JUST as he hoped to clean up his image, Mark Zuckerberg, the inventor of Facebook, is to be portrayed in a Hollywood film as a ruthless and untrustworthy sex maniac.
The website and its 400m users have been beset in the past week by rows over changes to its privacy settings.
However, they have nothing on the invasion of privacy facing Zuckerberg in a £40m black comedy called The Social Network, adapted from The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing.
Six years ago Zuckerber created what was to become the internet phenomenon Facebook in a “tidal wave” of grief after being dumped by his girlfriend.
On Friday, as Zuckerberg celebrated his 26th birthday, he faced another tsunami of anger, this time from Facebook users who turned the socially awkward youth into the world’s youngest billionaire.
Zuckerberg wanted to enjoy his birthday in the Caribbean. Instead, the pale-faced supergeek is spending the weekend in crisis meetings in California, seeking ways to calm many of Facebook’s users who fear that website changes mean he is going to sell details of their on-line lives to the highest bidder.
A horrified Zuckerberg told colleagues he wants to establish himself as a “good guy”, a task made more difficult as the draft script of the film leaked online.
The Social Network is a highly dramatised version told in flashbacks recalled in the drama of a court hearing. The film, set for release in October, opens on the night of February 4, 2004 when Zuckerberg, then 19, is seen to be dumped in a Harvard bar by his girlfriend, Erica.
She tells him he will “go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a tech geek”. The reality, she says, is rather more upsetting: “I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”
In the film Zuckerberg retreats to his college dormitory where, in a drunken fever, he writes the computer code turning Harvard’s annual collection of student photographs and biographies into a website where he and his male friends rank Harvard women as barnyard animals. Thirty minutes after “Thefacebook” goes live, it is so popular that it crashes Harvard’s computer network.
The film shows how Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, also 26, drops out of college and moves to Silicon Valley in California where he builds Facebook with Sean Parker, co-founder of the music piracy site Napster, played in the film by Justin Timberlake, 29.
The early operation was funded by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, twins who were stars of the Harvard rowing team. They commissioned Zuckerberg to expand the Facebook code to create a social networking site for their athletic friends.
Zuckerberg agreed but, according to the film, as Facebook catches fire across American colleges, he cuts them out. This leads to a court battle, which in 2008 reportedly ended with the twins being awarded $65m (£44m) by a Delaware judge.
The twins, who competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics coxless pairs race, are now studying for business MBAs at Christ Church, Oxford. Last month they rowed for the Dark Blues in the Boat Race against Cambridge, which Oxford lost.
The film claims that after Zuckerberg quit Harvard his personal life spun out of control, with Parker helping him indulge his fantasies with a stream of “groupies”. Sorkin’s screenplay suggests Parker knew Zuckerberg was driven not just by money or fame but also sexual insecurity. While he is depicted as receiving sex in bars, Parker runs the business.
Yet Zuckerberg may have had the last laugh: Parker sold his share of the firm for about $200m. But, says Forbes, Zuckerberg is now worth $4 billion.
Critics who have seen the draft script for the film, which is being produced by Kevin Spacey, artistic director of the Old Vic theatre in London, and directed by David Fincher, say it portrays Zuckerberg as a “borderline-autistic conniver”.