Reporting from Palo Alto and Los Angeles — The company Mark Zuckerberg founded in his Harvard dorm room six years ago was built on the idea that people would want to share personal information — even very personal information — on the Web.
Yet the 26-year-old self-made billionaire has managed to keep a low public profile even as Facebook Inc. shot to stardom in Silicon Valley, catapulting Zuckerberg past Apple Inc.'s Steve Jobs to become the world's 35th-richest American on the latest Forbes list.
That is about to change. "The Social Network," from director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin, about the messy and contentious founding of Facebook, is making its debut at the New York Film Festival on Friday, and the world will soon know a lot more about Zuckerberg — or at least Hollywood's version of him.
The movie, with the provocative tag line "You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies," is an unflattering portrait focusing on the legal clashes between Zuckerberg and Harvard classmates over who should get credit for the social networking phenomenon.
Worried that the film could damage Zuckerberg's image, Facebook executives pressed the filmmakers for changes they did not get. Now the company — often criticized for being too cavalier with the intimate details of other people's lives — is bracing for a movie that casts its chief executive as a scheming backstabber accused of stealing the idea for Facebook.
"If this movie becomes big, a lot of people will be exposed to a side of Mark Zuckerberg that won't reflect positively on privacy issues on Facebook," said Augie Ray, a senior analyst at Forrester Research who follows social networking companies.
Neither Zuckerberg nor his close associates cooperated with the Sony Pictures film, set for wide release Oct. 1. That has raised thorny questions about how much artistic license filmmakers should take in telling the story of an ambitious entrepreneur who gave birth to an Internet sensation while still a teenager.
"The film is at its most fictional in its portrayal of Mark," Facebook investor and board member Peter Thiel said. "It's a pretty good portrayal of how business gets done in Hollywood, but not how business gets done in Silicon Valley."
The filmmakers say they set out to capture a generation-defining moment, weaving a story from different points of view of the founding of Facebook.
"I would not want a movie made when I am 26 years old about decisions I made when I was a 19-year-old kid. I am very sympathetic. But I didn't invent Facebook," producer Scott Rudin said.
"My personal feeling is that Mark Zuckerberg did not steal anything," added the Oscar-winning producer, whose credits include "No Country for Old Men" and "Julie & Julia." "This is the movie, the story of a guy with a remarkable vision."
A computer geek with a rebellious streak who turned down big bucks and jobs at AOL and Microsoft to go to college, Zuckerberg, as a Harvard sophomore, hacked into the university computers in February 2004 to put the "face books" — yearbook-style photos of incoming freshmen — online.
The website was an instant success. Zuckerberg and his cohorts moved to Silicon Valley, where they tapped into venture capital and opened Facebook to high school students, corporate networks and then to everyone. Facebook is now the dominant social networking site for most of the globe, with about 550 million users.
Zuckerberg has said he has grown up since he was a college student accused of questionable ethics in building Facebook. If Zuckerberg has achieved a level of maturity, so has Facebook. The company has more than 1,700 employees and rising sales expected to hit $2 billion this year.
Yet Facebook's airy Palo Alto headquarters still hums with youthful energy and irreverence. A large white wall is covered in scribbles and doodles that, in homage to Facebook users who leave comments on one another's walls, says, "Write something...." Engineers zoom by on RipStik skateboards on their way to play speed chess or grub on gourmet barbecue on the rooftop patio. They work long hours, so the cafeteria, staffed with ex- Google chefs, serves up three meals a day.
On the front door is a giant sign that says "hack," stressing the importance of trying new things and underscoring the engineering culture that still dominates. "Hackathons," in which engineers work all night on creative projects that are not part of their day jobs, happen regularly.
Zuckerberg, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has said that his personal mission is to make the Internet a more connected place. That mission could become quite profitable for him and Facebook: The more people share information about themselves online, the more money Facebook stands to make selling highly targeted advertising. Zuckerberg already is worth $6.9 billion, according to Forbes.