David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network (IMDB) is a seductive film, one that promises a kind of history of the present, one that seeks to contextualize our socially networked era and to deconstruct the cult of the dotcom wonder boys. It is a film that is rich in details of place and period–Harvard final clubs, Hotornot.com–but one that seems more obsessed with exploring how the social ineptitude of Mark Zuckerberg (at least as he is depicted in the film) made possible the site that, for better or worse, now plays an important role in structuring, or at least shaping, social relationships.
Zuckerberg’s lack of social graces becomes apparent from the opening scene of the film when we see him arguing with Erica, a girlfriend who is preparing to dump him. Jim Emerson reads this scene beautifully as an introduction to the film’s fascination with “code.” Exasperated at Mark’s inability (or resistance) to communicate clearly, Erica remarks, “Sometimes, Mark — seriously — you say two things at once and I’m not sure which one I’m supposed to be aiming at…. It’s exhausting.” Bitter about the rejection, Mark rushes back to his dorm room, and in a manic, and drunken, burst of code writing produces “facesmash.com,” a website based on the algorithm of Hotornot that allows Harvard students to rate their female classmates in terms of who is hotter. It’s the first instance in which Zuckerberg begins to realize that people want to see their friends on the internet, and it’s also the moment that the film introduces us to (or participates in) the sexism that permeates the cultures of privileged elites at Harvard and, eventually, in Silicon Valley. The fact that Zuckerberg finds time to write a drunken, misogynistic blog entry mocking Erica reinforces much of this anger.
Although Zuckerberg’s desire to create Facebook seems to be driven largely by his anger about being dumped, we are also reminded that it is rooted in his fascination with and resentment toward the culture of elitism symbolized by the final clubs that refuse to provide admission to a frumpy middle-class computer geek (one who also happens to be Jewish in a supposedly WASPy culture). This WASPy culture of privilege is personified by the Wiklevoss twins–tall, blonde, muscular, and privileged beyond belief–who recognize Zuckerberg’s coding skills and invite him to work on a project that they’ve been entertaining, Harvard Connection, a kind of Facebook for elites, which they propose in the bike room of their Final Club, the only room Zuckerberg is allowed to enter. It’s also suggested by the busloads of Boston-based coeds who seem eager to strip down to their undies and gyrate on tables and make out with each other for the visual pleasure of a bunch of overgrown trust-fund guys. And it’s unclear whether Mark resents being excluded from the power and connections such final clubs promise or whether its the girls. Later, of course, Zuckerberg, along with Sean Parker (played with seductive bravado by Justin Timberlake), who had “completely transformed,” as Parker himself brags, the music industry, heads to Silicon Valley, where Parker, in particular parties non-stop, doing coke lines off the stomachs of eager California co-eds. The programming world of Facebook also seems to me an all-male affair, something that isn’t true of the actual website (as Salon reminds us). This is where the film’s attempts at critique started to become muddled for me. Why oversimplify the company’s (and Silicon Valley’s) gender dynamics? Is the film criticizing the elite Harvard grad for his not-so-hidden sexism? Zuckerberg for wanting entrance to that world? And to what extent is it offering the dancing girls for “our” pleasure? Although the film seems to be criticizing the culture of masculinity at Harvard and in Silicon Valley, in places, the film seems to be cutting both ways.
As the film unfolds, we become more deeply ensconced in the hubris that begins to drive Zuckerberg. He clearly becomes seduced by Parker’s flippant anti-authoritarianism and his superficial charm, rejecting the loyalty of his roommate and friend, Eduardo (who becomes involved with a stereotypically seductive, but eventually incredibly jealous, Asian girlfriend). In some sense, I think, the film can be read as a love triangle between these three men: Mark, the talented misanthrope who stumbles onto social networking because he is anti-social; Eduardo, the loyal friend who seeks to support a project he thinks will work; and Sean, the rebel who seems to provide Mark with a way of getting back at all of the wealthy and powerful people who have rejected him, putting together what seems like a political allegory of sorts. This is where I begin to find Alex Juhasz’s critique of The Social Network as a “boomer morality tale” convincing. Zuckerberg sacrifices friendship and loyalty out of a personal desire for revenge, but that desire seems to be deeply rooted in the class antagonisms and resentments in place at Harvard (at least as it is imagined in Sorkin and Fincher’s flashy moralism).
It’s clear that the film wants us to be ambivalent about Zuckerberg, but I found myself with little to no sympathy toward him. Throughout the film, Zuckerberg is alone–often in isolating long shots and even extreme long shots–when his biggest achievements are reached. While Parker and the co-eds pop champagne corks in Facebook’s tiny apartment office, Zuckerberg is outside beyond a sliding glass door in the dark. Although The Social Network has been compared to Citizen Kane in its depiction of an idealistic young man turning sour due to sudden wealth, it was hard for me to believe that Zuckerberg, unlike Kane, could have been a “great man.” Instead, he remains a victim, one who sits alone in a sterile office tower with glass walls, the kind meant to suggest openness and warmth, obsessively refreshes his old girlfriend Erica’s Facebook page after sending her a friend request.
The film carries us along at a breakneck pace. Roger Ebert compares the rapid-fire dialogue to screwball comedy, and that sounds about right, especially if the romance is between Mark, Sean, and Eduardo. And the film is framed around an elegant flashback narration set in various deposition rooms as lawyers shoot questions back and forth, fighting over whether Zuckerberg owes Eduardo and the Winklevosses any money. To that extent, the film seems more obsessed with the trappings of money and power, and Facebook itself seems to matter little. We rarely see anyone actually using Facebook and are not given any sense of its appeal, no matter how flawed. Sorkin himself, it is widely reported, doesn’t really use Facebook (although he reads blogs, Ken Levine’s at least), and as Richard Brody seems to imply, this pushes Sorkin’s seeming distaste for the site and his unwillingness to engage with it except as a site designed by a couple of socially inept geeks.
Thus, The Social Network is a film about a significant transformation in mediated culture (I’m not willing to call it a revolution) that does little to engage with what those transformations might mean. As Brody puts it, in response to David Denby’s review, “Sorkin and Fincher’s Zuckerberg didn’t dream of becoming a Facebook user; he dreamed of not being a Facebook user.” As I watched the film, I found myself developing the dawning realization that Facebook, which now seems like a “natural” part of Internet culture has only been around since 2004 or so. I recall setting up my first account when I taught at Catholic University, well before Facebook access was available to anyone with an “edu” address and certainly before it was available to everyone (and used by almost everyone). It has fed into and shaped a rapidly evolving net culture, one in which conversation is less likely to take place on blogs and more likely to unfold in the rapidfire comments on Twitter or the protected spaces of Facebook, a change in the media ecosystem that Laura at Geeky Mom explained recently on her blog. The Social Network touches on these themes, but seems to not quite know what to do with them. In that sense, the film’s biggest resentments seemed not to be directed at the wealthy, WASPy clubs that excluded Zuckerberg–at points, even “the Winklevii” seem more sympathetic than Zuckerberg–but at the changing media culture that seems to be reshaping our relationship to an older audiovisual culture moment by moment.