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A Billion Dollars is Cool: Ambition and The Social Network

About halfway through David Fincher’s The Social Network, three characters—Mark Zuckerberg, his partner Eduardo Saverin, and Eduardo’s girlfriend Alice—are waiting in a posh California restaurant. The college students whisper about whether or not they’ll be carded. The person for whom they’re waiting is running late, very late, and according to Eduardo this is a bad sign. But the person for whom they’re waiting is Sean Parker, and Mark is not-so-secretly fascinated with the Napster bomb-thrower. Parker shows up, introduces himself, and asks Christy what she’ll be drinking, to which she timidly responds, “An appletini.” Great, he says, four of those. Because of Sean, the moment never exists where anyone will be carded, and that’s the energy, however selfish, that will drive the whole conversation.

The appletinis flow, appetizers come, Sean tells lots of stories about himself, and finally he gets around to discussing their idea. Eduardo asks Sean to settle an internal argument for them: should they begin to monetize their site by selling ads, or not? Sean thinks for a moment. “Well, it’s cool,” he says. "That’s what it’s got going for it. Ads aren’t cool; it’s like you’re throwing the best party on campus and someone’s saying it’s gotta be over by 11. This is no time to take your chips down. A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool?"

You? Eduardo asks in subtle mockery. Sean just smiles and says, “A billion dollars. And that’s where you’re headed: a billion-dollar valuation. Unless you take bad advice.” As even Eduardo put it, that shut everyone up. It’s a turning scene in The Social Network because, as the scene is written, there was something in Mark Zuckerberg that was awakened by this meeting; he’d always been smart and strong-willed, but now he would become truly ambitious. Once he saw the potential of his own idea—and, in Sean, the potential of people who treat ideas a certain way—he was able to become a businessman just as he’d been a strong-willed and talented programmer. As the cherry atop the scene, Parker signs the check and leaves, but not before saying what he’d wanted to say the most: “Drop the The. Just Facebook. It’s cleaner.”

The movie is, of course, the sensational interpretation of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher; when the real Mark Zuckerberg made a surprise appearance on Saturday Night Live, host Jesse Eisenberg (who played Zuckerberg in the film) asked him what he’d thought. “It was interesting,” Zuckerberg said, making an indulgence. But even if we want to think of the film’s treatment of Facebook as fictional, there’s a lot to learn from it about creative and professional ambition. This week, we’re cracking open one of the better films in recent history to find some seeds of wisdom—what can The Social Network teach us about the climb to greatness with our own ideas?

 

A Synopsis

A quick asterisk: there are spoilers for the movie throughout this article. Having said that, there isn't a ton to spoil, really, since (A) you've probably heard the high points already, (B) the film introduces the lawsuits fairly early on, and (C) since you can skim the real-world history or a breakdown of the movie's accuracy in a few short minutes. We may as well add that (D) the reason to watch the movie is its sharp dialogue and direction, and not the plot per se.

Told mostly in chronological order, The Social Network is the story of Facebook and its founders—mostly the one we still talk about, Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg, a student at Harvard, gets drunk one night after his girlfriend dumps him and, in a matter of hours, creates a controversial website called FaceMash. FaceMash has two results: it creates enough activity to crash Harvard’s servers, and in turn, it attracts the attention of the Winklevoss twins, a wealthy pair of brothers who are also world-class rowers and members of Harvard's Porcellian, one of the school's “final clubs” rumored to channel great social influence. The Winklevoss twins approach Mark about programming a new social network for them and they describe their idea, which they call Harvard Connection.

Mark mostly dismisses their idea as half-baked, a copy of Myspace or Friendster, but neglects to fully express those doubts while he begins a similar, better project of his own. He brings on his friends Eduardo Saverin, a finance prodigy who can supply their startup cash, and Dustin Moskovitz, another programmer. Mark stalls his communications with the Winklevosses until he can launch TheFacebook.com on his own, at which point they begin claiming he’s stolen their idea and send him a cease-and-desist letter. As the company grows, Mark and Eduardo meet Sean Parker, the eccentric founder of Napster who advises Mark on Facebook’s development and investment strategies, often counter to what Eduardo is advising or doing. When Facebook expands to two continents, the Winklevosses finally sue Mark; not much later, when most of Eduardo’s shares in the company are given away to new investors, Eduardo sues Mark to reclaim his portion. The film chronicles proceedings from both lawsuits, interspersed with the sequential story of Facebook’s early days at Harvard and the first offices in California.

The film informs us, at the end, that the lawsuits ended in large settlements to the Winklevosses and Eduardo Saverin even though, as one litigator described to Mark, those settlements were ultimately just “speed bumps.” Sure enough, the whole world knows Mark Zuckerberg’s name today, and everyone knows he (still) runs Facebook, now one of the largest companies in the world; by comparison Saverin, the Winklevosses, and even Sean Parker have been cast into obscurity. What happened to each of them?

 

What Happened with the Winklevosses?

By this telling, Mark Zuckerberg had a little of Frank Underwood’s Machiavellian realism in him (as it happens, director David Fincher is also an executive producer on House of Cards). As we learn later, Mark takes advantage of his own reclusiveness (and slipperiness) to avoid communication for long spells, as though he really thinks he can ignore the Winklevosses away completely—but once they (and their lawyer) corner him, it becomes apparent that Mark is willing to repay their insults (their offer to “restore his reputation” through Harvard Connection) by leaving them completely in the cold.

