Monday, October 4, 2010

The Social Network: An Anti-Social Critique

Writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher have taken one of the more interesting stories of the internet age – the founding of social network Facebook in a Harvard dormitory, and the resulting lawsuits from competing entrepreneurs – and turned it into both a riveting drama for the millennium generation and a generalized critique of that very same generation. The result, overwhelmed as it is with Sorkin’s run-away dialogue and madcap pacing, may nevertheless be the best telling yet of internet entrepreneurs and the seismic influence they have had in transforming our economy and society.

The Social Network is also a story about one such obsessed computer genius: Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard student who created Facebook in 2004 and in the process embroiled himself in legal troubles with the university, as well as with competitors and friends. As such it starts precisely where it should: explaining why Zuckerberg is terrible with girls (he tells his date, who attends Boston University, that the fact that she goes to BU means she essentially can’t understand academic pressures), and how that leads him to create Face Mash, a “hot-or-not” site with hacked pictures of all the female faces from Harvard house websites. Zuckerberg’s act is both the childish revolt of a wounded nerd (he’s just been dumped by said girlfriend) as well as his awkward way of being accepted by the much cooler jocks and wealthy studs of Harvard’s elite. Zuckerberg has both an extreme case of ODD (his personality is essentially a more humorless version of physics genius Sheldon Cooper on “Big Bang Theory”) as well as a dangerous amount of sublimated wounded self-esteem and rage. It’s the type of deadly combination that produces both serial murderers as well as serial entrepreneurs, and Sorkin and Fincher seem to be implying that it’s just a fortunate quirk of fate that what we’re about to see in Zuckerberg is the latter. (Perhaps because Fincher just showed us the former in the movie Zodiac, he’s qualified to make the cinematic comparison.)

It’s at this moment, as Zuckerberg is finally getting the welcome attention of the jocks as well as some unwelcome attention from the University, that he’s approached by a pair of twin crew jocks (the Winklevosses) and their best friend, who have been working on a social network for Harvard they call The Harvard Connection. The trio are looking for a new programmer for the site, and impressed with Zuckerberg’s abilities on the Face Mash stunt, they hire him to work on their site. Only…instead of creating The Connection, Zuckerberg spends his time creating his own version, which he calls TheFacebook and which he believes is filled with features and insights that only his genius mind could dream up.

The problem is, despite actor Eisenberg’s “genius” stuttered rapping of social critiques and Fincher’s dramatic portrayals of all-night hacking sessions, Zuckerberg doesn’t seem – at least to me – that much of a genius. The “hacking” of the Harvard photos is actually a fairly simple trick that any CGI programmer could accomplish; his “genius” TheFacebook feature insights (such as indicating your marital status) are routine interactive features (even for 2004), and it's his roommate who comes up with the formula for social evaluation, not him. All that Zuckerberg seems to contribute to the enterprise is fanatical devotion to the outcome and a kind of seething malevolence towards the social world he’s trying to connect. Perhaps Fincher/Sorkin intend us to read Zuckerberg this way, in which case…ouch. Even Bill Gates parodies on the Simpsons are given better treatment.

But I don’t think so. There’s also a kind of lionization of Zuckerberg as an internet icon – as in, great men who see great things by nature have to be jerks to get there. That kind of explains Justin Timberlake’s portrayal of Sean Parker, the founder of Napster and a come-along investor in Facebook, as an internet super-jerk. When Zuckerberg meets the preening, self-absorbed Parker (“what’s cool is a billion dollars”), he falls into a kind of start-up love, and we can see that it’s just a few steps from there to dumping his roommate/partner in order to move up in the internet social world.

It also explains why there were so many twelve- to eighteen-year-olds in the audience. These kids have grown up with Facebook and, like Fincher/Sorkin, must see Zuckerberg as a kind of mythical hero. For them, the movie must resemble Greek tragedy, replete with old-thinking adversaries (Larry Summers’s Harvard President provides one) and tales of mayhem and adventure, all to get to the promised land: a cool San Francisco office with Foosball tables and Aeron chairs. In this view, Zuckerberg's obvious preference for computer screens over real-life girls and his willingness to dump his best friend at the first glimmer of a lot of cash is merely the hero's Achilles heel, not a full-featured social critique.

Thankfully, Fincher/Sorkin are clear-eyed enough to complicate the picture (even if their critique of the anti-social nature of social networks is - at least if you believe an internet sociologist like Clay Shirky - way off the mark). This complication comes in the form of a pretty stark (and snarky) comparison between Zuckerberg’s ruthlessness and the true friendship between the Winklevoss trio. In a lovely inversion, the "Winklevi" are derided for their money and devalued in the internet pantheon because of their athletic ability. But they do come together with their friend to support each other and work by consensus. This is compared favorably to Zuckerberg’s geeks trio with Parker and his roommate Eduardo Saverin, who bicker constantly and eventually all turn against each other. In the final scene, Zuckerberg is left alone with his multi-billion-dollar creation – a kind of Frankenstein, it might seem – still trying to connect with the girl who dumped him. The implication here is that Zuckerberg represents an entire generation of geekified social networkers, whose only means of connecting with each other is through the artificial mass-communications of online websites: in person, they have no social skills whatsoever. Not that the earlier generation of academics and administrators are portrayed any better. But there is an odd kind of love for the camaraderie of sports, the purity of physical friendships, as compared to the distancing of the machine. Zuckerberg hires his interns by seeing which one can crack into a database first while doing multiple shots, but he barely speaks to them, and never bothers to learn their names. Parker likewise doesn't bother to learn the name of the girl he's sleeping with while he discovers the Facebook site as the hot new thing. This social network thing, the filmmakers are saying, is far from social: more like an insidious way to substitute for real connection, and a way for a very few lucky, ruthless people to make a very great deal of money.

On the other hand, the closing title cards do kind of say it all. The Winklevosses were paid off 65 million to go away; Facebook is now valued at over 25 billion. That makes Zuckerberg’s creation more valuable within five years than Cablevision/NBCU, the combined Continental/United Airlines, or the controversial bailout of the auto industry. Fincher/Sorkin’s movie will probably rake in 200 mil when all is said and done. Interesting and breathless as it is, as someone like Shirky might point out, that makes it worth less than one percent of the total Facebook story.

No comments:

Post a Comment