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Posted at 4:15 PM ET, 09/28/2010

'The Social Network': Will the Facebook movie hurt Facebook's business?

By Jen Chaney

Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, plotting Internet dominance with Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker in "The Social Network." (Sony)

After emerging from a screening last week of the highly anticipated "The Social Network" -- the dramatization of the evolution of Facebook that, for the record, is every bit as compelling as all the buzz suggests -- I overheard two women engaged in animated chatter.

"Such a jerk," I heard one of them tell the other, clearly referring to Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook co-founder who, as portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in the movie, comes across as an opportunistic, speed-talking, insecure little weasel.

Then I overheard this same, clearly agitated woman say something really interesting. She told her movie-going companion that she would "never spend time on that Web site" again, implying that Zuckerberg's behavior -- again, at least as portrayed in the film -- had completely turned her off of Facebook.

The two women, ,who looked to be in their fifties, didn't necessarily strike me as the sort of online addicts that spend entire afternoons avidly "liking" comments and posting viral videos on their friends' walls. Still, the comment made me wonder whether "The Social Network" -- a film that very publicly airs all the ugliness involved in launching the Web site that made everyone in the world our potential friends -- will turn some social networkers against Facebook.

A look at other movies that have dared to criticize corporate entities suggests that Facebook will be just fine.

McDonald's continues to serve plenty of Big Macs and Quarter Pounders, despite all the unsavory details about its food that were revealed in "Super Size Me." During challenging economic times, apparently people still want their cheap burgers and fries, regardless of whether they temporarily affected Morgan Spurlock's health.

General Motors and the auto industry in Detroit have certainly struggled. But that would have happened regardless of what Michael Moore did or said in "Roger and Me." Speaking of Moore, even the scathing "Fahrenheit 9/11" didn't stop George W. Bush from getting re-elected in 2004.

And Microsoft and Apple seem to have gotten along just fine since "Pirates of Silicon Valley," the history of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, aired back in 1999 on TNT. Granted, that was a TV movie that didn't capture nearly the same level of attention that "The Social Network" likely will.

Still, the pattern is clear; a critical movie can certainly change public perception and create some bad buzz around a brand, but it's pretty rare for one to single-handedly reverse the fortunes of an entire business operation, especially one as ubiquitous and potentially valuable as Facebook. Too many of us are addicted to the capacity to track down our old college dormmates and get convenient updates on our friends' Farmville progress to just turn our backs on Facebook.

The brand that may have to worry, however, is the individual one known as Mark Zuckerberg. Fairly or not, "The Social Network" portrays him as a colossal jerk, one who -- spoiler alert! -- is willing to royally screw over a close friend in the name of creating an online network that's designed to -- irony alert! -- foster friendship. The fact that said friend, Eduardo Saverin, is portrayed by the talented and incredibly likable Andrew Garfield only makes Zuckerberg the character look like that much more of a dillweed. (BTW, after his ridiculously adorable appearance last night on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," is it possible *not* to adore Andrew Garfield? Answer: no.)

For the record, Zuckerberg did not cooperate with the making of the movie and, as a New York Magazine piece points out, Aaron Sorkin's screenplay is based on the same narrative arc in an Andrew Metzger book, portions of which have been criticized for sounding more fictional than non-fictional.

In recent days, Sorkin has even risen to the guy's defense, as has Eisenberg. In an interview with MTV, he says:

"He does things that are occasionally hurtful to other characters, but I think it's always coming from a real place. He prioritizes Facebook over his personal relationships. This is not something that I think is bad. His interest is elsewhere, so he severs these personal relationships he has in the movie in order to take Facebook in the direction that it needs to go. I think it's a completely defendable position."

To Eisenberg's point, and the film's credit, the story and the characters are presented in all their complexity, which means that Zuckerberg hardly comes across as Voldemort. Still, a lot of moviegoers tend to see things in pretty stark shades of black and white; for many of them, it may be hard to walk out of the theater feeling terribly sorry for the guy.

"The Social Network" stands poised to become the definitive cinematic commentary (at least for now) on the Internet age. If that happens and it's as widely seen, debated and lavished with award nominations as it seems likely to be, more people will know Zuckerberg as the Jesse Eisenberg version than the actual man himself. That means that when his name is spoken, at least for the initial period following the film's release, some people won't initially think, "Hey, that guy's one of the youngest billionaires in American history." They will think: "Hey, that's the guy in that movie who treated his best friend like a pile of dirt."

Of course, we do live in a forgiving culture. With that in mind, do you think Zuckerberg -- or any negatively portrayed public figure -- can overcome the bad impressions that may remain after a film, book or TV series about their lives becomes a cultural phenomenon?

By Jen Chaney  | September 28, 2010; 4:15 PM ET
Categories:  Movies, Pop Culture  
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This movie will have no effect on Facebook's usage and popularity.

Posted by: steampunk | September 29, 2010 8:27 AM | Report abuse

As you stated, being a jerk hasn't hurt Bill Gates or Steve Jobs very much. I think Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook will be fine.

Posted by: JLRGG | September 29, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

No i believe the facebook movie will help facebook actually.

Posted by: shawnamaker | October 1, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

I like the song but the writer is a jerk, who cares.

Posted by: bltkitsap | October 3, 2010 1:26 AM | Report abuse

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