Sorkin is fond of saying that when it comes to the drama behind Facebook’s creation, “fundamentally, you could tell the same story about the invention of a really good toaster.” That’s one of the few unconvincing arguments he makes for the movie, which has the virtue of not being generic. In fact, it seems like a story Sorkin was born to tell. No American dramatic writer wrestles more consistently, or enthrallingly, with issues involving the remorseless hyperspeed of the communications profession. And Sorkin is one of a small handful whose mere name is enough to evoke an entire conversational style—jabbing, self-aware, propulsive. It’s the sound of characters whose minds and mouths work faster than those of the people around them, guys whose conversational aesthetic is, in Fincher’s phrase, “about the absolute total tonnage of words.” Sorkin’s three TV series—the cult favorite Sports Night; The West Wing, which was originally less about the president than about his messaging team; and the failed Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip—have all been about people who spin skeins of sentences for a living, who lead with their brains and joust with their vocabulary. And in 2007, he took what now looks like a warm-up lap for The Social Network with his Broadway play The Farnsworth Invention, a story about the creation of television that pitted guileless inventor Philo T. Farnsworth against NBC founder David Sarnoff, a cold-blooded visionary. “I saw Farnsworth a few times,” says producer Scott Rudin, who was instrumental in pairing Sorkin with this material, “and one of the reasons I wanted Aaron to write this movie was, as much as he had found enormous pleasure in the Frank Capra story of Philo Farnsworth, it was clear to me that the person who wrote that play really had his heart with Sarnoff.”
The result may be what Fincher kiddingly calls “the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies”—not to mention a gimlet-eyed study of old-money, we’re-all-gentlemen-here entitlement versus the equally cutthroat stylings of classless (in both senses) New Economy titans. But it’s also something uniquely Sorkinian: an earnest, unsparing feature-length exploration of the question “What exactly does it mean to be an asshole?” It’s a tag with which Zuckerberg (played in the film by Jesse Eisenberg) gets labeled by a young woman in the first scene; two hours later, another woman semi-exonerates him, telling him he isn’t one, although the exact way she phrases it is pretty cold comfort. What lies between those bookends are a couple of philosophical stumpers for superachievers: How much of a jerk are you allowed to be in the name of getting the job done? And if you’re the smartest guy in the room, you know it, you act on it, and you don’t care who gets hurt, then what is the word for what you are?
The film’s journey to the screen began two years ago, when writer Ben Mezrich received a late-night e mail “from a kid who was a Harvard student who said that his best friend had co-founded Facebook and no one had ever heard of him.” That best friend was Saverin, a Brazilian-born 2006 Harvard grad who was, at that moment, embroiled in a legal wrangle with Zuckerberg over an attempt to drastically dilute Saverin’s ownership stake in the company and remove his name from the Facebook masthead. (Saverin eventually got his name and reportedly a huge chunk of his ownership restored in a settlement said to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.) Mezrich (Harvard ’91), a prolific author with a torrential, hyperbolic writing style who crafts his nonfiction with an eye toward the multiplex, went out for drinks with Saverin and soon fashioned his side of the story into a book proposal that went out to both publishers and studios—and also was leaked onto the web.
The idea captured the industry’s attention immediately. Hollywood has had the same kind of love-hate-fear-resignation relationship with Facebook that it’s had with almost every other Internet innovation—a downward spiral of enthusiasm from “We can exploit this to sell our movies!” to “We can’t figure out how to exploit this to sell our movies!” to “Has anybody else figured out how to exploit this to sell their movies?” to “Let’s just post a link to the trailer and call it a day.” But the possibility of bringing to the screen a brand with a fan base of half a billion was irresistible. Making a movie about Facebook isn’t like making a movie about Yahoo or Google. It’s a charged word—a symbol of groupthink, giantism, toxic oversharing, and the destruction of privacy to those who hate it and an absolutely essential mode of self-presentation to its adherents. Either way, it’s not a subject that breeds indifference. Even as two producers, Dana Brunetti and Michael DeLuca, were pitching it to one set of Sony executives, Rudin was talking to studio chief Amy Pascal. The three soon joined forces, with Rudin taking the lead and bringing Sorkin aboard as a writer early in 2009; Sorkin only “got to page three of the proposal” before calling his agent and saying, “I want to do this, sign me up.”