If you've seen ads for David Fincher's upcoming flick The Social Network, you know it's about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. But the tone is like Fincher classic Fight Club. The Social Network is that rarest of things: a scifi docudrama.
Based in part on a book about Silicon Valley millionaires, the movie was written by West Wing producer Aaron Sorkin and is ostensibly about how Zuckerberg built Facebook at Harvard, and then was sued by his friends who funded it. It stars Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg, who sounds in the promo above more like a mad scientist creating brain implants than a dweeb mashing some PHP together.
Zuckerberg as evil mastermind
Fincher is drawn to stories of smart psychopaths - Se7en, Fight Club, and The Game all feature brilliant madmen - and he's clearly cast Zuckerberg in such a role for The Social Network. And can you blame him? Zuckerberg's weird public appearances and well-publicized legal battles with former colleagues make him the perfect cipher on which to project our worst fears about moguls in the industrial-surveillance complex.
Plus, Facebook often seems to have been spawned by some kind of evil world-domination plan. Over the years, Zuckerberg has made multiple blunders where his users' privacy has been severely compromised: We've seen everything from widgets that broadcast your recent purchases to all your "friends," to privacy settings that reveal your personal musings to people you never expected (including Facebook advertisers). Despite putting his users at risk of everything from fraud to stalking, Zuckerberg seems "devoid of emotion," according to some media reports, and speaks in a "monotone punctuated, finally, by a cruel little smirk."
So the science fictional version of Mark Zuckerberg is a smirking supervillain who views our personal lives as assets to be sold. He's a perfect contemporary bad guy, and basing him on a real person - whose private life will no doubt be hell when this flick comes out - makes the movie itself an example of the privacy-destroying culture it's trying to chronicle.
Facebook as the technology that destroys reality
Facebook can also be looked at as a real-life version of the game that takes over your life in Fincher's late-1990s movie The Game. In that movie, a bored exec gets a gift from his brother, which turns out to be a thriller game that intrudes into your life, ARG-style. Neurotic hero Michael Douglas is left wondering which parts of his life are real and which are just staged scenes from the game.
In a slightly more benign way, Facebook has created an online world where reality and fiction blur. You never know for sure who is "real" on Facebook. And how much should you really trust your "friends" there? At its most dangerous, Facebook can be a stalker's paradise, and leaves people vulnerable to all kinds of cons.
The society-becomes-dreamworld aspects of social networks are great ingredients for a science fiction story, and that's exactly what Fincher is bargaining on. I anticipate that The Social Network will be present-day science fiction ala William Gibson's recent novels Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, where we are ostensibly in the present but everything feels futuristic.
I am under no illusion that there will be any truth to the portrait of Zuckerberg in this movie. But I do think the idea of Zuckerberg makes for a great tale of an Information Age supervillain. And in a dark, schadenfreude-packed part of myself, I'm pleased to see Zuckerberg subjected to the same (often unflattering) fictionalization that his own creation has subjected millions of people to already.