As bratty as Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg comes off sometimes, there’s a self-evident merit to many of his claims, such as the assertion that he wrote all of his own code. The movie makes it seem very likely that Mark did lift certain ideas for Facebook, such as offering the platform exclusively to certain schools in the beginning; still, the movie never fully sympathizes with the Winklevosses, instead portraying them exactly as Mark describes them: as a pair of bright, privileged people who have a hard time not getting their way.

This point is hammered home when the Winklevosses’ attorney asks Mark, at a moment of distraction, if Mark should be paying more attention to the proceedings. Mark’s answer is basically no (skip to 57 seconds):

Hypocritical though it is—Mark isn’t always honest in the story, and he’s certainly displaying condescension of his own here—he’s still right, and the facts would eventually play out to support him. The lesson is not about who’s right or who deserved what: it’s that the Winklevosses had some critical weaknesses in their plans, among them that they knew too little for themselves about execution and tedium and they were relying too much upon false sources of strength, like their father and his connections. There’s still plenty to respect about the Winklevosses, but as Mark put it bluntly: “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook."

 

WHAT HAPPENED with EDUARDO SAVERIN?

The movie doesn’t really victimize the Winklevosses; it does, however, make half a victim of Eduardo Saverin, who was knowingly screwed over and reduced to nothing before taking his case to the courts. We say he’s “half a victim” because, while we are convinced that Eduardo deserves the settlement he gets, we’re never made to feel like he was contributing, spiritually or intellectually, to Facebook’s success. Eduardo seems competent unto himself, but disconnected both from the vision of the company and from its real money-making and investment opportunities. He wants to “sell out” early. Sean Parker delivers practically overnight what he can’t deliver over the course of weeks or even months. Then, when Eduardo starts to feel closed out, he panics and freezes the company’s bank accounts. You understand completely why he did it—to get Mark’s attention for a serious talk—but you also completely understand why Mark is pissed about it, even why he holds a grudge; after all, a move like that puts the company at risk for total collapse. Even if you don’t want Eduardo out, you know he’s somehow not totally in.

You could say that Eduardo’s error was wanting to cash out too early; even if you stick with his argument in response, that he was looking out for the financial interests of the company by wanting to sell ads, he clearly wasn’t seeing the bigger picture. He understood growth, but he didn’t understand the vision of the social network; he wanted what was best for the company, but he was behind plays that would have stunted or potentially even killed the company. Saverin is smart, too, but his biggest problem is that he’s a naysayer who's short on imagination; maybe imagination isn’t the forte of a financial prodigy and maybe naysaying is a responsibility for a fiscal administrator, but the rules are different for startups and companies like Facebook. Thinking in the pattern of “yes and” is kind of important for visionary companies. Saverin is a “no but” kind of character; his is the opposite of creative energy.

Sean Parker, as Eduardo's foil, reveals everything that Eduardo is not. When Christy worries about being carded for their eventual appletinis, Eduardo says it'll probably be fine—but Sean is the one who makes the drinks come without worry. Eduardo dislikes that Sean is late (despite, as he points out, owning a watch), but Sean is also the person who makes time irrelevant once he shows up. Eduardo is uncomfortable about some of the controversy Sean has courted, but as Sean points out, the fact that people know him at all proves he's done something right. 

Sean has his own hangups for being the way he is; he gets himself into trouble. But he illustrates the principle that sometimes danger and opportunity look a whole lot alike, and it's this basic idea that Eduardo can't grapple with. He doesn't understand that making Facebook as huge as it could be required him to abandon parts of the established, cautious, rational, and incremental thinking he'd assumed were best. He couldn't become the master of his own thinking in time, so he wound up betting certain chips against his team and he lost. 

 

Where Does That Leave Zuckerberg?

Alone, mostly. Come the film's conclusion, it's just Mark—no Eduardo, no Winklevosses, no lawyers. Everyone has said their piece, and all that's left is to tally up the final score. Mark doesn't seem to have succeeded by masterminding the game, as Frank Underwood might have; as the size of the settlements would furnish, Mark didn't fully get his way, and no one walked away a loser. But he is the lone victor of this situation, the one who keeps the lion's share of wealth, prestige, and power for himself.

 

He seems to inherit that sum not because of his position, or his talent, but because he was centered in the midst of the right factors: a strong personal skillset for independent work, a serving of stubbornness and self-reliance, a collection of people who bolstered and challenged his vision, a handful of motivations to make his creation better, and not least of all, a genuine belief that his creation could change the world if only he'd think big enough. He wasn't the storm, as we might describe Frank Underwood; rather, Mark Zuckerberg just kept himself at the calm center of the storm.

We don't have to extend any sort of myth that Facebook is Zuckerberg's magnanimous donation to the world—despite the genuine good that he seems invested in now. No matter how the story actually went, we may as well imagine that Sean Parker said something like the lines given Justin Timberlake: that a million dollars isn't cool, but a billion dollars is. To borrow another analogy from their conversation: Facebook wouldn't have been impressive if it were just another fish someone had caught; it had to grow to marlin-sized before it was a catch worth displaying.

Maybe we can put it in selfish terms: more for Facebook does mean more for Mark, after all. But Facebook isn't just about Mark anymore; since it has gotten big and filled out a lot of its potential, it's connected the world in new and important ways. Stories like The Social Network are largely fictional, and they can lay bare how great works are driven by personal interests, even things like intense greed. But Sean Parker was right: Facebook is cool. And, for everyone being able to share in it, it's cool that it didn't stay small. 

Thanks for reading Ampersand, the Code&Quill blog. (Last week, we wrote about chairs, computer monitors, and other workplace hazards for creative people, so click here to take a look if you missed it.) If you’d like highlights from the blog, plus brand-new info about upcoming products and promotions, feel free to join our email newsletter here.

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