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Sorkin vs. Zuckerberg

Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, the student who developed the website Facebook, in "The Social Network."
Columbia Pictures
In 2004, a Harvard undergraduate got an idea (yes, that is ambiguous) for a new kind of social network. Here's the important point: He built it. He had a bunch of extremely clever clues for opening up a social space that every kid (anyone younger than I am) would love. He architected that social space around the social life of the kids he knew. And he worked ferociously hard to make sure the system was stable and functioning at all times. The undergraduate then spread it to other schools, then other communities, and now to anyone. Today, with more than 500,000,000 users, it is one of the fastest growing networks in the history of man. That undergraduate is now a billionaire, multiple times over. He is the youngest billionaire in the world.

In 2009, Aaron Sorkin ("Sports Night," "The West Wing") got (yes, the same word) the idea to write a script for a movie about this new social network. Here's the important point: He made it. As with every one of his extraordinary works, Sorkin crafted dialogue for an as-yet-not-evolved species of humans-ordinary people, here students, who talk perpetually with the wit and brilliance of George Bernard Shaw or Bertrand Russell. (I'm a Harvard professor. Trust me: The students don't speak this language.) With that script, and with a massive hand from the film's director, David Fincher, he helped steer an intelligent, beautiful, and compelling film through to completion. You will see this movie, and you should. As a film, visually and rhythmically, and as a story, dramatically, the work earns its place in the history of the field.

But as a story about Facebook, it is deeply, deeply flawed. As I watched the film, and considered what it missed, it struck me that there was more than a hint of self-congratulatory contempt in the motives behind how this story was told. Imagine a jester from King George III's court, charged in 1790 with writing a comedy about the new American Republic. That comedy would show the new Republic through the eyes of the old. It would dress up the story with familiar figures-an aristocracy, or a wannabe aristocracy, with grand estates, but none remotely as grand as in England. The message would be, "Fear not, there's no reason to go. The new world is silly at best, deeply degenerate, at worst."

Not every account of a new world suffers like this. Alexis de Tocqueville showed the old world there was more here than there. But Sorkin is no Tocqueville. Indeed, he simply hasn't a clue to the real secret sauce in the story he is trying to tell. And the ramifications of this misunderstanding go well beyond the multiplex.

Two lawsuits provide the frame for The Social Network. One was brought by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, twins at Harvard who thought they had hired Zuckerberg to build for them what Facebook would become. The other was brought by Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg's "one friend" and partner, and Facebook's initial CFO, who was eventually pushed out of the company by Silicon Valley venture capitalists. These cases function as a kind of Greek chorus, setting the standards of right, throughout the film. It is against the high ideals they represent that everything else gets judged. And indeed, the lawyers are the only truly respectable or honorable characters in the film. When they're ridiculed or insulted by Zuckerberg, their responses are more mature, and better, than Zuckerberg's. (If you remember the scene in "The Wire" where Omar uses his wit to cut the lawyer to bits, that's not this film.) The lawyers here rise above the pokes, regardless of the brilliance in Zuckerberg's charge. This is kindergarten. They are the teachers. We're all meant to share a knowing wink, or smirk, as we watch the silliness of children at play.

In Sorkin's world-which is to say Hollywood, where lawyers attempt to control every last scrap of culture-this framing makes sense. But as I watched this film, as a law professor, and someone who has tried as best I can to understand the new world now living in Silicon Valley, the only people that I felt embarrassed for were the lawyers. The total and absolute absurdity of the world where the engines of a federal lawsuit get cranked up to adjudicate the hurt feelings (because "our idea was stolen!") of entitled Harvard undergraduates is completely missed by Sorkin. We can't know enough from the film to know whether there was actually any substantial legal claim here. Sorkin has been upfront about the fact that there are fabrications aplenty lacing the story. But from the story as told, we certainly know enough to know that any legal system that would allow these kids to extort $65 million from the most successful business this century should be ashamed of itself. Did Zuckerberg breach his contract? Maybe, for which the damages are more like $650, not $65 million. Did he steal a trade secret? Absolutely not. Did he steal any other "property"? Absolutely not-the code for Facebook was his, and the "idea" of a social network is not a patent. It wasn't justice that gave the twins $65 million; it was the fear of a random and inefficient system of law. That system is a tax on innovation and creativity. That tax is the real villain here, not the innovator it burdened.

The case for Zuckerberg's former partner is stronger, and more sensible and sad. But here again, the villains are not even named. Sorkin makes the autodidact Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster, the evil one. (No copyright-industry bad blood there.) I know Parker. This is not him. The nastiest people in this story (at least if Sorkin tells this part accurately) were the Facebook lawyers who show up in poorly fitting suits and let Saverin believe that they were in this, as in everything else they had done, representing Saverin as well. If that's what actually happened, it was plainly unethical. No doubt, Saverin was stupid to trust them, but the absurdity here is a world where it is stupid to trust members of an elite and regulated profession. Again, an absurdity one could well miss in this film between all the cocaine and practically naked twentysomethings.