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.