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'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.