In The Social Network, a cinematic adaptation of the book ‘The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal‘, the actor who plays FaceBook founder Mark Zuckerberg portrays the character with certain characteristics which are suggestive of Asperger’s Syndrome and/or autism spectrum disorders. On many occasions, Zuckerberg’s character is shown as having a flat affect (especially if he is asked something while concentrating on his work at the computer), and in one instance, he engages in hand motions similar to those exhibited by Temple Grandin.
However, in an early scene of the movie, his soon-to-be-ex girlfriend has other ideas about what ails him. In a tete-a-tete at a restaurant, when his conversation was dominated by his fixation on how he wanted to get into a one of Harvard’s influential clubs, and how he would go about “gaming” the process, she speculates that he might be “OCD”, and would benefit from medication. Later on, she comes up with a more colorful assessment of his character: he must have some exceptional flexibility, in order to get his “head up his ass”.
Larry Rosen, Ph.D., a professor of child psychology at California State U, had this assessment:
Jesse Eisenberg’s character qualifies as showing signs of many DSM-IV psychiatric conditions including adult antisocial personality disorder, Asperger’s, ADHD, and narcissistic personality disorder. But on the other hand, he defined a socially connected world where those behaviors are acceptable or at least accepted. If you examine our behavior behind the screen we feel comfortable acting in any way we can because nobody can see us and we have some sense of safety in that we can’t see them. We can’t see them crying, or feeling hurt. So Eisenberg’s behavior is actually acceptable online but unacceptable in person and is precisely what we’re seeing exhibited now behind one of the many screens countless hours each day.”
It is initially made to seem that certain extremely negative characteristics, including a conspicuous coldness to others including those who are supposed to have the status of friends, are inherent personality defects on the part of Zuckerberg.
His separateness from the general population is even emphasized by what must be the producers’ and scriptwriters’ decision to riff on or to rip off A Beautiful Mind, by having him write the algorithm for the functionality of FaceBook in paint marker on his dorm room windowpane. Zuckerberg’s social milieu, however, can hardly be said to be stocked with eusocial examples for him to emulate. Many of his peers who are ostensibly “normal” may have different daily conduct, but in many cases, it could hardly be called “better”. As the story unfolds, it is revealed that a number of individuals, both co-founders and rivals, spend a great deal of time engaged in manipulating and sabotaging others for material and psychic gain. Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake) at one point seems to be exerting undue influence over Zuckerberg in the newly-formed corporation and this contributes to a falling out with Zuckerberg’s former best (and only) friend, Edwardo.
The Winklevoss twins, in an effort to get Zuckerberg punished by the official power of the university, alleging that Zuckerberg had violated the institution’s honor code while working on the similar software development project they had contracted, The Harvard Connection, by stealing their idea and turning it into facebook, go to the then-president of Harvard, Larry Summers (also reputedly an Aspie) who tells them to simply “find another idea”.
Clinging desperately to that idea, having attached a disproportionate amount of potential profit to it, every one of the principals ends up suing everybody else, resulting in a legal, social, and financial morass which takes a team of lawyers a lot of time around a conference table to sort out. Zuckerman ends up learning remorse and regret for the damage done to relationships he had perhaps taken for granted, turning to a female lawyer for advice and support, and saying something genuinely indicative of caring to her.
Since we are not privy to the real Zuckerberg’s medical records, the audience is left to ask… Aspie or Asshole?