Just When I Was Working Up Some Sympathy for Mark Zuckerberg—Facebook Blows It Again

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“never informed that I was ‘force-joined'” to the group. “If you guys want to run these new features by me before you launch them, I can probably save you from a couple of privacy lawsuits each year,” Calacanis quipped.

Anyone who’s watched The Social Network is bound to see some irony in the way Facebook Groups works. The premise of the movie is that Facebook’s early years were shaped by Zuckerberg’s bitterness over his exclusion from Harvard’s patrician final clubs. In Sorkin’s version of history, Zuckerberg double-crossed first his business associates Cameron and Tyler Winkelvoss, varsity rowers and Porcellian Club members for whom he’d agreed to develop a social networking site called Harvard Connect, and then his friend Eduardo Saverin, who was Facebook’s first investor and business manager but was frozen out of the company after he was accepted to the Phoenix Club.

If you buy all of that, then the funny part is that Zuckerberg wanted to get into a final club but was never invited—and now Facebook puts people into groups without even asking them.

Of course, it’s hazardous to make comparisons between the real world and the patently dramatized one of the movie. What upset me most* about The Social Network was its relentless portrayal of Zuckerberg as a self-absorbed adolescent whose ambition to build a new kind of communications tool—one of the most successful the world has ever seen—was entirely the product of his sublimated resentment. (I’m not sure whether this message originated in Ben Mezrich’s book, Sorkin’s screenplay, Fincher’s direction, or Jesse Eisenberg’s merciless performance as Zuckerberg; perhaps it was all of the above.) Zuckerberg is shown in the movie to have software-engineering chops, but there’s no sign that the filmmakers appreciate or even understand what he invented or how that invention is changing the world.

It’s not often that Hollywood turns its magic on entrepreneurs—so it’s a real shame when the guy who’s arguably the most influential entrepreneur since Bill Gates or Steve Jobs gets portrayed as an anti-hero. Facebook, despite its privacy missteps, has created something of real value and meaning to millions of people seeking to stay in contact online. (Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig makes this point much more eloquently in his review of the movie for The New Republic.)

But while I think Fincher and Sorkin give us a sadly distorted and one-sided picture of Facebook, I wouldn’t call them fabulists. Clearly, the filmmakers had a lot of real-world material to draw upon, and Facebook, in its endless push-and-pull with users over who gets to access and control their data, seems to keep creating more. Why is it so hard for the company to understand that people might not want to be added to groups and e-mail lists without giving their permission first? This is why Google Groups and virtually every other group and mailing list mechanism I know about are opt-in by default, not opt-out. The “force-join” nature of the new Groups reinforces the impression that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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