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.

Facebook isn’t a web site (or a spaceship), it’s a time machine

I’ve been thinking a lot about Facebook lately. A couple of months ago, maybe around the time Barrack Obama got the Democratic presidential nomination in Denver, a funny thing started happening with my 50 or so “friends” on Facebook. Since I joined earlier in ’08, there’s been an awful lot of dead air — most people never posted any photos or links, never commented, never even updated their status.

But with Obama-mania in the air, suddenly everybody was posting stuff. Here’s a link to an article about the election, followed by a few wry comments on the news, then a shared web site with reassuring poll results. And this burst of life around the election then began morphing into all kinds of Facebook activity. Instead of dead air, my Facebook home page suddenly was filled news from my cousin living in Namibia, jokes from former co-workers I met at jobs as long ago as 1993, photos of the neighbors canoeing near our house and on and on. And even now, with the election well in our rearview mirror, the activity continues.

Something big has happened with Facebook — not just big but, culturally speaking, huge, massive, gigantic. And it’s not anything you’ve read in the newspaper about the business prospects of Web 2.0 or the celebrity/genius founder Mark Zuckerberg as the next Bill Gates. In fact, it’s something much bigger and more profound.

Facebook is turning out to be more than just another web site where people go to post personal stuff. It’s a place where families gather to stay in touch across thousands of miles. It’s a venue for keeping in contact with your far-flung network of friends, real friends, the people you met in school or at an old job who now live someplace else or work someplace else. It’s reconnecting people on a day-to-day level in a way that hasn’t been possible since we invented planes, trains and automobiles.

There’s a classic scene in the already iconic TV series Mad Men that takes place near the end of the final episode of the first season. The lead character, Don Draper (played by John Hamm), offers his 1960 advertising pitch for the Kodak slide projector. Seeking to play on the emotions of potential buyers, Draper rejects positioning the projector as a mere piece of technology. Instead, he emphasizes its ability to stir nostalgic feelings by taking people on a trip through their memories, memories preserved in old slides.

Nostalgia. It’s delicate but potent. Greek, nostalgia literally means, ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards. And it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called ‘The Wheel.’ It’s called ‘The Carousel.’ It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around and back home again. A place where we know we are loved.

So, to continue my Facebook analogy, here’s a different word derived from Greek for you: diaspora. In Greek, – literally a scattering or sowing of seeds. The Greek sense may have come from the Hebrew, in Deuteronomy, Chapter 28, verse 25,  – also a scattering. Typically, we think of large ethnic and religious groups being scattered, often by conquest. But I’m positing today a different kind of diaspora, an unavoidable scattering of all the people you have ever connected with in your life. My best friend Matthew Davis from first grade who moved away, my good pal Mitch Davis from 10th grade who moved away, my posse from high school now living up and down the east coast, college friends, cousins, nephews, aunts and uncles, work friends from my first through thirty-first jobs, old neighbors, old teachers, parents of friends, friends of parents. You get the picture.

Now Facebook isn’t going to keep you in touch with ever person you ever thought was cool or who you stayed up with having a late night debate about politics. Nor would you want it to. But as I have mentioned before, our modern, highly-mobile society has lost “ambient intimacy” — the day to day and minute to minute knowledge of small developments in the lives of those who are important to us. Used properly, Facebook can re-create that kind of intimacy. And that’s not the end of it. The real power is that by keeping up with the minor stuff online, you want to see and talk to those people more and when you do, the interaction is richer and more rewarding. Try it and see.

Of course, some may argue that my vision of Facebook doesn’t match how everybody is using Facebook. And that’s certainly true. Some people have “friended” hundreds, many of whom they barely know, and use the site to broadcast their lifestream as a form of mini-celebrity. Young people, who live more of their daily lives online, may actually NOT want their parents or cousins or uncool classmates to tune in to their Facebook streams.

But none of that takes away from what Facebook can be for a vast number of people who have forged emotional bonds but are now separated by time and distance. Like Don Draper says: Facebook, it’s not a web site, it’s a time machine. It’s the family room of the 21st century.

p.s. This post started out as a comment about Facebook and the election on publisher and Internet smartie Rex Hammock’s Rexblog and is indebted to Leisa Reichelt, on whose blog I first discovered the term “ambient intimacy.”

p.p.s. (added 12/3) I elaborated on this theme in a comment posted on John Battelle’s blog about the difference between Twitter and Facebook.

Prior coverage:

Twitter continues integration of everything theme (5/8/2008)

Twitter continues integration of everything theme

my new twitter account

I was lucky enough to sit in on a blogging seminar this week given by the inestimable Jeff Javis, who’s got a million brilliant things to say about media, blogging and the Internet generally (though his Hillary flogging is getting a little tiresome). He’s quite high on Twitter, so I decided it was time to add this latest social networking, interconnectedness-of-everything service to my collection. Hmm, that sounds a little Borg-like. If you want to follow me or check in on my tweets, here’s my Twitter home page.

I can’t quite put my finger on precisely what I’m hoping to get out of Twitter, but it’s surely related to the theme of ambient intimacy that designer Leisa Reichelt first nailed on her blog back in March. Way, way back many centuries ago not long after the bible began, people lived in close physical proximity to their friends and relatives. Through a process of what I’d call social osmosis, they’d know what was up with everybody else even if they didn’t see or talk to everybody. You’d overhear something at the barbershop, in church, walking down the street. Now that we all live a million miles apart, that social glue has been lost. Seems like Facebook, Yelp, Twitter and other social networks are a techy form of social osmosis coming back.

Setting up Twitter was incredibly easy. I went to the site, picked out a user name and password and started updating. The service searched my Gmail address book looking for other Tweeters that I might want to follow. I also set up mobile updating using SMS in about 5 seconds. Then on Facebook, I installed the TwitterSync application which takes any Twitter update from my account and makes that my Facebook status. So now I can update my status from my mobile phone and have that message appear both in my Twitter feed and on my Facebook page. Cool. I also added the Mac dashboard widget Twidget to make updating from my Macbook Pro as easy as possible.

Yelping for fun and profit – well, fun anyway

Yelp dot com logoTrue to my astrological sign, Taurus, I’m always on the look out for some new, fancy-shmancy restaurant or coffee shop or paper store or whatever. As such, I’m starting to get more and more into the local review site I’m adding my Yelp profile page to my links list here and dropping the Facebook application Yelper to my FB profile page, too.

Yelp is a very long-tailish sort of Internet destination. Here I am in Needham, Massachusetts, reviewing and reading reviews for the local joints and establishments that I like best. I’m swimming in a pretty small pond of Yelp’s hundreds of thousands of reviews from cities all over the country. But I can see the amount of effort most reviewers put into their postings of places I know first hand and that makes me trust Yelp all the more if I’m going someplace new or looking for hot spots in a different city. It’s also another example of Facebook’s social network tying things together. With Yelper, my reviews show in my FB news stream for all my friends, hopefully encouraging them to become yelpers too and then feed me with their reviews. It’s a virtuous circle. Sweet.