Journerdism

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The Social Network: How “truthiness” becomes truth when trying to find a spicy storyline

The Social Network

I hate to be that guy, but before or very soon after you see “The Social Network,” you should really read the book(s).

The movie is amazingly shot, edited, musically-scored and written like any great fiction piece of our time, but it’s being passed off as non-fiction, which is difficult for me to swallow.

I’m not a huge Facebook fanboy. I respect the site. I’ve met and talked with people who work at Facebook (largely around mobile geo projects). I don’t know Mark Zuckerberg at all. I have seen him speak a couple times at South by Southwest, I’ve read dozens of articles about him and Facebook — largely because their creative culture fascinates me — specifically, how he maintains creative control in such a large and quickly evolving organization, what they’ve learned from such a large and diverse user base about how humans interact in the digital landscape and how modern “intellectual property” laws apply to web/software ideas.

Fueling this interest over the Spring, I read both “The Facebook Effect” by David Kirkpatrick (written by a former Fortune reporter who trailed Mark Zuckerberg for years working on this book about the company) and “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich (an author known for taking a creative, literary style with non-fiction events, who worked with Eduardo Saverin, the original Facebook co-founder/CFO who was kind of slowly removed from the company after it took off and Zuckerberg maintained creative and tech control).

I suggest reading Mezrich’s first, since it’s what the movie was largely based upon (with a HEAVY dose of Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s ‘Hollywood movie magic’ re-scripting and massaging of events). If you can get through all Mezrich’s overly-flowery prose, absent-third-party speculation, truthiness, one-sided view of the events surrounding Facebook’s founding from the side of the guy who got screwed out of billions and you’re any sort of an ethical journalist, you’ll see why this bothers me. This piece from Slate raises a lot of similar concerns. This is also another excellent view of the movie making process from Slate. (Via Kelvin Ma)

While critics are falling all over themselves praising this movie as this generation’s Citizen Kane, and journalists/tech correspondents generally seem to be doing the same, there are huge gaps in the story filled by speculation from a creative writer that just became a major motion picture and will become in our culture *the* official story of Facebook.

The Facebook Effect is definitely an interesting read and appears more accurate — and at least sourced, not filled with speculation and flowery narrative to fill in factual holes. Kirkpatrick may be a little too close to Zuckerberg, like some tech reporters can get with their subjects for access, but he’s not gaga or trying to spin the story into the first epic film for the digital generation.

I guess fundamentally what bothers me about The Social Network and Mezrich’s writing is how I’ve seen similar ‘truthiness’ in journalism. Everyone talks about how critical storytelling, storytelling, storytelling is. And it is, don’t get me wrong. But not if it subverts truth. The need to spin a story to find an angle or find a controversy or narrative arc really bothers me.

Zuckerberg / Facebook’s rise to fame is fascinating and unique enough, fabricating the truth to cast characters into clear roles as simply villains, good guys and pieces of meat (basically every female character in the movie) isn’t necessary. This story is more interesting than that and this generation deserves a smarter Citizen Kane than that.

4 Comments

  1. You do understand that this is a “movie,” and thus a work of this thing called “fiction.” Right?

  2. Wow, C.W., I’m kind of surprised and disappointed by that comment. I’d respected and thought fondly of you from following your Twitter account and that you wouldn’t make a film school freshman bully comment like that.

    If you’ve seen any of Sorkin or the cast’s interviews promoting the movie, you’ll see that they are promoting this as a piece on non-fiction and as a biography of Zuckerberg to the public. Here’s an example from last week where Sorkin accidentally slips up and calls the film fiction, then quickly corrects himself:
    http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/360641/september-30-2010/aaron-sorkin

    All the marketing, commercials and branding are promoting it as a biography also.

  3. Yeah but Will — applying the notion of “truthiness” to a fictional Hollywood film dilutes the entire notion of “truthiness.” And when applied to a fictional film, this paragraph just doesn’t make sense.

    “I guess fundamentally what bothers me about The Social Network and Mezrich’s writing is how I’ve seen similar ‘truthiness’ in journalism. Everyone talks about how critical storytelling, storytelling, storytelling is. And it is, don’t get me wrong. But not if it subverts truth. The need to spin a story to find an angle or find a controversy or narrative arc really bothers me.”

    As far as I’m concerned, artists working in Hollywood (or in any other fictional medium) can tell all the lies or create all the narrative arcs out of nothing that they want. They are in the lies business. And thank god. This particular line of argument just completely baffles me.

    And what’s disappointed *me* from people that *I* respect is their over-analysis of what appears to simply be a very good movie. And it seems — to me– that this analysis is being made by people who are so wedded to a utopian concept of what the new digital world offers us that they get incredibly defensive and humorless when someone happens to critique their particular vision, and do it well.

    I want Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher to lie as much as they possibly can in the service of their artistic vision. If it hurts Mark Zuckerberg’s feelings, I am sure he can be consoled by taking a nap on his giant piles of money.

  4. I don’t disagree with you that fiction movies should be fiction.

    Just don’t sell a fiction movie as non-fiction.

    That’s all.