With The Social Network sweeping the awards at last night’s Golden Globes, it’s time to brace for yet more mainstream attention — as if any were needed — for Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. As director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin polish their trophies and prepare themselves for possible Oscar-winning speeches, it’s easy to imagine executives at the company’s Palo Alto offices shaking their fists in fury.
Facebook has certainly had its troubles with the film in the past, and for good reason. There are plenty of well-documented arguments justifying Zuckerberg anger about the movie. It’s not exactly flattering. It paints him as something between arrogant and autistic. It suggests he’d sell his friends out for a buck. And it misrepresents his love life quite drastically for dramatic effect.
But Zuckerberg, despite the funds at his disposal, has essentially done nothing to shut it down. Why? Because he understands that the publicity generated by the movie ultimately makes him — and therefore Facebook — look more interesting than reality.
After I watched the film with some friends, we talked about it. Some admired the way the film managed to deliver a fairly accurate on-screen representation of programming — because, let’s face it, making coding look sexy is about as hard a task as you can imagine. Other friends thought it immature and demeaning to technologists.
Personally, I found the film a little boring. But I did emerge with an image of Zuckerberg that was, if not positive then certainly more powerful than it had been. The pseudo-Zuckerberg portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg might not be somebody I’d want to hang out with, but he was probably going to take over the world.
On screen, he is smart, rapacious and intimidatingly clever. He might clash with his friends, but he is willing to do whatever it took to turn Facebook into a success story. He is driven, analytical and apparently destined for success. I would lay money on the fact that investors at Goldman Sachs saw the movie and thought admiringly of this cutthroat young man who was motivated by a chance of glory.
In real life, of course, there’s plenty to be said for Zuckerberg’s leadership: he’s focused and determined, and has played it smart almost every step of the way. He might get caught asking for forgiveness rather than permission, he might have more than a few lawsuits on his hands, and might be redrawing popular concepts of privacy — but he’s found success almost every time he’s turned the corner. And whatever you think of Facebook’s $50 billion valuation, it certainly makes his regular decisions to keep hold of the company look like genius.
However, as an individual, he remains largely in the shadows. Even as Facebook has moved out of college dorms and into mainstream life, he kept fairly quiet. The odd awkward interview at SXSW or sweaty appearance at All Things Digital aside, he’s restricted his public persona.
But The Social Network has changed all that, and Zuckerberg has used the opportunity, whether it’s making a headline-grabbing appearance on Oprah, a confident keynote at the Web 2.0 Summit or racking up millions more users and big investors.
In the end, it’s this approach that has surprised me most about Zuckerberg, and demonstrated that he is even more clever than he is usually given credit for.
It’s unusual for somebody who clearly loves to be in control to hand his public image over to Hollywood, but Zuckerberg appears to have recognized that in the space of two hours, The Social Network does more to bring him alive than any public appearance could ever manage. Myth, in cases like this, is often more important than fact — and by giving the myth room to breathe, Zuckerberg proves he’s not just a business mind, but also a master of public relations. After all, he can let the Hollywood version of himself hog the spotlight while he laughs all the way to the bank.
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