I am sorry to admit this, but the world of high-end software development is a misogynous culture.
I don’t have a good answer to that. I’m fairly certain that this film doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, though I haven’t specifically examined it for that. And there are some good strong female characters here, though minor ones. Erica is self-possessed and strong. Marylin tells Mark how things are and delivers the last and critical line of the movie, the one that sums up Mark and answers the film’s central question. “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be.”
But it’s kind of hard to avoid the fact that this movie’s significant female characters are greatly outnumbered by the number of hot women wearing only underwear. As such, I’ve added a lane to the Storylanes analysis pointing out all the times when this movie seems sexist.
It’s clear that this movie is portraying a sexist culture. Is the movie sexist? I don’t know, but I think it might be.
It is clear that it doesn’t hold Mark responsible for his misogyny. And make no mistake, Facemash, the program he makes before he makes Facebook, is misogynous.
There is one other issue with these characters. They all sound pretty much the same.
There’s a rule-of-thumb that is often given to screenwriters to test the quality of their character voices. Pick a line randomly from the script. If you can’t tell who is speaking that line, you’ve got a problem.
Well, following that rule-of-thumb, THE SOCIAL NETWORK has a problem.
Pretty much everyone in this film speaks the same. It’s all incredibly witty, fast-paced, intelligent, with an educated vocabulary. These characters don’t have distinct voices.
Of course, they all speak incredibly well-structured entertaining lines, good enough that I chose to analyze this film entirely for the quality of the dialogue. But still, do note that these characters do not have distinct voices. They are entertaining voices, but not distinct.
Okay, enough complaints. Let’s look at the structure of this film.
The first thing we should note about this script is just how long it is. The script goes for 163 pages. That’s immense for a movie script. 120 pages is usually the outer limit. But this one runs 163, and nevertheless the movie only runs for two hours.
Welcome to Sorkin-land.
The reason that this script is so long is that Aaron Sorkin writes many dialogue-rich scenes in which actors speak very fast. The one-minute-per-page rule of thumb does not apply to a Sorkin script.
Look, for example, at the opening scene, the long conversation between Mark and Erica. That scene takes up eight full pages in the script. But it only runs five minutes in the movie.
That’s still an incredibly long scene to start a movie, especially given that it’s just two people sitting at a table talking. But with eight pages for a five minute scene, it blows right past the page-per-minute rule.
And there are some interesting structural things going on in all those pages. Take, for example, that opening scene. It accomplishes a lot.
One thing I’ve noticed in several of the movies that we’ve seen is that they often start with some big event. If it’s a horror film, we get a taste of the horror. If an action movie, there’s an action set-piece. If a comedy, it starts with something big and funny.
This is an Aaron Sorkin film, so it starts with a tour-de-force of conversation. A five minute scene of two people talking where the dialogue is rich and fast and entertaining.
I will merely note that the scene does several things: it gives us a thorough introduction to Mark Zuckerberg, our protagonist. It contains the inciting incident, when Erica dumps Mark. This inspires him to spend a drunken night programming to create Facemash, which in turn leads to him building Facebook. And it provides Mark a lasting motivation, because for the rest of this film he will be pursuing a hopeless quest to win back Erica.
And the scene also introduces the central question of this film: Is Mark Zuckerberg an asshole?
Yeah, I know, that sounds kind of silly. But it really is the central question of this film. But I’ll address that later.
So after this tour de force of an opening, complete with a spellbinding conversation, we are into act one.
Now this is yet another of those films that fit nicely into three act structure with a midpoint. Which, of course, means that I think of it in terms of four acts, with that midpoint marking the shift from act two to act three. I shan’t belabor that point, though – let’s just take a look at the acts.
Curiously, there’s two things that distinguish the acts in this film. First, in each act, Mark builds something new, though in some cases that something new is a new evolution of Facebook. And second, each act introduces a new significant player into the life of Mark and Facebook. Let’s dive a little deeper and I’ll show you what I mean.
In act one, Mark builds Facemash, the webpage that allows Harvard students to rate Harvard girls based on their appearance. Mark does this in drunken anger at being dumped by Erica. And it’s hugely popular. It gets Mark in trouble, but it gets him notoriety too.
