Are “public figures” public property? The Social Network gone wild?

On Sunday Morning yesterday, Aaron Sorkin—who wrote the screenplay to The Social Network movie—said that he had never met Mark Zuckerberg, and really didn’t know all that much about him, and in fact, he said, the movie wasn’t “a biopic about Mark Zuckerberg” but about something bigger (social networking, society, et cetera).

Why then did he use Mark Zuckerberg’s name? Why not a made up name? It was pointed out that the movie didn’t always accurately portray Zuckerberg’s real life, so why not make up a name, even scramble it up some: Smark Tuckersmerg. Sure, we’d all know the *wink wink* behind it, but at least it would be slightly fictionalized.

Silly me was under the impression that Aaron Sorkin worked with Zuckerberg, that they’d met, discussed, talked, something. We’ve all seen the “unauthorized biographies” about celebrities—some writer makes a buck or two or more off the back of a public figure and readers lap it up. Imagine . . .

Could someone decide they wanted to make a movie about this ole reclusive writer named Kathryn Magendie (suspending belief here that anyone would be interested *laugh*) and write whatever they wanted about me? Maybe interview a few people, watch a few video clips, follow me around in Target one day, read my blog/website/fb/twitter feeds, and then if that wasn’t interesting enough, they’d fill in the spaces with whatever made for a better more exciting movie, even if it was something hurtful to my friends or family or to me? Kind of scary, isn’t it? You could go to the movies and watch some actor play the part of You and not even recognize Yourself, not even be able to say, “That’s not true/I didn’t do-say-be that.”

And further – would the person the movie is “about” receive compensation for their life, or a version of it, portrayed on the screen? Do they receive a cut of the proceeds from the movie? Did Zuckerberg?

Are “public figures” completely Public and open to any kind of treatment we want to throw at them? Is it really fair to say, “Well, they brought this on themselves. Besides, they’re making so much money, who cares what they think. They wanted attention and now they have it, by golly dang!” Or, isn’t there some kind of line we must draw between a public figure’s private life versus their public persona? And, someone’s use of it for their own gain?

And where does a person cross over into “Public Person” versus a “Private Citizen,” and ironically, is the social network the end of any privacy for anyone at all? Are we all Public once we open a twitter/blog/facebook account and post about our lives and loves and friends and family?

Mark Zuckerberg can shake this off, and perhaps this kind of attention brings him even more “fame,” but watching that Sunday Morning segment, I felt uncomfortable at the arrogance of Sorkin, the shrugging his shoulders at how he used Zuckerberg’s “life” to make a buck or two or million. How Zuckerberg could go to the movies to watch himself and perhaps not even recognize himself. How his real-life beautiful long-term girlfriend must have felt when she was completely left out of the movie as if she didn’t even exist, because it didn’t serve the right dramatic purpose.

I suppose it’s not a new thing to profit from a “public figure’s” life, but I still feel that sense of uncomfortable unease, especially if there’s money at stake where words and actions and personality and Real versus Not Real can be skewered. As a fiction writer, I’ve heard the dangers of including “Real Life People” in our work, for we risk Cousin Pooter Head’s wrath, Aunt Petal Pink’s embarrassment, or worse, Neighbor Old Man McDonald could sue. I suppose if you are backed by big money, or the potential to make it for waiting wallets, anything is game, right?

What do you think?

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