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Summary:

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is portrayed in the new movie The Social Network as being obsessed with impressing a girlfriend and getting noticed by an exclusive club at Harvard, but early Facebook employee Matt Cohler says the character is nothing like the Mark Zuckerberg he knows.

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Like thousands of other people, I caught a screening of the Facebook movie — The Social Network — which opened today. But after the one I attended, just south of San Francisco in Redwood City, Calif., there was a panel discussion at the theatre hosted by Kara Swisher of All Things Digital, and featuring a number of commentators talking both about the movie and about the issues of privacy and social networks (even though those don’t really come up in the film). Not to take anything away from the other participants, who included Michael Fertik of Reputation Defender and Ryan Calo of the Consumer Privacy Project, but the most interesting perspective came from Matt Cohler, an early Facebook employee who is now a partner with the venture firm Benchmark Capital.

Cohler was employee number seven at the social network, and became the VP of product management before leaving to join Benchmark in 2008 (when Swisher asked what he did at Facebook, he answered simply “stuff”). Cohler wasn’t one of the core group of friends who started the site, but joined after venture investor Peter Thiel put $500,000 into the company in return for a 10-percent stake (which is now worth an estimated $3 billion or so). Although his view of the film may be colored by the fact that he’s still an advisor to the company, Cohler was quite emphatic that the Zuckerberg character in the movie isn’t really anything like the person he knew and worked with.

“I don’t think that character bears much relationship to Mark,” he said. “The movie is a Hollywood fairly tale.” Cohler added that there were what he called “a billion little details” that were off about the portrayal (Swisher said that one was how talkative the film version of Zuckerberg was, and that the real Zuckerberg doesn’t talk nearly as much), but that the thing that seemed the most fictional was “the idea that Mark created Facebook because he had this girl he wanted to impress, or because he wanted to get into this exclusive club — that’s just wrong.” In reality, Cohler said, “Mark is not the kind of person who has ever needed that kind of recognition to feel good about himself.”

Later in the discussion, in response to a question, Cohler said that one of the other things that felt wrong about the movie was that “everyone talks about how the site has to be cool, it has to be cool — but that’s the opposite of what actually happened.” When author David Kirkpatrick talked to Zuckerberg about the network during research for his book The Facebook Effect (the one the movie isn’t based on), Cohler said, the author asked how Facebook was going to keep the service cool, since MySpace was at that time a competitor, and Zuckerberg responded, “We’re not trying to keep Facebook cool, we’re trying to keep Facebook useful.”

Unfortunately for Zuckerberg — and most of the other people portrayed in the film, including co-founder Eduardo Saverin (who sued and won an unnamed sum), the Winklevoss twins (who sued and won a settlement of $65 million) and Sean Parker (who is portrayed by Justin Timberlake as a self-absorbed paranoiac) — a script about a bunch of programmers in a room writing code to make a website more useful wouldn’t make it past the slush pile at any movie studio in Hollywood, no matter how much that company is allegedly worth.

  1. Ok, yeah, so Mark is perfect. Just happens to be one of several very successful founders of tech companies. Sergey, Larry page, Larry Ellison, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs to name a few.

    What is different? Mark is the only one that has been sued — many many times for ALL kinds of bad actions. Fact.

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    1. Jossef What plaent are you on. Bill gates is the king of product, patent and idea theft. Not to mention monopolistic litigation by the US Government. I know many first hand stories of people Gates has stole from.

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  2. I really really really enjoyed this movie but at the same time kept telling myself that it’s… well… just a movie, therefore deviating from reality in many ways, whether Zuckerberg is an asshole or not. The goal of any hollywood mainstream movie is more to entertain than to inform. The best way to learn about people is not by watching their biopic or even reading their bio (closer to the truth though, but still biased) but rather by knowing them personally. The rest is just conversation.

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  3. I do not think PT owns 10% of FB. He has sold shares in the 2nd market. Also, in order to not dissolve his 10% he had to put in more than just $500,000 over a 6 year period as other investors jumped on board.

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  4. I am a bit doubtful in believing that Zuckerberg and the team were interested in building something that wasn’t cool and was useful. I do believe they wanted to create something better than MySpace or Friendster and marketed it as being exclusive because that was (is?) the Harvard culture of the various frat houses or clubs on campus. When Facebook exploded in popularity, that left them with trying to describe their success and their vision without actually having a strong vision. If they did, wouldn’t they have created Facebook before MySpace/Friendster, or at the very least, had a stream of updates before Twitter developed it?

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    1. I really think James’ comment has the ring of truth to it, particularly the part about exclusiveness being central to their marketing success. As a Harvard alum myself, I can attest to what extent some people will go to be associated with people from this major school brand and those of its peer institutions. This explains a lot of the success that Facebook has achieved. Notwithstanding all the other differentiating factors and features that set it apart from other social networking sites, I honestly don’t think Facebook would have succeeded had it not been founded at a school like Harvard. And, FB management’s denial of the veracity and importance of the essential betrayals portrayed in this movie and elsewhere just doesn’t seem to jive with the many lawsuits that continue to pop up around Zuckerberg. If you listen to Cameron Winklevoss tell it, you have to ask whether Mr. Z may just be a sociopathic billionaire.

      True or not, and in addition to the need for some serious investments in reputation management, I think eating a lot of humble pie is in order for Zuckerberg et al, unless he wants to see his empire crumble and his paper billions never get fully realized. I for one probably won’t be buying Facebook stock once they go public; it’s too risky given how their CEO’s reputation is looking rather shaky these days.

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  5. [...] Matt Cohler Says That’s Not the Zuckerberg He Knows Like thousands of other people, I caught a screening of the Facebook movie — The Social Network — which [...] [...]

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  6. Can anybody explain to me why almost all the media is trying to defend Mark? Is it because he told so? I haven’t watched the movie yet, but is there any line like “this is a true story about what exactly happened”? Isn’t it obvious that the fiction is fiction, not a documentary? Isn’t it clear that people always gossip about “stars”, but in reality noone accepts it seriously. The more they are clearing themselves, the more it seems to me they have something to clear. Before those articles “The Social Network Is Not True”, I never though it was going to be true.
    Anyway, how can at all some guy comment on historic authenticity of the facts described in the article, if he learnt Mark already after that? From this perspective, I can also tell that Mark is at all not the person described because I saw his interview?

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  7. Saw it again and it was simply as good, this time I caught all the nuances in the movie and there was extra humor than I thought. Only a superior move all around.

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