In act one, the key character that we meet is Mark himself, in that opening scene. Though we also meet Eduardo, his best friend and collaborator. And a character who occasionally challenges Mark’s position as protagonist of this film: for a while later on, Eduardo becomes our point-of-view character before retiring to the sidelines.
Act two opens when we meet the Winkelvosses rowing on the river. They are the next key characters to appear in this history of Facebook, the ones who had the idea of building a social network keyed to the Harvard email accounts.
Now here is a moment where I have to step in and note something based on my experience building social networking sites. Before Facebook there were many social network sites, and the basic structure of Facebook is not that different from its predecessors, sites like MySpace, Friendster, and some of the AOL products that I worked on. Facebook had two key innovations that made it take off in its early days.
First, there’s the fact that on Facebook you use your real name. Other sites allowed you to set up profiles for false ID’s, and you’d interact primarily with people you met online. On Facebook, by contrast, the expectation is that you are dealing with the real identities of real people, and generally ones that you have a real-world connection to. That made it stand out.
And second, there was the fact that you have strong control on Facebook over who you are interacting with. And in the early days of Facebook, the restriction of Facebook to college students was a key part of that. In other words, it was that “social network for Harvard students” thing that the Winkelvosses introduced.
The film takes the position that this was only a minor thing, that the Winkelvosses are largely a joke, nothing compared to the brilliance that is Mark Zuckerberg. That is captured in the moment where Mark, in the deposition, says, “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook than you would have invented Facebook.”
But I clearly think the Winkelvosses came up with one of the key elements that led to Facebook’s success. And possibly both key elements – I’m not sure how personal identity played out in their system.
All of which is to say that I disagree with the movie on this point.
But that’s kind of beside the point. They key thing here is that act two introduces the Winkelvosses and takes Mark through the steps of building TheFacebook, his initial version of Facebook, the version that would become popular at Harvard and that, at the very end of the act, the team will launch to several other colleges.
And we enter act three. And act three starts with the introduction of Sean Parker.
Sean will become Mark’s mentor as he takes Facebook from something cool to something huge. He’s the guy who gives one of the key lines of the movie: “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.”
More to the point, Sean inspires Mark to take the next key step in the evolution of Facebook. He talks Mark into moving to California, to be at the center of the tech world. And that’s the story of this act: how Mark moves to California and starts expanding Facebook ever further.
He even drops the “The” in the name of the product. It’s no longer TheFacebook. Now it’s just Facebook. A suggestion that comes directly from Sean. “Drop the The. Just Facebook. It’s cleaner.”
So I think that the central story of act three is how TheFacebook becomes Facebook. It’s the birth of this significant product, the moment it goes wide.
Which takes us into act four. Now, the character introduced in Act Four isn’t a major character in this film. But he has a major impact on the direction of Facebook and the film’s plot. This character is Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist who becomes Facebook’s angel investor.
Thiel only shows up in a scene or two, and not as a major presence in that scene. But his money is the catalyst that turns Facebook into a major company, that gets them out of a dorm and a rented house and into real offices. And Thiel’s presence leads to Mark’s betrayal of Eduardo, the betrayal that gives shape to the film’s final act.
So, four acts, tied to the introduction of four key characters, and to four major stages in the evolution of Facebook.
First, we meet Mark and he builds Facemash.
Second, we meet the Winkelvosses and Mark builds TheFacebook.
Third, we meet Sean and he is the catalyst for the creation of Facebook, the broader product, which is the next major evolution of TheFacebook.
And finally, we meet Peter Thiel, and with his money Facebook goes bigtime.
And one thing I want to note here: the midpoint of this film is not a particular bit of action. It’s the introduction of a new character. We meet Sean Parker almost exactly halfway through the movie. And when we do, it’s in a scene utterly unlike anything we’ve yet seen in this movie.
Up until this point, the entire movie was set at Harvard and its environs. Things are dark. People wear sweaters. There’s lots of deep wooden paneling.
But Sean’s introduction is very California. There’s bright sunlight. People sit around not wearing much. There’s big windows. It’s a dramatic shift.
There’s an interesting lesson here for screenwriters. A midpoint can be anything that causes a dramatic change to the course of the narrative. That can mean a major action sequence, but it can also be the introduction of a new character in a new setting.
