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Based on a true story

| Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Facebook has come under fire. It was recently discovered that during the 2016 presidential election, political research firm Cambridge Analytica gained access to the data of 87 million of the site’s users. Multiple other allegations of privacy violations by the site have since surfaced.

On April 10 and 11, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg went to Capitol Hill to address these allegations. He sat through 10 hours of deposition hearings in front of the U.S. House and Senate. For many, myself included, the Zuckerberg presented at these hearings was surprising — and not because he was seen out of his famous T-shirt and hoodie attire. He was surprising because he was so different from the Mark Zuckerberg seen in the 2010 film “The Social Network.”

In the movie, Zuckerberg is portrayed as a genius. He’s awkward, yes, but undeniably intelligent. He’s a torrent of wit and candor who speaks so quickly, so confidently, the audience becomes exhausted by his intellect and can’t even attempt to keep up. He’ll talk himself out of trouble with the Harvard Advisory Board and disarm the Winklevoss twins (and their attorney) with comments like “You don’t need a forensics team to get to the bottom of this. If you guys were the inventors of Facebook … you’d have invented Facebook.”

But that’s movie Zuckerberg. He’s a fictional character, created through the combined efforts of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher and actor Jesse Eisenberg. Real-life Zuckerberg isn’t much like him at all. He spent most of his time in the Senate hearings stumbling through responses and nervously sweating. Many people may be disappointed to find out the almost insufferable genius from “The Social Network” doesn’t exist. In fact, the movie changed much of the real story of Facebook’s creation. Zuckerberg didn’t create “Facemash” in a bitter response to a breakup. His forcing of Eduardo Saverin out of the company had nothing to do with jealousy over the latter’s acceptance into the Phoenix Club at Harvard. Napster founder Sean Parker didn’t coincidentally live across the street from the Facebook team in the summer of 2004. “The Social Network” is a movie. The story it tells is just that — a story. But that doesn’t make it of any less value.

Adapting real-life events for fiction is difficult. There are restrictions in place that aren’t at all present when creating a completely fabricated story. Producers have to walk a fine line between giving audiences a faithful portrayal of events and still providing an engrossing plot. Some things have to be dramatized. Some things may be too unrealistic (even for a movie) and have to get toned down. Characters have to be removed or added, and those based on real people cannot be changed in a way that will harm anyone’s reputation. The inaccuracies in “The Social Network,” and every other adaptation of a true story, exist because of these restrictions.

Watching “The Social Network” doesn’t give you an accurate account of how the world’s most popular website was created. It will not help you understand the current Senate hearings surrounding user privacy. It can’t teach you how to code, and it doesn’t tell you anything about what the real Mark Zuckerberg is like. It doesn’t do anything like that.

But it entertains. It captures the feeling of Facebook’s turbulent founding and provides insight into how the major players dealt with it. It says something valuable about truth and its distortions and its ambiguity. It demonstrates that real-life events can have merit and applications outside of just those real-life events. “The Social Network” and every other film adapted from real-life events can, and should, be bigger than just what actually happened. It doesn’t have to be confined by the boxes of reality.

It’s a better story that way.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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