News & Politics

'The Social Network' Nails Harvard's (and America's) Diseased Obsession with Elitism

The protagonist's angry fixation with elite social clubs exists in American life--as class resentment channeled into a perverse identification with the privileged.

Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s Oscar-nominated Facebook origin-myth The Social Network has little to say about the new generation or the spirit of the Internet age. It’s also got race and gender problems (it was made in Hollywood, after all). But what it does portray with chilling accuracy is the way elitism can get under people’s skin, leading to an endless craving for recognition and being “set apart” from the masses. In that sense, it depicts a uniquely American strain of ambition, and a uniquely American way of solving the problem of being an outsider. Rather than a film about changing an unfairly rigged system to distribute power, it’s about seizing power for oneself. The film reveals that process to be both initially satisfying and ultimately empty, as are all attainments of status.

That’s why the Harvard setting works. The film’s Harvard bears an uncanny resemblance to the Harvard where I studied as an undergrad just ahead of Mark Zuckerberg. (The film’s Zuckerberg is a made-up character, so for the purposes of this piece I’m referring to the fictional Zuckerberg, the fictional Winklevoss twins, etc.) A typical Harvard freshman class contains hundreds of youths who resemble this character: ambitious, awkward, privileged and insanely competitive. Previously they were yearbook editors, science prize winners, sports captains and student government presidents. They’ve won scholarships and been valedictorians. They genuinely believe the Harvard acceptance letter validates their years of striving and stress. Their parents, for the most part, could afford SAT tutoring, or private school tuition, or at least a chunk of Harvard’s hefty price tag.  

These legions of young and precocious arrive at their bastion of ivory-tower academia and discover: they are not unique. Thousands of their peers have credentials just like theirs. And maybe, just maybe, the subconscious idea begins to materialize: getting into Harvard isn’t purely a reflection of brainy merit or hard work. Instead, (with obvious exceptions) it’s often a result of socioeconomic status, connections and luck.

But for most people, contemplating one’s privilege is more daunting--at Harvard and in America--than making a charge at the ranks of those who have even more. Indeed, the pathways of storied universities like Harvard are still trod by people like The Social Network’s pitch-perfect archetypes, the Winklevoss twins. These good old boys and girls, shockingly present, are often the scions of families who have been attending the school for generations. Sometimes their names are shared with entire buildings. As in the film, they can flash a trump card at their maladjusted genius classmates: an easy sense of entitlement, and a handshakey familiarity with each other. 

That coveted clubbiness extends to the much-debated “final clubs,” the male-only social groups that occupy so much of poor Mark Zuckerberg’s thoughts in the film. These organizations are indeed frequently on the minds of many young matriculants at Harvard. Why wouldn’t they be? Harvard is in a sense higher education’s own final club. It holds that promise of a gated community accessed by “merit” that promises its entrants prosperity and social cachet.

At other Ivies, social clubs have different names and aren’t all-male. But they all serve the same social purpose: to further that foundational illusion of “members-only” exclusivity an institution like Harvard, Yale or Princeton is built on to begin with. The Vegas-like final club parties shown in Zuckerberg’s fevered imagination during The Social Network may have been an exaggeration, but the reality of these events was worse. At final clubs, students actually dress up in seersucker and straw hats, puff cigars and pretend to be the Waspy ruling class of yore. It’s as silly as it is offensive, most assuredly. But it’s also a dangling reminder that however much privilege and power you attain, there’s always someone out there with more.

The irony the film catches is that in today’s reality, such old-school gladhanding and posturing matters less than actual grit and talent. But it still matters enough to rankle, to spur our protagonist’s vengeance. In The Social Network Zuckerberg chooses to forge his own path to the mythical fruits of final-club membership (money, success, girls, elite status) after failing to get invited into the clubs themselves. He trounces the old-money buffoonery of the Winklevoss twins with ruthless capitalist entrepreneurship and founds an Internet empire. Within the parameters of the film’s world, the socially hapless Zuckerberg is a compelling anti-hero, and his choice to hang the twins out to dry is satisfying. On the flip side, his decision to screw over his slightly dopey friend Eduardo demonstrates the loss of his soul in the process of winning the game.

To be sure, by zeroing in on the ambition vs. old-money dynamic, The Social Network excludes many other narratives. Not everyone at prestigious universities cares about social clubs, or can think about them from Zuckerberg’s privileged vantage point. Just before my, and Zuckerberg’s era, some brave Harvard students were busy occupying the president’s office to demand worker’s rights. Others fought on behalf of date-rape victims, combated racism in the curriculum, tutored local students, or just played ultimate Frisbee. 

But it’s also true that the insular world captured by the film remained a disproportionate influence on campus. A healthy number of my peers were as consumed by the clubs as the fictional Zuckerberg was--and would have bulldozed their way in if possible. There were frequent efforts to turn other activities at Harvard into final-club-like experiences, with hazing rituals and inane ceremonies. More and more social groups sprung up with “punching” processes that mimicked the final clubs. Secret ceremonies and retro outfits all soothed and validated an alleged specialness that in reality, stood on a flimsy foundation.

And that’s where the broader implications of Sorkin’s story are: just as Americans too often identify with the wealthiest sliver of the population over their own self-interest, many Harvardians identify with the club members and long to join their ranks, even when the door is literally shut in their faces. There was probably more sympathy for final clubs among the student body than for social-justice groups. (Certainly, there was more sympathy for Larry Summers than for the women and minorities he offended.) And as “Facemash,” Zuckerberg’s first foray into sexist computer programming in The Social Network showed, the misogyny inherent in the clubs’ male-only makeup was parroted by others.

Again, the mind-tricks played by elitism--the idea that you’re never in the inner circle--isn’t unique to Harvard. Sorkin succeeds in pointing to an unfortunate quality embedded in our national character. Zuckerberg’s angry fixation with the clubs exists in American life as class resentment channeled into a perverse identification with the privileged class. It’s a diseased way of thinking. Zuckerberg’s ultimate unhappiness at the film’s end reveals the misery inherent in trying to fight an unfair system by going after your share of its fruits. He didn’t want to dismantle the final clubs and create a level social playing field (although that would have been an interesting narrative), but rather to gain access to its benefits for himself. And yet, as he discovered, a system created to maintain an illusion is inherently empty at its core. 

Of course, not everyone watching the movie will realize this. After all, the parties, the glamor and the prestige of running Facebook appeal for the same reason final clubs appealed to the fictional Zuckerberg: they represent an elite inner circle that’s out of reach.

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at sarahmseltzer.com.