The Social Network
Every day, my partner gets up and goes to work with two other guys who live next door to us. Along with a handful of monied investors, some super dedicated programmers who regularly work nights and weekends, and a few risk enthusiast entrepreneur types who jet around Europe seeking out investment deals, the group makes software they believe will change the way people work. No one’s making a lot of money (yet)—but someday we expect they will.
The world of technology start-ups is not one that very many social justice folks visit, let alone inhabit. Sure, there are people who label themselves “netroots social entrepreneurs” or “crowd-sourcing cyberactivist evangelists,” but most progressives I know don’t play in this so-called boys club—and it shows. The lefty films reviews I’ve read of The Social Network—in which reviewers lament class, race, and gender privilege—miss the point entirely. (The mainstream reviews don’t necessarily have insight into the scene either.) While a socially homogenous character set and stereotypical story arc may seem theoretically offensive, at least it’s relatively honest.
The Social Network is a film about the unlikely, and yet entirely predictable, ways tech start-ups succeed. When small and scrappy basement-, garage- or dorm-dwelling companies emerge to take on the world from a high-rise perch, the story is almost always a compelling case study in grueling work hours, personal sacrifice, and ultimately financial reward. In telling the story of Facebook, the social networking site that has forced the very concept of privacy to be reconsidered by a generation, the film’s creators arguably play up what small amount of partying happened on the way to success.
Did Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg really get a blow job in a pub restroom from a tech groupie? Was a Palo Alto party once busted when Napster founder and early Facebook investor Sean Parker emerged with cocaine on his hands? Aside from these not terribly scandalous scenes, The Social Network isn’t that sexy or controversial. It just shows a lot of anxiety, work, and isolation—with no vacation and no relief. It’s actually par for the course, if you ask this resident start-up wife.
Zuckerberg is portrayed as an insecure Harvard freshman scrambling for success (by stealing and lying his way to the top), and anyone already familiar with the young hacker’s story knows that some version of this narrative is true. Conveniently mentioned as an afterthought is that Zuckerberg was courted by Microsoft in high school. He’s not a down-and-out loser who got lucky, even if he did swipe his billion-dollar idea from someone else; he was already a fairly accomplished programmer with an entitlement chip on his shoulder.
As he works towards social media domination, Zuckerberg obsesses over a former college flame who dumped him, essentially, for being a jackass. Revenge for a geeky broken heart is the path to success for both Zuckerberg and Parker, and while the plot device was no doubt inflated for the film, why is that so awful or difficult to comprehend? Would we prefer Zuckerberg simply be portrayed as an out-and-out sociopath? People always say living well is the best revenge, and being the world’s youngest billionaire—albeit a seemingly friendless one—is one way to live, well, better.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has responded to complaints about women’s marginal, support-the-geek role in the film by saying that, in fact, Facebook (and no doubt its social media cousins) was created by a “very angry and deeply misogynistic group of people.” While distressing, some alternative manifestations of misogyny could include becoming a Girls Gone Wild producer, an abusive partner, or a serial rapist. Creating a massive online connection space is hardly the worst thing a woman-hating, idea-stealing nerd could do. As such, much of The Social Network centers around Zuckerberg’s legal battles (which have since been settled) with far less attention paid to his non-existent social life. Misogyny shouldn’t be a given, but sometimes there’s just no getting around how it instructs a narrative.
While critics adore this film with good reason, audiences are torn. To me, this is because people are unaware of the controversies that have long surrounded the ubiquitous platform. Laypeople don’t seem to care about issues of privacy, company diversity, or ad targeting; they just want to join the cool, free, virtual realm. If they did spend time considering the terms of service, why uploading is donating personal data to a corporation to use as they please, or how status updates can be used for hiring, firing, and to set legal precedents, they probably wouldn’t use Facebook with such reckless abandon to digitize their personal lives or call it a revolution for activism.
Facebook may be used for those things, but it’s also a money-making product run by egocentric, rich, White guys whose profits come solely from the fact that you—yes, you—share your personal information with the world. Even if even a large percentage of the 500 million users leave Facebook after seeing the film—which never even touches on the myriad ethical privacy violations the company has shrugged off—it won’t be a successful exercise in flipping the bird to The Man. It’d still be too late.
From a production standpoint, The Social Network couldn’t be more expertly made. Not skimping on details, the crew actually filmed in Cambridge, a highlight for any fans of Boston-made movies. (That’d be me.) David Fincher (Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac) is a phenomenal director—one of my personal favorites—whose films are always the perfect mix of suspense and beauty. Aaron Sorkin’s (A Few Good Men, The West Wing) trademark dialogue makes you feel that you’re physically standing in between two characters at all times, being punched in the face from opposing sides with the full force of their acting ability used as verbal fists. With unsettling ambient sounds, and music composed by the perfectly suited Atticus Ross/Trent Reznor duo (the latter of whom collaborated with Fincher on music videos early in both of their respective careers), the film couldn’t be more tightly stitched together.
If you know anything about the service you’re likely addicted to, then you know the ending of the film. My guy, who should be used to watching the venture capitalist crowd do their thing, was visibly unsettled as the cinema lights came up. “That was so uncomfortable to watch,” he said. “They’re all such bad people; not a single redeeming character in the mix.” I was mostly uncomfortable because the film reflected his and my reality: that when two people are tied to a start-up and self-employed as a full-time freelancer, they pretty much never take a vacation, no matter how much they need or want it.
Mark Zuckerberg might be my generation’s biggest asshole, a fact that propelled both my partner and me to see the film in the first place. Zuckerberg might be a vengeful misogynist or an unhappy nerd. He’s likely both of those things.
No matter how wealthy, influential, or polarizing you are, it's a little fucked up to have your own biopic made when you're only twenty-six years old. But it might also be the only way to send the message that privacy isn’t obsolete—or rather, it didn’t have to be—and that you can’t always buy your way out of this new norm that Zuckerberg created. Don’t want your fictionalized life story shown on the big screen? Some of us don’t even want ours on the small one of our own—and everyone else's—home computers.