"The Social Network": Facebook gets "The"

The Social Network, as a title of the 'biography of Facebook', expresses its own paradox. It was started by a socially awkward young man who preferred to externalize 'socialization' in the code of a computer before experiencing it himself. And the film makes clear that early on, it was supposed to be different in that it was supposed to help you relate to people you already knew, on a campus. Facebook wasn't originally a platform for global self-display, soap boxes, or self-publication . But in time, because of the path of growth and financial enticements, it has become an adjunct to the old Web 1.0 model for 'new' political activism, while still growing as the most visible social networking site on the Web. Early on, Mark Zuckerberg is critical of the older Myspace and Friendster for being too much about publication.

Yet, Zuckeberg is guilty of what he would later learn are some of his own sins. As the film opens in a bar and a girl friend calls him not just a nerd but an a--, he runs back to his dorm room, and says 'let the hacking begin.' While drunk, he builds a campus site that lets boys rate coeds for who, let's say, scores the most points. I'll pick language gently. Now, if you take this sort of thing to its logical consequences, you can see that it can marginalize people who don't 'compete' well socially, and could even be construed as hostility or, in today's context, cyberbullying. While hacking, Zuckerberg also "blogs" specifically about other female students, not a very considerate practice in the "online reputation defense" world.

But the main thread of the film's story is shown as a depositional drama, where Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) flashes back to earlier incidents. He gets sued bigtime by the Winklevoss brothers (Arnie Hammer and Josh Pence) for stealing their work for their Campus Connect. Now, Zuckerberg compares this to saying if you work for a chair company you can't design your own chair. True, if his own system was entirely his own code and designed in a manner substantially different from what he did for the twins for pay, he probably is not guilty of copyright infringement. (This sort of situation can happen in information technology work all the time; I even had a very minor incident involving it in the 1970s after leaving NBCV.) The other lawsuit involves his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who believes Zuckerberg has backstabbed in a stock deal after an incident involving freezing accounts.

The previews or trailers of the film make Eisenberg's performance as Zuckerberg seem bratty. In the film, he is bit more likeable, talking fast, always seeing through things, and staring beyond people. Physically, he is shorter and less obviously 'masculine' than some of his peers, so he has motivations for indirect ways of social connection. Halfway through the film, Justin Timberlake appears playing Napster co-founder Sean Parker (not to be confused with Shawn Fanning, who actually appears in 'The Italian Job'). Timberlake (in this film) is as powerful as he looked as the Nsync leader some years back; but that cover picture of him on Entertainment with his arms shaved looks ridiculous (this has happened before).

The real Zuckerberg seems more careful and measured in his television and YouTube appearances, but that may be learned behavior. The paradox of his accomplishment suggests something that is borderline Asperger-like; after all, a physician with Asperger's developed hedge funds involving credit default swaps and predicted the 2008 crash.

The film, in scope, stays visually compelling despite its indoorness, with small (and messy) dorm rooms and apartments, bars, and legal boardrooms. The quick back-and-forth storytelling keeps the two hours moving. There is a darkness to the film, as that characterizes David Fincher's work ('Se7en'; 'The Fight Club'). The screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin (explaining Zuckerberg's fast talk) and is based on the book 'The Accidental Billionaires' by Ben Mezrich (see my Book review blog, Jan 8, 2010). It's true, some of Zuckerberg's real life IM's, such as the one "they 'trusted' me", revealed in the New Yorker article by Jose Antonio Vargas, discussed in my "BillBoushka" blog Sept. 20, 2010.

Patrick Mapel plays cofounder Chris Hughes, for which there are sources describing him as gay (such as here). His role in the film is downplayed, as much of the dialogue in the film is rather heterosexist. My own take is, had I been one of the roommates in that dorm, I would have fit in and become part of it. Zuckerbeg's mind works much the way mine does. I would also compare him to DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee ('Waiting for Superman'), in that both care little about what people think of them. (Zuckerberg is reported to have a girl friend in medical school; but he and Rhee probably would have been compatible in a relationship, in my opinion. It's fun to play matchmaker.) There is an early scene in the film showing Harvard hazing, which I didn't think went on (at William and Mary in 1961, they called it 'Tribunals', where 'they' shaved the boys' legs, etc. I skipped out on it.)

The website from Columbia is here with the tagline 'You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.' Columbia did not use its musical trademark as its statue of liberty appeared, instead playing funky music from the film that diluted the trademark effect. Studios should lay full claim to their trademarks by always displaying them in full, including music. I'm surprised their lawyers don't insist on this. (See my July 24 2010 review of 'Salt' to find a link to the musical trademark.)

I think a good project would be to make a documentary about Facebook with the real Zuckerberg ("The Toddler CEO") and real other people if possible. Maybe if I could make my 'doaskdotell' into a movie company label, it would make a good project.

The October 25, 2010 issue of "The Nation" has an op-ed on p 6 by Ari Melber on the movie and on Zuckerberg, "The Antisocial Network". Melber writes that Facebook has swelled to 500 million members "because people really like being alone together" and later says "Zuckerberg thought nothing of conscripting people's pictures and personal information into his web experiments," link here. I think Melber overreaches and is a bit strident himself. However, any generation younger than that of my own parents (and I am in my 60s) has a much more individualized notion of sharing oneself; but earlier generations understood you can't always "choose" your connections to others and their effects.

I would also add that the Facebook paradigm may be more about "being on your own together" (than "being alone together"). That's a cultural change, associated with hyperindividualism, which may be very hard on people brought up to accept and expect more interdependence.

Update: Jan. 6, 2011

See TV Reviews blog Jan. 6, 2011 for coordinated review of CNBC's "The Facebook Obsession".

Also, is the "Thirsty Scholar" in the opening scene based on the "Thirsty Bernie" restaurant (link) like this one in Arlington VA?

Update 2: May 11, 2014

There was an incident where in a high school students wanted to do a "draft" of girls for a senior prom on Facebook. This was stopped but the school, but it reminds one of the "Who is the hottest?" contest at the beginning of the film. (It sounds like, \who is the more reproductively fit"?)

Posted by Bill Boushka at 4:44 PM

Labels: Aspergers, biography, Eisenberg, entrepreneurs, Facebook, Fincher, gifted young adults, Internet issues, major Internet companies, major studio releases, movies about computers, Sorkin

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