Charting the rise and rise of the Facebook founder, Sky’s new documentary Zuckerberg: King of the Metaverse presents a figure still difficult to pin down.
Few people who have lived through the past twenty years need introducing to Mark Zuckerberg. As this new documentary from Sky reminds us, even if you aren’t a user of Facebook, the social network that made his name, you’re undoubtedly lining his pockets through a device in your own pocket some other way. With such great power comes great responsibility, and in Zuckerberg: King of the Metaverse we see just how heavily the crown weighs on the Harvard drop-out’s head.
We start at the start, with Zuckerberg’s New York childhood, the only boy among three sisters and thus anointed, prophetically, ‘the prince’. The documentary then covers the ground previously trodden by David Fincher’s 2010 drama The Social Network: Zuckerberg’s Harvard years, early forays into online social networking and his exponential rise thereafter. But this film goes further, showing us what happened in the period after Jesse Eisenberg’s turn as the Facebook founder, years that saw Zuckerberg go from from a plucky boy wonder to the multi-billionaire king of the online world, at the epicentre of modern society, technology and democracy.
‘Mr Zuckerberg, are you too powerful?’ our subject is asked early on in archive footage from the infamous 2021 US congressional hearings, a question Zuckerberg: King of the Metaverse also seeks to answer. After a fairly unimaginative first act retells a story most of us already know, the film grows in urgency, delving into major political events of recent history, and how, in them, Zuckerberg’s products have served as both battlegrounds and weapons. From the Arab Spring of the early 2010s to Brexit, the Rohingya genocide and the rise of Donald Trump, we hear from the people who made Facebook the political force it is today, at once an empowering platform for the voiceless and a dangerous tool of misinformation and propaganda.
Among the faces offering context to our shared recent history are former Facebook executives Richard Allen and Katie Harbath, as well as a string of fellow outsiders, namely tech journalists and authors. What comes across is just how unprepared Zuckerberg and his team was for the increase in power they have experienced in the past decade or so, and the real-world consequences that content on Facebook and its associated platforms have had. ‘You start to think,’ suggests one former employee, ‘maybe we are the bad guys.’
Fascinating though it is to have this look behind the curtain as we relive events we’d previously only seen from the outside, there remains a significant degree of distance from the man whose name gives the documentary its title. ‘His politics are Facebook,’ states one commentator, ‘his politics are Mark Zuckerberg.’ While this is hard to disagree with, it doesn’t help us get any closer to the man himself, and the film’s apparent lack of curiosity can be frustrating. Happy to critique Zuckerberg from afar, director Nick Green (Putin: A Russian Spy Story) isn’t too interested in interrogating his interviewees, many of whom were a part of Facebook during its darker moments but seem to be subject to the same kind of softball questions Zuckerberg himself enjoyed in the aforementioned 2021 hearings. For all the alarms they raise and gossip they provide, there’s little in the way of accountability from our talking heads.
Green’s directorial DNA isn’t particularly evident throughout this fairly conventional documentary, but there are some welcome flourishes. Early scenes depict Zuckerberg’s antics at Harvard through evening shots of his old university digs, overlaid by text from emails and messages that testify to how ‘Facemash’ and the ‘The Facebook’ spread like wildfire through a still burgeoning digital community. Many events of the past twenty years are depicted like this, not only through archive news footage but screen recordings demonstrating their proliferation on Facebook. It’s a canny way of reminding us just how much of our experience has been filtered through this all-consuming online medium, and a neat alternative to traditional reconstruction scenes.
It isn’t always clear what exactly Zuckerberg: King of the Metaverse is trying to do. By the time the credits roll, Zuckerberg remains as elusive as he’s ever been, even if, as we are shown, the image he broadcasts to the world is increasingly that of the humble family man. So it doesn’t quite work as a profile of its subject, but as a real-life political thriller this film has moments of great impact. By shedding light on Zuckerberg and Facebook’s pivotal role in shaping our world, Green’s documentary exposes with sobering frankness the arrogant, ill-equipped human beings tasked with making sense of it all.
Zuckerberg: King of the Metaverse will be released on Sky Documentaries & Now on 11 January, 2024.