The persistent irony around Facebook's ethos is that the world's largest social network, which urges you to share as much of your personal life as possible, happens to be one of the most closed companies on the planet. Its founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has famously eschewed media interviews, and as a private company it has done little to clarify speculation over its now galactic valuation, which at current count tops $50 billion. For a company built around connecting people to each other and now to advertisers, it has done little to open up about its own inner workings.
Which is why MTV's behind-the-scenes micro-documentary, "The Diary of Facebook" (airing tomorrow night), was a strangely thrilling prospect, if only because screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's Oscar-winning interpretation of the Palo Alto startup alluringly married the geeky and the sexy ends of the social spectrum, and perhaps for once we would get an intimate look at the star chamber in charge of the digital lives of more than 600 million people.
At best, MTV's "Diary" is a gloss, a 21-minute company brochure examining a few very narrow nodes of life inside Facebook. The company cleverly allowed the show to focus on two employees, an engineer named Pedram Keyani, appropriately clad in T-shirts and riding skateboards through the company's open dens, and a consumer-marketing staffer named Erin Kanaley who serves the show's creaky denouement.
We see Pedram gearing up for a forthcoming "hack-a-thon," a regular Facebook event where the company engineers are encouraged to devise a new product in one 24-hour coding binge. The conceit, according to Zuckerberg, is that all the best ideas are simple and can be done fairly quickly. (The "like" button, for example, was dreamed up at a hack-a-thon.) These are the kinds of myths that have driven so many souls and dollars to Silicon Valley, the contemporary corporate equivalent of the Olympic Games. But as envisioned in Sorkin's dramaturgy, there are no Asian girls in tight T-shirts serving shots of tequila. Instead, under the pallid lights of cramped work benches, you get a singular, though frustratingly short glimpse of the grinding work that is computer engineering. The work is solitary. Even after Pedram seeks inspiration by examining another engineer's project, it is still a weirdly distancing enterprise.
Erin, meanwhile, has been working hard on setting up another special event. The company has flown a few members to Palo Alto to talk to the company's staffers about how Facebook has changed their lives. One woman, Holly Rose, talked about how after she got an alert on Facebook to do a self breast exam, she found a lump and was subsequently treated for, and survived, breast cancer. "Facebook saved my life," she says to a packed theater of staffers, a bolt of empathy running through everyone's faces. Erin cries. It is all genuine, of course. And it is also not.
There is no doubt that Facebook has inexorably changed, helped and hurt the everyday lives of ordinary people, but the careful craft that threads through this "documentary" -- the specific characters chosen to illustrate both the core and collateral workings of the company; the short time frame; no sense of the real stakes driving Facebook -- belies its intent to expose what is clearly an important company. Not only are people falling in love on Facebook, they're also being stalked. Not only are people finding jobs through Facebook, they're also getting fired. Not only are people gathering for real friendship, they're also being examined by lawyers for jury selection. Facebook has become crucial to the commons, and most likely in a way that Zuckerberg never imagined, but also in a way that the company has not really prepared for. Or maybe it has; this documentary doesn't show that to us. It only offers a circumscribed dispatch of Young People Doing Good.
But the most precious part of the special comes at the very beginning where Zuckerberg himself faces the camera to offer this risible prologue:
"Facebook is a very open company. If you think about what we do, we're trying to do give all the people who use our products the ability to share things with their friends and their family, and the mission is to make the world more open and connected, so we believe if that's what we're trying to do in the world, then that's how we should run the company, too."