How true is The Social Network? Entirely and not at all

The new movie The Social Network directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin purports to tell the story of Facebook’s founding. Like viewers of all major motion pics based upon true events, the audience is left wondering just how many of the events depicted in The Social Network really happened. How accurate is the movie? I was curious myself so I did some research.

It goes without saying that there are many, many spoilers ahead. Also, this blog post is based on numerous sources (linked and listed below) and will be updated and corrected over time as additional info comes out.

The beginning:
The opening bar scene between Mark Zuckerberg and “Erica Albright” is wholly made-up. But what happens next is pretty close to what really happened. Zuck did spend a long night his sophomore year drinking and coding up “Facemash” by hacking into various Harvard student directories. And he foolishly did live blog about his exploits. And that blog did include calling a woman named Jessica Alona (changed in the movie to “Erica Albright”) the b-word that rhythms with witch and made mention of comparing Harvard girls to farm animals. However, the site drew only about 450 visitors and crashed Zuck’s laptop, not the entire university’s network. And no one seems to know anything about Zuck’s relationship with the real Alona.

It’s been noted by Zuck and some of his supporters that the movie’s explanation of his motives is not accurate. He says he was not that interested in the final clubs and had a steady girlfriend throughout the entire period, Priscilla Chan, whom he married in May, 2012.

Much of the beginnings of Facebook, including Zuck’s meetings with the Winklevoss twins, his lack of work on their project while stringing them along, his roomates Eduardo Saverin and Dustin Muskovitz’s involvement in starting up “,” its incorporation in Florida and the eventual appearance of Napster founder Sean Parker is all basically accurate. Zuckerberg’s side notes that he also put money into the company beyond Saverin’s $19,000 but the bit about Saverin freezing the company’s early bank account is true.

The movie had a ton of first-person testimony to draw on for this section because both the Winklevosses (or Winklevii as they are sometimes called) and Saverin later sued Facebook. The lawsuits required a whole bunch of depositions grounding this section of the movie more solidly in reality.

The scene where Zuck sees Bill Gates speak at Harvard in February, 2004, really did happen although the exact question Gates answered appears not to have been “will there be another Bill Gates?” but “will there be another Microsoft?”

The Middle:
The scenes about Facebook’s move to California appear to be pretty accurate, as well. Zuck & Co did occupy a house in Palo Alto and they did string a zip line to the pool from the roof. Saverin went to New York for a summer internship at Lehman Brothers (oops). Zuck also appears to have marched in to Sequoia Capital (referred to as “Case Capital” in the film) in his pajamas and burned a few bridges at Parker’s behest.

How did Saverin and Zuckerberg’s relationship deteriorate? Again, the movie seems to have the basics correct. In reality, Saverin ran ads on thefacebook for another Internet company he had started that posted job listings. That was contrary to Zuckerberg’s strategy to attract a massive base of customers before running ads. And Zuckerberg didn’t think Saverin was doing anything to help the company from New York while Parker was opening doors with venture capitalists in California.

In one critical instant message at that time, Zuckerberg wrote: “Eduardo is refusing to co-operate at all…We basically now need to sign over our intellectual property to a new company and just take the lawsuit…I’m just going to cut him out and then settle with him. And he’ll get something I’m sure, but he deserves something…He has to sign stuff for investments and he’s lagging and I can’t take the lag.”

And so Zuck really did hatch a plan to push his old college roomie out of the company with the help of some crafty lawyering, as depicted in the film.

I’m not sure exactly how the Winklevosses April, 2004, meeting with Harvard president Larry Summers actually went down but probably with a lot fewer of Sorkin’s perfectly crafted zingers. In July, 2011, Summers called the brothers “assholes,” adding “Rarely, have I encountered such swagger, and I tried to respond in kind.” In a three-page response letter, the brothers contended that Summers was “tactfully challenged,” with his feet up on his desk and failing to rise to shake their hands as they entered.

A lot of the most entertaining confrontation scenes in the movie are completely made up, as far my research has found. The Winklevii did not find out Facebook had spread to England in the summer of 2004 while they were in England rowing at the Henley Regatta. They were rowing there but Facebook had yet to jump the pond. There’s no apparent basis for some of Fanning’s meaner moves and Eduardo did not smash Zuck’s computer. He didn’t even appear at Facebook headquarters after learning he had been cut out. Saverin had his lawyers notify the company of his intention to sue by letter.

And while it’s been reported that the scene of Parker at the party with cocaine use was “mostly made up,” Zuckerberg explained Parker’s departure from a serious role at the company by citing a similar incident. Journalist David Kirkpatrick, who was given extensive access to Zuck and recently profiled Parker in Vanity Fair, says “it’s also true that Parker got arrested for cocaine when he was with an underaged employee of Thefacebook, and shortly thereafter left the company.” Parker has a carefully worded denial out saying: “I was at no point apprehended “carrying” cocaine (or with cocaine in my possession/vehicle), indicted of any crimes related to cocaine, nor convicted of any crimes related to cocaine.”

And there are a few wholly invented characters in the movie, mainly Eduardo’s lawyer, “Gretchen,” and one of Zuck’s lawyers, played by Rashida Jones, “Marylin,” who delivers some great lines at the end of the film that are — wait for it — made up.

What about the filming? While some scenes were shot in Cambridge and around Harvard Square, the university did not give filmmakers permission to shoot on campus. Johns Hopkins stands in for the campus with some CGI used to glom on the Harvard skyline. Rowing scenes in Cambridge and England were filmed on location (see links in the comments for proof and far more detail on the rowing bits).

It’s true that Facebook settled with the Winklevosses for $65 million — their lawyers disclosed the settlement. The boys remain litigious and got back into court by suing those lawyers for malpractice (they lost) and were in turn sued over one of their later Internet business ventures, as well.

Eduardo Saverin is reported to have received a 5% stake in Facebook, worth over $1 billion. In February, 2013, Saverin, who now lives in Singapore, sat for a video interview at a Wall Street Journal conference. He praised the film as an entertaining piece of art that was not wholly accurate, but he didn’t go into much detail.

As for Zuck, he remains atop Mt. Facebook.

Personally, I have to agree with the conclusions of New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera, who said the film gets at the essential truth of how great businesses are created even if some details are false.

Please consider yourself encouraged to leave questions, challenges and/or corrections in the comments and thanks for dropping by.

Previously on Facebook isn’t a website (or a spaceship), it’s a time machine


Harvard Crimson article about Facemash 11/4/2003

A bunch more Crimson stuff is here.

Slate has compiled some of the early documentary evidence, including Zuck’s blog posts from the night of facemash and an email he sent to a Harvard official detailing his version of his interactions with the Winklevii.
Aaron Sorkin posted online about the accuracy of Zuck’s Facemash monologue and more generally the film’s depiction of woman on writer Ken Levine’s blog 10/10/10.
Harvard grad Nathan Heller, who says he knew Zuck there, whines about how the movie gets the culture and tone of Harvard all wrong in a piece in Slate on 9/30/10.
Aaron Greenspan, another Harvard contemporary of Zuck’s, claims he was the first to put the school’s facebook directory online. His story is up at the HuffingtonPost on 9/21/20.
A Harvard student who blogs as “Bows & Ivy” says the final clubs party scenes depicted in the movie’s trailer are pretty accurate in a 7/16/10 post.
There are also some first-person testimonials posted as answers to the question “What parts of the The Social Network (movie) are accurate and which are not?” over on the web site
A whole bunch of Zuckerberg’s instant messages from the era have been compiled by the BusinessInsider in a post on 9/21/10.

General articles covering facts in the movie include Luke O’Brien’s piece in Slate 9/30/10, the New York Times 8/20/10 article about Facebook’s reaction, and authorized Facebook historian/journalist David Kirkpatrick’s view in a post on the DailyBeast on 9/30/10.

Larry Summers discussed his encounter with the Winklevosses at a Fortune Magazine conference on 7/20/11 and the Winklevosses shot back with a letter on 7/21/11, as reported by the L.A. Times.