Watching “The Social Network”
“The Social Network” is quite clearly the movie of the year, and when one of my friends told me that she has no interest in seeing it, because it’s about Facebook, I was speechless.
“It’s not just about Facebook,” I thought to myself. “It’s about the world today!”
My feelings were based on what I’d read about the film, which painted “The Social Network” as some sort of statement about the new millennium — “a creation story for the digital age,” as Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times — and the generation of young adults who grew up online. This is a generation that doesn’t include me, by the way. I’d never used e-mail before I got to college, and I didn’t buy a computer until after I’d graduated.
But I love the Internet. Social networks fascinate me, and I’m extremely interested in how the ease of communication and interconnectedness facilitated by the web is changing the way we interact and behave. “We lived on farms, then we lived in cities and now we will live on the Internet!” one of the film’s characters proclaims, just before he’s busted for cocaine possession. Is he right?
“The Social Network” tells the story of Facebook, and how it was born in the Harvard dorm room of Mark Zuckerberg, now the world’s youngest billionaire. The film opens when Zuckerberg’s girlfriend dumps him, and he returns home, writes an angry blog, and builds a site called Facemash, where users can rate the hotness of girls on campus. Zuckerberg, as played by Jesse Eisenberg, is a misanthropic creep whose sole motivation in creating Facebook is impressing his ex-girlfriend and upending the class structure at Harvard.
Class conflict is at the heart of the film, which intercuts between flashbacks and a lawyer’s office, where Zuckerberg is defending himself against two separate lawsuits. Three upperclassmen have accused Zuckerberg of stealing their idea for a social network, and Zuckerberg’s former best friend and Facebook co-founder, the wealthy Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), is angry because Zuckerberg reduced his ownership share of the company.
The movie is meticulous in depicting the shifting alliances and hyper-competitiveness of these smart young men, and it benefits from an excellent script from “West Wing” scribe Aaron Sorkin and great performances. And yet I had some basic complaints with Sorkin and director David Fincher’s approach to this material, which turns the genesis story of Facebook into a “Great Gatsby”/“Citizen Kane”-type narrative, where the brilliant young man alienates everyone who cares about him on his rise to the top and pines for his lost love.
Zuckerberg is deeply bothered and obsessed by the exclusive Final Clubs at Harvard; he wants to be a part of the world of privilege and wealth that these clubs represent, but his social awkwardness and outsider status render this next to impossible. His turning on the upperclassmen who recruit him to develop their site, and his betrayal of Eduardo, who receives an invitation from the Phoenix Club, are viewed as acts of revenge against a system that excludes him. When he finally meets Napster founder/party animal Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), it’s a relief: Finally, a character who doesn’t care about getting into the stupid Porcellian Club. And who’s a little bit of fun.
This is all very entertaining stuff, but I was never exactly sure “The Social Network” really understood the basic appeal of social networks, or why anybody would use one, or the social dynamics that exist at a school like Harvard. At times, the whole “Jewish outsider who doesn’t fit in with the WASP-y jocks” structure felt like it was borrowed from the 1992 film “School Ties,” which is set in the 1950s.
In an essay on Slate titled “You Can’t Handle the Veritas: What Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher Get Wrong about Harvard — And Facebook,” Nathan Heller argues that the film’s Harvard is the one of the 1970s films “The Paper Chase” and “Love Story,” not the Harvard he attended in the early 2000s. When I first saw this essay, I scoffed at it; misrepresentations of Harvard aren’t very high on my list of grievances. But the friend I saw the film with and I both agreed that the movie just didn’t seem to capture Harvard. Of course, my whole experience of Harvard involves hanging out with my friend Scott, who dresses like a hobo and wouldn’t be caught dead in a Final Club. Even so, I think Heller has a point. Heller writes, “What’s troubling, though, especially in a film that strives to capture a new 21st-century order, is the movie’s totally regressive concept of that structure. Sorkin and Fincher’s 2003 Harvard is a citadel of old money, regatta blazers, and (if I am not misreading the implication here) a Jewish underclass striving beneath the heel of a WASP-centric, socially draconian culture. Zuckerberg aspires to penetrate this world in order to make fancy friends and — well, do what, exactly? Wear madras?” (Click here to read the whole thing.)
In a largely positive review of the film on Salon, Andrew O’Hehir also questions whether Fincher and Sorkin can accurately capture the world of Mark Zuckerberg. He writes, “I detect an element of generational warfare, conscious or not, at work in ‘The Social Network,’ which is after all a takedown of the world’s richest 26-year-old made by two guys in their late 40s. (Just to be clear, I belong to Sorkin and Fincher’s generation, not to Zuckerberg’s.) If Zuckerberg ever breaks down and sees this dense, rich and talky picture, he might argue that it fails to capture him because it uses the venerable tools of Western psychological drama to pursue a character who emerged in a different matrix of space and time.” (Click here to read the whole thing). As well made and compulsively watchable as “The Social Network” is, it seems to miss something crucial about life as we live it now, and I can’t help but wonder what people in their 20s and teens would make of it.
“The Social Network” fictionalizes its story, as all films that are based on true stories do, and this doesn’t really bother me, although I think knowing just a little bit about the real Mark Zuckerberg is helpful in understanding Fincher and Sorkin’s motives: Their Facebook is a sinister refuge for people who lack the ability to communicate. The real Mark Zuckerberg apparently isn’t the misogynistic freak he’s made out to be in this film; he has a girlfriend he’s been with since his Harvard days. The real Mark Zuckerberg went to Phillips Exeter, which makes the whole idea of him as some kind of a low-class outcast something of a joke. There’s actually no evidence that Zuckerberg’s hatred of all people who had more money and social skills than he did inspired him to reshape the world. But whatever. That’s the story Fincher and Sorkin are telling, and it’s a pretty fun one.
Still, there’s a part of me that wishes the film had really examined social networks — that it had been genuinely interested in how they work. In an interview with the Associated Press, Sorkin said “When I signed up for this, I had heard of Facebook, but that’s it. Frankly, I had heard of Facebook the way I’ve heard of a carburetor. I can’t pop the hood of my car, point to it and tell you what it does. My attraction to this were the themes that are as old as storytelling itself: of loyalty and betrayal, friends and enemies, power, class, jealousy.”
To some extent, “The Social Network” reflects Sorkin’s ignorance of social media, and his desire to tell his tale through the prism of what he already knows. On the other hand, it does capture something eternal about genius, and the people sacrificed in carrying about a creator’s vision. The image of Zuckerberg at the end of the film, alone and checking out his ex-girlfriend on Facebook, is, I suspect, one that will endure.
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