How 'The Social Network' Saved Mark Zuckerberg

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The Oscar-nominated movie was supposed to turn Facebook's CEO into a villain. So how did 2010 turn Mark Zuckerberg into a hero?

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When the first snippets of The Social Network trickled out in previews and movie blogs last year, the film looked like a takedown of Facebook's founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. The poster image said it all--a smoldering, triangle-jawed Jesse Eisenberg stared coldly ahead behind oversized font declaring, You Don't Get to 500 Million Friends Without Making a Few Enemies.

The film lived up to the ominous poster, villainizing Zuckerberg as an ambitious and unfeeling genius with no more emotional depth than the computer programs he spent his life coding. "You are probably going to be a very successful computer person, but you're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a nerd," fictional girlfriend Erica Albright told him in the film's opening scene. "And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole."

Well, she was right about the successful part. Facebook passed 500 million users just as the film reached theaters. In 2011, the site has hit 600 million users and has been valued at more than $70 billion. But the prophecy about people not liking him turned out, surprisingly, to be untrue. Last year could have been the kid's undoing at the hands of a sleek Oscar-nominated film. Instead, 2010 was the year Zuckerberg emerged as a tech-pop hero.

What happened?

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In 2010, Facebook got off to an inauspicious start. Twitter was stealing media buzz, and Mark Zuckerberg was getting railed in the press for his site's dizzying privacy rules. In May, Business Insider published a private IM conversation where he called Facebook users "dumb [expletives]." The Social Network seized the moment, billing itself as a dark origin myth, a release of nationwide frustration at the world's youngest billionaire.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the cineplex. People stopped hating Mark Zuckerberg.

A month before the film opened, the New Yorker published a mammoth, intimate profile of Zuckerberg that revealed Silicon Valley's enfant terrible to be ... well, a shy nerd with red-green colorblindness. A week before the film opened, the shy colorblind nerd announced a $100 million donation to Newark public schools on Oprah, earning him accolades usually reserved for moguls named Gates and Buffett.

In a well publicized interview after the movie's big opening, Zuckerberg appeared at a conference to make the perfectly reasonable point that the movie had a strange obsession with capturing his wardrobe honestly, but not his motivations. He didn't build Facebook to get even with an ex (in fact, he is living with the same girl he started dating in 2003 as a college sophomore.) Instead, he just wanted to "build something cool."

The Social Network might have slain a less savvy wunderkind. Instead, Zuckerberg emerged from the movie's opening weekends as the "boy-king of new capitalism"--uber-nerd, inventor, philanthropist, and his generation's greatest entrepreneur. "I was asked by older people again and again how I could play a character who is capable of being so mean, as if I were almost condemned by this role," star Jesse Eisenberg told the New York Times' David Carr. "But young people never had that reaction. They kept saying, 'This guy was a genius. Look what he has created.'"

Before the film debuted, writer Aaron Sorkin slammed Facebook both implicitly by saying he never used it and explicitly by saying it hurt our relationships. At the Golden Globes, however, he and producer Scott Rudin called him a "rock star." In September, the world's most famous coder was a silver screen villain. Now he's a comic book hero, an SNL star, and a White House dinner guest.

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Did The Social Network save Mark Zuckerberg? The film built a chopping block to cut down the young mogul and Zuckerberg used it as a platform. Rather than destroy him, the fictional biopic has strangely cast into relief all the ways in which he is totally not an "asshole." He's become a star, from Oprah's stage to Obama's table, from the streets of Egypt to the corner offices of Goldman Sachs. 

In December, Time magazine ran a cover photo of Zuckerberg staring ahead, emotionless, robotic, not unlike Jesse Eisenberg in the movie poster. Except this time, the cover text didn't say anything about enemies. It said: Person of the Year.

Credits: Columbia Pictures
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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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