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Why Do We Idolize Jerks?

The new book "Ascent of the A-Word" traces our love affair with “iconic assholes” like Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg and others.

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GAGE: You don’t think I deserve your attention. . . .

ZUCKERBERG: You have part of my attention. You have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.

Only in an incongruously mawkish final scene does Zuckerberg reveal a dim awareness of his isolation and loneliness, as he sits alone at a conference table in the offices of his lawyers and sends a Facebook friend request to his former girlfriend, Erica, then keeps compulsively refreshing the page to see if there’s a response. All of a sudden he’s pathetic, and for the first time strikes us as a possible object of sympathy. “You’re not really an asshole,” his lawyer, Julie, has told him, but what the scene really shows is that he’s  only an asshole, not an unmitigated shit like most of the other characters — the slick hustler Sean Parker, the supercilious and self-infatuated Winklevoss twins who accused him of stealing their idea.

That last scene put several critics in mind of Charles Foster Kane’s “Rosebud,” and it seems to set the movie in the long line of American stories that show successful figures repaid for their unchecked ambition with loneliness. The scene is obviously meant to leave the audience with the consoling thought that it profiteth a man nothing if he gains the world but loses his soul mate. But there are no real film antecedents for the figure of the emotionally stunted nerd billionaire (a very far cry from Mickey Rooney in Young Tom Edison), just as there are no media precursors of the digital culture that seems to many to foster a kindred sense of disconnection and casual meanness. Or at least that’s the perception of many people in the generation of Sorkin and Fincher, who were in their late forties when the film was made. They obviously meant for their Zuckerberg to personify the digital culture, as they signaled in the ambiguous title The Social Network. That’s how Zadie Smith read the story in the New York Review of Books:

Shouldn’t we struggle against Facebook? Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder . . . Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what “friendship”  is . . . We were going to live online. It was going to be extraordinary. Yet what kind of living is this? Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous?  Your life in  this format?

But that’s not how people who grew up with Facebook see either Zuckerberg or his creation. When I talk to Berkeley undergraduates about the movie (which they’ve apparently all seen), they acknowledge that Zuckerberg behaved badly, but they don’t see him as the alien and alienating figure that Sorkin and Fincher made him out to be — he’s a routine sort of jerk, and if they have it in for him, it’s more often because of Facebook’s privacy policies than any of the wrongs committed by his movie avatar. Nor would they recognize either Facebook or themselves in Smith’s description of the online world. They don’t see their walls and profiles as the places where they live their lives, just as one of the many venues, material and immaterial, where they circulate. And they’re quite clear on the difference between friends and “friends.” As one student of mine wrote, after describing the assortment of postings on his Facebok wall from classmates, acquaintances, and already forgotten high-school chums, “If I thought this was a representation of my actual life, I’d need to reevaluate it pronto.”