So what is the central story of this film? It is, ultimately, the creation of Facebook.
Now that’s an interesting story, one that would make a fascinating business magazine article, maybe even a book.
But it’s a strange story for a major motion picture. Because really, do we as an audience care about the creation of a giant company? I suppose we might a little, especially if we are Facebook users. But there needs to be something more to this, some major personal conflict, some real drama, or else we just don’t have a movie.
And further, there aren’t any significant twists and turns in the founding of Facebook. Mark gets the idea. It has initial success. He builds on the idea. He gets more success. He gets a big investment and builds it even bigger. And now his success is gigantic. There’s no twists and turns, no real challenges. So no real source of conflicts in the building of Facebook.
And here is where things get interesting in the structure of this script. Because the key conflict doesn’t come from that central story, the rise of Facebook. The key conflict comes from the subplots. So let’s take a look at them.
But first, a quick note: I’m not going to dive into the other screenwriting models this episode. THE SOCIAL NETWORK doesn’t do much to illuminate those models – the things we see here are things we’ve seen before. There’s no debate or refusal of the call. Mark never really does have a dark night of the soul. Eduardo has some low points, but once things get rolling, Mark pretty much goes from success to success. He has a mentor. The opening and closing images of the film are less significant than what is happening in those opening and closing scenes. Again, all notes we’ve had before.
As usual, there’s lanes on the Storylanes analysis for the various models. But I’m not going to spend more time on them here.
And now to the subplots!
I’d say the key subplots are tied to the key supporting characters of this film.
First, there’s Eduardo. At the start of the film, he is Mark’s best friend, his only friend, really. So when Mark gets the idea to build Facebook, he turns to Eduardo to be his partner. And Eduardo is completely on board. He finances the initial development of Facebook, putting down a total of eighteen thousand dollars to get servers, rent a house, and fund whatever else is needed.
The high point of the relationship between Mark and Eduardo comes at page 67 of the script, when TheFacebook starts getting enough success at Harvard that college girls approach them. Which leads to this exchange:
She said “Facebook me” and we can all go for a drink later. Which is stunningly great for two reasons. One, she said “Facebook me”. Right? And the other is, you know–
They want to have drinks later.
Yes! Have you ever heard so many different good things packed into one regular-sized sentence?
And later, as Eduardo marvels that: “We’ve got groupies.”
All is great in the world, and these two are its conquerors.
But soon thereafter, friction starts growing between Mark and Eduardo. And it boils down to one thing: Eduardo’s vision for Facebook is not large enough for Mark. Eduardo wants to start putting ads on the site. But Mark thinks that will rob Facebook of its cool factor, and that the site is still growing to be what it should be.
Now of course, Mark is completely right in this argument. And that’s a key factor in this subplot: Eduardo really is not the right guy to turn Facebook into a giant success. Mark has the necessary technical chops to get it to where it needs to be. But Eduardo doesn’t have the vision or depth of understanding of the business side to lead that business to super-growth.
And as Mark gets more business savvy advisors, first Sean Parker and then Peter Thiel, they pressure him to get rid of Eduardo. And he does.
So Mark ends up betraying Eduardo, turning his back on their friendship and their agreement. And Eduardo sues him, ultimately winning an undisclosed, but presumably large, amount of money.
Really, when it comes down to it, this subplot is fairly simple. Mark and Eduardo are friends, though Mark can be a tough guy to be friends with. They go into business together. Together they get Facebook off the ground and relish its success. Then Mark wants to expand ever bigger while Eduardo wants to turn Facebook into a more traditional business. Their friendship declines as they are no longer physically together, which is entirely due to a choice that Eduardo makes. Then Mark, under the influence of Sean and Peter Thiel, tricks Eduardo out of his ownership stake, finally kicking him out of Facebook. And, of course, Eduardo sues Mark for tons of money.
It’s a fairly simple plot. Rise and fall of their mutual fortunes. No real twists and turns – it’s all fairly linear.
And, of course, we know from early on that this friendship is not going to last. Because we know from early on that Eduardo is suing Mark.
