Will Zuckerberg portrayal as 'villain' hurt Facebook?

Movie portrays Facebook CEO as socially inept, angry and calculating

In the movie, The Social Network, the co-founder and CEO of Facebook doesn't come off as the nicest guy in town.

Mark Zuckerberg is portrayed as a socially inept and angry young man who becomes more villain than hero through the course of the creation of Facebook. And since the movie is being released as Facebook hits meteoric success, will users care that the man who helped create Facebook might have screwed his business partner and stolen the idea for the site from fellow students?

Could this movie, which was released nationally today and received critical acclaim, hurt the social network?

"Well, I guess it depends on if he comes off as a smart villain or a dumb and feckless villain," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "A smart villain is always better -- sort of like Bill Gates versus Steve Jobs back in the day. Gates was portrayed as a villain, but a smart one."

In The Social Network, Zuckerberg comes off as the smartest guy in the room. He breezes through classes. He supposedly wrote the initial coding for Facebook while he was drunk. And his Harvard classmates seek him out as a wunderkind of programming.

According to the movie, Zuckerberg had few friends and lost a girlfriend because he lacked the social graces to have a simple talk with her without carrying off into tangential conversations and condescending remarks on her every other sentence.

The Zuckerberg in the movie is a man on the other side of the glass always looking in. And it's starting to get under his skin.

"How do you distinguish yourself in a group where everyone got 1,600 on their SATs?" he asks at one point. "The ability to make money doesn't mean anything around here."

So after getting dumped by his girlfriend, he decides that the way to get attention is to hack into computer systems at Harvard, where he is a student, download female students' pictures and set up a site -- Facemash -- where people can compare the hottest women and vote on them.

It may have generated him admiration among the techie set on campus, but not among the general population.

From there, the movie goes on to show Zuckerberg taking an idea from two fellow students -- twin brothers Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss -- for a social site for Harvard students. Zuckerberg supposedly strung them along for weeks while he took their idea and used it to create Facebook.

After that, the movie portrays Zuckerberg as turning on his co-founder and CFO Eduardo Saverin, slowly diminishing his role in the company and eventually deceiving him into signing away his shares of Facebook. Saverin had been Zuckerberg's best friend -- maybe his only friend.

In the movie, Zuckerberg's lawyers persuade him to settle lawsuits brought by the Winklevosses and by Saverin simply because they couldn't make a jury like him. "You're not an a____, Mark," one attorney tells him. "You're just trying so hard to be one."

Saverin walked away from a resulting lawsuit with an undisclosed settlement and his name back on Facebook's masthead. The twins received a $65 million settlement.

So what will this negative image mean for Facebook, which recently grabbed its 500 millionth worldwide user?

"Even a really bad portrayal would be marginal because people tend to disconnect founder behavior from the technology they purchase or use," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "Users of Facebook will likely see this as more of a problem between Zuckerberg and the people he works with than with them. It will likely serve as a cautionary note to people Facebook wants to partner with, though, and that could make necessary alliances much more difficult."

Brad Shimmin, an analyst with Current Analysis, noted that The Social Network highlights how pervasive social networking has become in people's everyday lives.

"Obviously, the timing is perfect for the film, as Facebook and social networking, in general, permeates so many facets of our lives right now," Shimmin said. "I think the fact that a mainstream film dealing with the creation of a company long before that company becomes a mature player speaks both to the success of that company and to the importance of its subject matter."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com .

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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