Aaron Sorkin: why I'm not on Facebook

The writer of <i>The Social Network</i> on privacy, WikiLeaks and geeks who hate women.

Aaron Sorkin might have written a successful film about Facebook but he's no fan of it. At a sold-out Q&A at the BFI Southbank, he told the audience that he wasn't a member. "I put up a Facebook page while I was writing the movie, simply so I could know what it was . . . and then, on the last day of photography, I took it down."

Why? Here's a clue. Sorkin said that one line in The Social Network -- "Private behaviour is a relic of a time gone by" -- was the result of him debating how much to "inject" his personal opinions into the story. "That particular line was one of those moments: '. . . And now a word from the author.'"

He said he was "deeply troubled" by our potential loss of privacy, although he could "argue both sides" of the debate over whether the WIkiLeaks disclosures were positive. "No matter where you come down on it, you can probably understand the other side of the argument, too," he added. "In all other instances, I come down on the side of: 'Where in God's name did privacy go?' People's lives are now fair game for entertainment; we're being entertained by other people falling down. Not only is it fundamentally wrong, I think it is bad for us."

Sorkin also revealed that the Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was a "good sport" about the movie, taking his staff to see it on the opening day. The feedback was simple: "Mark really liked the parts he agreed with." (Zuckerberg is still a Sorkin fan, by the way; on his Facebook page, he lists The West Wing as one of his 'likes'.)

The screenwriter said that he and Scott Rudin made an "aggressive attempt" to get Zuckerberg involved while researching the film but had no luck. In the end, he concludes, that was a good thing.

"Mark didn't want to be part of his own . . . not a hanging, but you know what I mean," he said. "I was relieved for the following reasons: one, I didn't want it to seem like this was a Facebook production, an infomercial for Facebook; I wanted it to have credibility. Two, I'm certain that if Mark had participated, Facebook would have insisted on certain editorial controls, which I wouldn't have been willing to give. Three, once you meet a person . . . it becomes very difficult, at least for me, not be anything but nice.

"Don't get me wrong, I was not out to get Mark but Mark in this story is an anti-hero, at least for the first hour and 55 minutes. For the final five minutes of the movie, he's a tragic hero, which means he's experienced remorse and he's paid a price. Writing an anti-hero, you can't judge that character. You have to respect the character, have affection for the character, have to want to defend the character . . . In order to do that, I had to find the parts of the character that were like me . . .

"I'm also shy, the way Mark is. I'm also awkward in social situations. I, like a lot of people, spend a lot of time feeling like an outsider, like I'm sitting at the wrong table, with my nose pressed up against the glass, looking at some other life that's good. Feeling like I don't belong. That's the place I wanted to write Mark from."

Sorkin described an exhaustive process of research for the film, taking in not only Zuckerberg's blog posts, but also cartons of legal documents and first-person interviews with those close to the action. "At the end of all the research," he said, "what you're left with is that there were two lawsuits brought against Facebook at roughly the same time. That the defendant, the plaintiffs, the witnesses, they all walked into the two deposition rooms, they all swore an oath and ended up telling three different versions of the same story.

"So, instead of picking one and deciding, "I think that's the truth, that'll be the story that I tell, or picking another and deciding I think that's the sexiest, that'll be the story that I tell, I like that there were three different versions of the story, often conflicting. I like courtroom dramas. I like [Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film] Rashomon and I wanted to tell the story of three different stories."

Sorkin added that there was another story -- his version of the motives of the main characters. He told an anecdote about the playwright Peter Schaffer, who was told while visiting a friend in the countryside that the whole village was upset because a boy working at a stable had blinded a horse. Schaffer said to his friend, "Why would anyone do that?" and then, before he could answer, added: "Wait, don't tell me. I want to make it up myself."

Sorkin said his situation was similar. "What I had was a series of facts and I interpreted them . . . It makes it no less of a non-fiction movie. I would simply say that any time [you see a film] that begins with the words, 'The following is a true story,' I would look at that movie the way you would look at a painting and not a photograph."

The screenwriter also revealed that, for him, the emotional core of the story is Mark Zuckerberg's relationship with "Erica", a real ex-girlfriend given a fictional name for the film. "Forgive the insidious comparison with one of the greatest movies ever made but Erica is Mark's Rosebud," he said. "What was motivating Mark was a revenge stunt, first against Erica, then against the entire female population of Harvard, if not the female population of the planet.

"What became clear to me is that there is a sub-set of tech geniuses, like Mark, who are profoundly angry that women . . . still want to date the star athlete and not them. As a result, women are only ever one of two things: prizes or enemies. And if they can't get the prize -- and they talk about that prize in real middle-school terms -- then they hate you and will belittle you, in this case publicly."

Sorkin also addressed the challenge of the first scene, which is nine pages of quick-fire dialogue between Erica and Mark in a crowded bar. "Scenes that ask you to lean in are good," he said. "This first scene, which begins right in the middle of a conversation, at about 100 miles an hour, requires you to start running to catch up to the movie -- and that sense of running involves the audience. It's an exhilarating experience. It says to you that we believe the people who watch movies are at least as smart as the people who make movies."

Filming the scene was a challenge for the actors. "We did 99 takes of the first scene. The reason was so that the actors could casualise the language; so that it wouldn't be operatic. If you see Yo-Yo Ma play the cello, you can tell it's been years and years since he's had to think about the notes . . . He's playing from someplace else. And that's what you want from the actors, too."

Sorkin revealed that he "cracked" the opening of the film while reading a blog post of Mark's on the night he was dumped by "Erica", when he set up a site where users could rate the attractiveness of female Harvard undergraduates. "I wanted to take that blog post of Mark's that we hear at the beginning, where he's very upset with this woman and with all women, and I wanted to back it up an hour and write the scene that made that happen."

Was he worried about the "libel police", given that his subjects were all alive, loaded and familiar with suing people? "When you're writing non-fiction . . . you need a good inner moral compass. First do no harm. If your moral compass is broken for some reason, there's the Sony Legal Department to help you out. This script was vetted to within an inch of its life by a legal team you could not fit inside this theatre. If I had said something that was untrue and defamatory, you would know about it -- because Mark Zuckerberg would own Sony right now."

The Q&A was organised by the BFI, in conjunction with The Script Factory

Aaron Sorkin: Q and A

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide