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Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg braces for 'The Social Network'

"The Social Network," made without the cooperation of the Facebook founder, debuts at the New York Film Festival on Friday. The world will soon get to know a lot more about the low-profile billionaire, or at least Hollywood's version of him.

September 24, 2010|By Jessica Guynn and Claudia Eller, Los Angeles Times

Facebook executives say they are committed to giving their users the tools they need to protect their privacy. But the company, estimated to be worth $34 billion based on the value of shares on the secondary market, has come under fire from consumer groups, privacy advocates and lawmakers who say it puts its ambitions ahead of its users. Even prominent voices in the technology community have expressed reservations that Facebook keeps pushing users to reveal more personal information than they signed up for.

Zuckerberg keeps his own life out of the public eye. At Facebook, he sits among a sea of desks like the hundreds of other workers at the company. A casual visitor to Facebook might not even spot Zuckerberg in T-shirt and jeans. He sticks close to the office, usually taking one two-week vacation each year with college sweetheart Priscilla Chan, who's in medical school at UC San Francisco studying to be a pediatrician. On the weekends, he roasts pig and goat in his backyard for Facebook pals, hangs out at local dive bar Antonio's Nut House and takes Mandarin lessons.

Google and other technology companies are keeping a close vigil as Facebook mounts what appears to them as a not-so-friendly takeover of the Internet. Whereas Google's founders boasted they would organize the world's information, Zuckerberg is intent on connecting the world's people — as well as landing such big-name advertisers as Coca-Cola Co. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. and turning a big profit along the way.

Zuckerberg has rebuffed all offers to buy his company. Friends say he has a gift for delaying gratification, getting by for years in a spare one-bedroom apartment with a mattress on the floor and dial-up Internet access. Taking his company public would probably be the biggest initial public offering in Silicon Valley since Google's in 2004. He owns more than a quarter of Facebook's stock and controls votes for three of five board seats.

With the release of the movie, Zuckerberg may never have much privacy again. In what might be viewed as a campaign to soften his image, he agreed to an in-depth interview with the New Yorker magazine and is scheduled to appear on "Oprah" on Friday, where he is expected to pledge $100 million to help Newark, N.J., public schools.

Rudin said the filmmakers decided against having Facebook participate in the movie after Facebook executive Elliot Schrage demanded in their first meeting that they change the names of Facebook and Harvard. Schrage declined to comment.

"In the end they would want too many controls and we would want too many liberties," Rudin said.

Taking artistic license with real people has stirred controversy before. "A Beautiful Mind," which won eight Oscars, came under fire for simplifying and omitting key details from the life of schizophrenic mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. In trying to bring dramatic tension, Hollywood scriptwriters sometimes fudge facts. Some latitude in depicting public figures such as those portrayed in Peter Morgan's "The Queen" has become more acceptable.

Privately, Zuckerberg has acknowledged his discomfort with having a film create a character who the public will assume is really he. In a nod to the controversial nature of the subject that filmmakers tackled, the first words the Zuckerberg character utters in "The Social Network" are: "That's not what happened."

Amy Pascal, Sony Pictures' co-chairwoman, says she understands Zuckerberg's trepidation at being the subject of a medium as powerful as film.

"I think anyone who sees oneself on a great big screen is going to have complicated feelings," she said.

Guynn reported from Palo Alto and Eller from Los Angeles.

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