This subplot also brings a lot of conflict with it. Early on, there’s minor friction between Mark and Eduardo. But that friction grows into real conflict as they start to disagree over business direction, and as Mark comes more and more under the influence of Sean, who Eduardo hates. This disagreement grows until Mark ultimately cuts Eduardo out of the company. Which leads to the dramatic climax of the film, as Eduardo confronts Mark.
And that leads to our next subplot: the Winkelvosses. Again, a fairly simple plot. The Winkelvosses bring Mark in to work on an idea they have. Mark instead takes elements of their idea and bases Facebook on it. The Winkelvosses pursue various methods to get back at Mark, and their frustration grows as Facebook becomes more and more popular. They eventually decide to sue Mark, and they win $60 million in a settlement.
Here again, we have a fairly simple plot that generates conflict. We see the struggles of the Winkelvosses as they try to find ways to stop Facebook and Mark, or figure out how to get back at him. We get their meeting with the president of Harvard, an entertaining scene full of Sorkin’s manifest wit. We even see the Winkelvosses closely lose a rowing race, one of the few actual action scenes in this film. And the Winkelvoss lawsuit itself provides conflict in this film, in the deposition scenes.
And then there’s those deposition scenes. They serve as a separate subplot, the two sets of depositions, the ones for Eduardo’s suit and the ones for the Winkelvoss suit. And in them, Mark is a complete jerk. He shows disrespect to the other lawyers, to the various other people in this story, and to the entire process. His bad behavior adds an entertaining amount of conflict.
But these scenes also do something that’s kind of critical. This is a movie that largely consists of people talking to each other. There is almost no action in this film, and the only action is unnecessary. Things like that Winkelvoss crew race, which is nice to look at but could be pulled out of this film without any loss.
But if the film were just a whole bunch of long scenes of people talking to each other, it would get old quickly. We need a way to change things up.
The deposition scenes serve that purpose. During several of those long conversations, we cut between the conversation and one or both deposition scenes. The depositions allow us to get more information about what’s going on, see more perspectives. But it also shifts the action around, keeps the visuals from getting too stale. We cut between multiple conversations instead of being lost within one.
So, they add more verbal fireworks, give a sense of visual action, and give broader perspectives on the central action. All while adding tons of conflict as Mark argues with the lawyers, witnesses, and plaintiffs.
Though I should note this: while these scenes are entertaining, I don’t believe them. Why is everyone in the room for a deposition? My understanding of how depositions work is that the deposition includes the lawyers, anyone needed to record the deposition, and the person being deposed. They don’t include plaintiffs and defendants: this isn’t a trial.
Still, the scenes make for good drama.
Note that the depositions themselves, except for the fun of seeing these characters go at each other with that patented Sorkin wit, are mostly in service of the existing subplots. One of the depositions is all about Eduardo’s conflict with Mark. The other is about the Winkelvoss conflict. Neither has a purpose unto itself – they both just allow for more explanation of and conflict about the existing subplots.
Now, another subplot: the presence of Sean Parker in this film. Sean doesn’t appear until halfway through the film. And then he is pretty much Mark’s model for what he wants to be. Sean is cool, has sex with lots of beautiful women, hold petty grudges against people who he feel wronged him, and has everyone’s attention and admiration.
Of course, he’s also petty, has a problem with drugs and underage girls, and is constantly being kicked out of companies because of his poor behavior. And he shows himself completely lacking in physical courage, when Eduardo makes to take a swing at him in the final confrontation and Sean flinches, leading Eduardo to say: “I like standing next to you, Sean. It makes me look so tough.”
And at the end, Mark sees Sean’s limitations, and seems to be getting out from under his spell. But before that happens, Sean did help Facebook rise to another level.
Another subplot: Erica. Throughout the film, Mark is obsessed with Erica, the girl who dumps him in the opening scene. Once Facebook is a success at Harvard, Mark runs into Erica and finds out that she still thinks he’s the scum of the Earth, saying:
You called me a bitch on the internet, Mark.
That’s why I wanted to talk to you. If we could just–
ERICA On the internet.
That’s why I came over.
Comparing women to farm animals?
I didn’t end up doing that.
