Home > Freedom, Web > I don’t know if Mark Zuckerberg is a bad person

I don’t know if Mark Zuckerberg is a bad person

Since writing about how Time chose Mark Zuckerberg as Person of the Year I’ve gotten lots of traffic from people searching Google asking if Mark Zuckerberg is a bad person. I didn’t understand why people were asking Google, but last night I watched The Social Network and I realized that a major theme of the film is Mark Zuckerberg’s character. In rather artful form, the film leaves it an open question, but I can see how it would get people thinking. Surprisingly (and not) the film focuses on the legal question, and the moral questions that the legal questions are proxies for, as the meat of the plot. Despite that focus, it includes a lot of realistic dialog (“I need a dedicated Linux box running MySQL…”), and even realistic computer screens (KDE).

I was mainly interested in seeing the film for the music composed by Trent Reznor, but I saw the same themes coming up that plague our society and indeed fuel Facebook’s traffic today. The point of the film is basically that Mark Zuckerberg is a “post-modernist demon” who does what he does because he just loves hacking and wants to keep doing it, but that means he screws his friends and pisses off some wealthy meatheads in the process. I think that overall this is a good film and everybody should see it, if only for the problems that it demonstrates about our society.

I really liked that the film incorporated enough real programming. To hear someone mention Emacs in a major motion picture was just irresistible. As I said, the dialog was realistic: the characters discuss algorithms, they mention software by name (I heard Python, MySQL, Perl, Mozilla, Apache, …), and they discuss the values associated with the internet. I loved the photography. I LOVED the portrayal of Larry Summers. What was weird was

  • Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake, and well done Mr. Timberlake!) refers to Napster as a “downloading and sharing site” when it was no such thing; this was the most unbelievable piece of dialog in the film; people keep saying Napster was a “downloading site,” continuing to demonstrate how they just don’t get it
  • The sound was badly mixed; I’m trying to attribute this to my bad speakers, but in some places there was just too much noise in the background
  • When the Winklevoss twins ask Zuckerberg why he “uploaded for free” his “MP3 player” he just shrugs his shoulders: this is totally out of character. He should have said “I was done with it,” or “I thought people shouldn’t have to pay for it, I just did it for fun.” That’s what somebody who “doesn’t care about money” would have said. This part of the character was poorly defined

Come to think of it, except for his gusto for work, very little about Zuckerberg’s character is well-defined. The movie totally glosses over how Zuckerberg himself came from a wealthy background, and was extraordinarily privileged (news flash: most people who make lots of money already have lots of money) — he wasn’t that different from other Harvard students. None of it resolves or even comments on whether he is a bad person. It doesn’t matter. Whether the real Mark Zuckerberg is a bad person doesn’t matter either. I don’t care if he is, I don’t know if he is. Again, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if Facebook is a bad company; it doesn’t matter if Facebook provides a good product. I don’t think you should use Facebook, but it’s your choice if you want to. I don’t think you’re immoral for using Facebook. I don’t think that Facebook (the corporation) is immoral for providing Facebook; they could do it in a better way, but there is no categorical imperative for them to do that.

The problem is this: we, in America, tend to revere people who make a lot of money. When they make a lot of money, we recognize that greed is one of the seven deadly sins, and then we backtrack and we come up with all sorts of other reasons to respect that person. Take, for example, two other icons of the computer world Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. People openly acknowledge that both these characters were ruthless, backstabbing, cunning businessmen, and that’s why they made a lot of money. However, I regularly hear people refer to them as geniuses.

Really? Geniuses? Witness the following identi.ca conversation, where Fabian Scherschel insults Steve Jobs: even from within the free software community, he got replies saying basically “he’s a jerk, not an idiot.” Fab’s response was that insults needn’t be factually correct, which I basically agree with. However, it exposes the problem: we tend to associate “achievement” with “monetary achievement.” I think Jeffrey Lebowski (“the other Lebowski, the millionaire”) exemplifies this attitude best in the world of film characters.

The moral problem is not whether Mark Zuckerberg is a bad person. As I said, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that these are the people that movies are made about. What matters is that when people make a lot of money, we think they are good people, in one way or another.

  1. April 5, 2011 at 06:58

    Something you need to remember when assessing the writer and director’s assessment of Mark Zuckerberg, is that they fail to mention the context in which the character lives, one which most Americans do not. For example, characters repeatedly say that “Mark doesn’t care about money.” That is true in the sense that he doesn’t care about money compared to other characters in the film, i.e. other people who, just like Zuckerberg’s character, have the primary interest of starting businesses and making tons of money. Most Americans don’t live in that world, but the people in the movie do. Zuckerberg is portrayed as a gifted hacker (which he is, I’m sure) who cares only about the challenge of the problem.

    However the challenge is to make something people will buy. I point this out because this persona is often used to portray another character in the film, Bill Gates (appearing as himself). Gates is often portrayed as a genius hacker who managed to make a computer people will buy. Bill Gates appears (as himself) in The Social Network talking about programming Altair Basic. Bill Gates and Paul Allen were challenge-loving hackers, but the nature of the problem for them (as for Zuckerberg) was economically motivated. This is how it was for the micro-computer world, and it’s how it is for the web (mostly).

    This is a sharp contrast to the world of Bell Labs, the MIT AI Lab, and the Stanford AI Lab. These are the worlds that gave birth to Unix, Free Software and TeX, things that people created for the challenge and then gave away to the world. Consider just how different the motivation is between these different sets of people. I’m not saying that Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Mark Zuckerberg are not “true hackers,” but consider that when Gates and Allen wanted a real (not monetarily-driven) challenge, they programmed a PDP-10, the same machine used at the MIT AI Lab.

    You simply need to consider the world that people grow up in, and the one they consider themselves a part of. When the primary goal of that world is making money, then for someone to seem to “not care about money” doesn’t mean very much.

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