It didn’t stop you from writing it. As if every thought that tumbles through your head is so clever it would be a crime for it not to be shared. The internet’s not written in pencil, Mark, it’s written in ink and you published that Erica Albright was a bitch right before you made some ignorant crack about my family’s name, my bra size and then rated women based on their “hotness”.
REGGIE (A FRIEND OF ERICA’S) Erica, is there a problem?
No, there’s no problem. (pause) You write your snide bullshit from a dark room because that’s what the angry do nowadays. I was nice to you. Don’t torture me for it.
What’s worse, she hasn’t even heard of Facebook, demeans it when she says, “Good luck with your video game.”
And that inspires Mark to take Facebook past Harvard to other colleges.
He’s still obsessing about her once Facebook grows big, which leads to this revealing dialogue with Sean, when first Sean says:
You know why I started Napster? A girl I loved in high school was with the co-captain of the varsity lacrosse team and I wanted to take her from him so I decided to come up with the next big thing.
And then later, the two have this exchange:
MARK (pause) Do you ever think about the girl?
SEAN What girl?
The one–the girl in high school who was– with the lacrosse thing.
(are you kidding?) No.
But Mark is still obsessed with the girl that got him to start Facebook. And is still obsessed with her at the end of the movie, when he tries to friend her on Facebook and the film ends while he waits to see if she responds.
Finally, there’s Mark’s other obsession, Final Clubs. Which are apparently a big deal at Harvard. In the opening conversation with Erica, Mark obsesses over Final Clubs. Later, when the Winkelvosses ask to talk to him, Mark seems more interested in being in the Final Club than he is in what they have to say. And when he describes the idea of Facebook to Eduardo, he says, “Wardo, it’s like a Final Club except we’re the president.”
Later still, when Eduardo gets in a Final Club, it becomes a source of contention between him and Mark, with Mark giving little snide putdowns like:
EDUARDO Hey, guess what? (shows MARK the envelope) I made the second cut.
Good job. You should be proud of that right there, don’t worry if you don’t make it any further.
And in the deposition, Mark denies his obsession a little too strongly when he says:
They’re suggesting I was jealous of Eduardo for getting punched by the Phoenix and began a plan to screw him out of a company I hadn’t even invented yet.
GRETCHEN Were you?
MARK Jealous of Eduardo?
Stop typing, we’re off the record.
Ma’am, I know you’ve done your homework and so you know that money isn’t a big part of my life, but at the moment I could buy Mount Auburn Street, take the Phoenix Club and turn it into my ping pong room.
And finally, in the big confrontation when Eduardo is kicked out of Facebook, Eduardo brings it all back, saying: “Tell me this isn’t about me getting into the Phoenix!”
So Final Clubs play a big part in this film.
Now, we’ve done structure, and we’ve done subplots. Let’s take a step back and look at the overall story of this film. What exactly is the central conflict of this movie?
Well, the movie shows the rise of Facebook. But there’s not much conflict in that. Mark builds the site, and it’s a huge success. We don’t see any real struggle there. So that’s not a central conflict.
There are the major conflicts between Mark and Eduardo, and between Mark and the Winkelvosses. But the shape of the film turns these into battles about money and the lawsuits that Eduardo and the Winkelvosses bring against Mark. And ultimately, the movie dismisses the importance of these struggles, by having one of Mark’s lawyers say: “In the scheme of things it’s a speeding ticket.”
In other words, the movie is telling us that there are no stakes to this particular conflict. A conflict that we’ve just spent two hours watching.
And then there is the central question of this movie, the thing that comes closest to being a theme of the movie. And that is the question of whether Mark Zuckerberg is an asshole.
It’s introduced right at the end of the opening conversation with Erica, when she says, “You are probably going to be a very successful computer person. 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.”
And it is resolved in the very last line of dialog in this film, when Mark’s lawyer Marylin says, “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be.”
And that’s kind of the major theme of this film, that Mark isn’t an asshole, as argued over by two of the film’s three significant female characters. And I’ll note: while the movie seems to conclude that Mark is not an asshole, based on everything we’ve seen of him in the film, I beg to differ. He starts as an asshole, and he really doesn’t do anything to convince us otherwise.
In fact, I don’t know why Marylin tells him he’s not an asshole. We’ve certainly seen no cause for her to show him that kind of support.
Now Mark isn’t completely lacking in decency. He does have this one moment with Sean, after security has escorted Eduardo off the Facebook premises:
SEAN (CONT’D) You alright?
MARK Yeah. (beat) You were kinda rough on him.
That’s life in the NFL.
You know you didn’t have to be that rough on him.
Listen, I’m putting together a party–
Sean? You didn’t have to be that rough on him.
But that’s the only moment in this entire film when Mark shows any decency. Otherwise, he’s a complete asshole to just about everyone. He’s an asshole to Erica. An asshole to Eduardo. An asshole to the Winkelvosses. And an asshole to all the lawyers in the deposition.
And note that this moment of decency only happens after Eduardo has left, and after Mark justified betraying Eduardo by saying to his face: “You’re gonna blame me because you were the business head of the company and you made a bad business deal with your own company?!” Which, let us note, is something Mark says to his only real friend. Given that, I’m not convinced that Marylin is right. The Mark Zuckerberg in this film seems like a pretty complete asshole to me.
Okay, I’ve said some pretty harsh things about this film. I’ve said that in the last scene, the movie tells us that the central conflicts of the film have no stakes. I’ve said that the entire film is about the question of whether one character is an asshole, and I disagree with the conclusion that the film reaches. And at other times, I’ve noted that the character voices blend together, and a good case could be made that the film is misogynous.
So do I like this film?
Well, yes. I kind of do.
But I will say this. My experience in doing this podcast is that almost always, doing a deep-dive analysis of a film makes me appreciate and like that film even more. Seeing the details that makes these films work gives me a great appreciation for the craft that goes into the stories, the depth of the screenplays and films. And I love finding deeper nuances, all the cool ways that these scripts tell their terrific stories.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK is the first film I’ve analyzed where I came away from a deep-dive analysis thinking less of the film than I previously did.
Now don’t get me wrong. The film has its charms. Sorkin keeps the plates spinning and never drops a ball.
And obviously, a big part of that is the dialogue. The dialogue in this film is amazing. There’s non-stop quotable moments, and I wish I could converse with half the wit of a Sorkin character. It’s worth watching the film just to hear all the terrific Sorkin dialogue.
But when you strip this film down to the essentials, I don’t think there’s much here. The central conflicts have no stakes. The main character doesn’t learn anything from what he goes through. While some characters are sympathetic, none are really likable. And after my analysis, I’m left with the conclusion that this movie is a cinematic circus: plenty of big distracting acts, but no real nourishment beyond a little cotton candy.
So what lessons can we take from this?
First, if you can write dialogue like Aaron Sorkin, you can get away with murder. It doesn’t matter if all the characters have basically the same voice, as long as that voice is as witty as Sorkin’s voice. It doesn’t matter if there’s little substance to the story as long as the story is told with this kind of dialogue. And you can have two characters sit and talk for minutes at a time as long as the words they say were written by Sorkin.
I’m not sure how applicable that lesson is to normal screenwriters. But it’s certainly a lesson from this movie.
Second, a movie does need to mix it up, add different kinds of entertainment. If your core story doesn’t naturally include that mix, you had better find a way to add it. This film shows rowing races. It shows college hazing rituals. It shows hot girls in their underwear. None of that is really needed to tell the story of the rise of Facebook. But it does provide a distraction and breaks up the sameness. So it helps the film.
Third, note the use of the deposition scenes. They break up long conversations. They offer different perspectives on the action. They give frequent venues for Mark to be entertainingly dickish. They’re a terrific structural addition to this film. You probably wouldn’t want to use depositions per se in this manner, because now it’s been done. But consider some other similar structural element, a framework in which the story is being told. This is a story-telling method that is as old as Scheherazade, and it really works.
So that’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Next time we’re going to look at MICHAEL CLAYTON, the legal thriller from the mid-aughts, a script that is often held up by screenwriters as one of the masterpieces of the craft. So next time we’ll get to find out why that’s so.
Until then, check us out at Storylanes.com, where you’ll find the script of this episode, a link to THE SOCIAL NETWORK screenplay, and the Storylanes chart for this movie.
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This is Joe Dzikiewicz and the Storylanes podcast. Talk at you later.