"The Social Network" Doesn't Get Social Networking
Everything that's wrong about The Social Network is summed up by its title.
The movie, opening nationwide today, is not interested in the concept of social networking or the actual usage of Facebook. Aaron Sorkin, the film's writer, told me in my profile of Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker: "I've heard of Facebook, in the same way I've heard of a carburetor. But if I opened the hood of my car I wouldn't know how to find it." It's a movie full of fictionalized scenes and Sorkin's trademark rat-a-tat dialogue that -- save for one eerie, almost ripped-from-the-headlines exchange (more on that later) -- say little about our online lives beyond the perfunctory "Facebook-is-addicting" and "we're-sharing-too-much-information."
And it's a movie that, at its core, stands on one glaring false premise: Zuckerberg as a flat-eyed, borderline autistic, humorless guy, a consummate outsider who wanted badly to get into one of Harvard's "final" clubs, his considerable coding skills reduced to social awkwardness. In other words, the geek as the "other." The lonely nerd, sitting alone in front of his computer, seeking connection. The friendless Zuckerberg creating Facebook to make friends and get a girl. There's something that feels quite dated and very 1990s about all of this, like the filmmakers never bothered to meet some of the geeksters -- geeks and hipsters -- at Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, etc. who fuel the social media renaissance in Silicon Valley. Zuckerberg is presented as an alien from a faraway computer programming space, instead of a leading member of an entrepreneurial generation who's grown up with the Internet and now tops Vanity Fair's ranking of the New Establishment, ahead of Steve Jobs, the Google guys and Rupert Murdoch. In the film, Zuckerberg's character lacks context. He just is.
Zuckerberg, mind you, is no saint. A string of instant messages he sent while he was in college has been embarrassing and damaging to his reputation. On the whole, his views on privacy and his goal of making the world "a more open place" push way too many buttons to count. But Hollywood's stereotypical portrait of the introverted uber-geek has already gotten some in the tech community -- even those critical of Zuckerberg -- all riled up.
Anil Dash, the blogging pioneer and frequent critic of the Facebook CEO, told me: "The movie is written in the abstract, based on what they feel Facebook, and the social Web, represent. It's exoticism. It's the 1940s, when you had a white actor in yellow-face play a Chinese character, you know? Those foreigners talk like this, and it's why they're inscrutable and evil."
Added Jeff Jarvis, a long-time chronicler of new media and author of What Would Google Do?: "This is all about snobbery, about dismissing all this Internet stuff. The filmmakers didn't give any value to what Zuckerberg made. How can they say that they understand him if they don't understand his creation? It's dismissive of the 500 million or so people who are on Facebook. It's intellectually lazy. It's insulting."
Neither Sorkin nor Ben Mezrich (whose unauthorized book The Accidental Billionaires inspired the film) had access to Zuckerberg. And as one of the few journalists who's interviewed Zuckerberg numerous times and is familiar with the history of Facebook's early founding and continued growth, seeing the movie is a jarring, disorienting experience. How much reality can one expect from Hollywood? Not much, of course. For one, Jesse Eisenberg's portrayal of Zuckerberg is far from the actual Zuckerberg. At any point during the two-hour movie, I can't recall seeing Eisenberg's Zuckerberg crack a big smile or display any outward emotion. Eisenberg's Zuckerberg is on autopilot. He's not evil, per se, but driven -- driven towards what, we're not sure. The filmmakers have absolutely no idea. The real Zuckerberg, on the other hand, has a much more varied personality. Though naturally shy and inherently a private person, he's a noted prankster among his family and friends and, at any given moment, can easily turn serious or comical. Insecure is not a word anyone would use to describe him. Friendless, he is not. He is driven towards creating and dominating a new kind of Internet based on our identities and relationships.
To be fair, The Social Network has never pretended to be a documentary. It's got a story to sell and sticks to it, and that translates to sensationalized scenes of drugs and sex and made-up and heightened friendships and allegiances. Though Zuckerberg is the film's center, its heart belongs to Eduardo Saverin. In the film, Saverin is Zuckerberg's best friend who ends up suing him; furthermore, Saverin's acceptance to a final club that Zuckerberg couldn't get into hangs like a cloud. In real life, Saverin was less a friend of Zuckerberg and more a business partner. But this being a Hollywood movie (and since Saverin provided Mezrich, and in turn, Sorkin, with much of their material), the narrative arc of a betrayed best friend is a much juicier, more tragic Greek story. "Creation myths need a devil," one of the characters in the film tells the Facebook CEO. In some ways, the use of Zuckerberg and Facebook feel almost incidental, as if they're nothing but timely, movable props simply designed to lure viewers in and ride the social networking wave. Never mind that viewers will leave theaters with an inaccurate history of Facebook or a one-sided view of Zuckerberg. The movie is the thing. As Sorkin told Mark Harris in New York magazine: "I don't want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling."
Because whatever else The Social Network is -- a dark (and darkly-lit) movie, well-acted throughout (kudos to dynamic Justin Timberlake), at times fun, witty and entertaining (the mere mention of the Facebook "wall" drew snickers from the audience) -- the film represents the biggest culmination yet of old media's disdain and misreading of new media. Its title notwithstanding, it's a movie about social networking born out of a fundamental disconnect.
It's no surprise, then, that The Social Network turns out to be simplistic take on a complex character masquerading as an important film. I saw the movie at a Thursday midnight screening surrounded by an almost packed house of mostly college-age students. They've been using Facebook for most of their high school and college lives; Zuckerberg is a curiosity and, to some I spoke to, an inspiration. To be 26 and a billionaire and the CEO of Facebook -- well, what have you done?
As the movie ended and the credits rolled, I kept trying to figure out what Peter Travers of Rolling Stone meant when -- in a rave review that's been followed by other rave reviews -- he dubbed the film "the movie of the year" that also defines "the dark irony of the past decade." Which decade? Defined by whom? By those who don't use Facebook and social media and deride it as a waste of time and energy, as nothing but narcissism and vanity gone amok?
Facebook is many things to many people -- you make it what it is -- but it's a way for users to present themselves and manage their relationships with other people. It's a bar, a church, a town hall, a borderless, multilingual country -- with all the requisite social complications. Of course it feeds the ego. You won't get more birthday wishes than on Facebook, for example. And there's always something intrinsically theatrical about it, like watching a reality TV show knowing that the very presence of a camera alters the definition of "reality."
It's not merely superficium, not all trivial, however. While riding a cab in Washington, D.C. recently, a 37-year-old Ethiopian driver named Berhanu Bekele got visibly emotional when describing how he was able to find long-lost friends on Facebook whom he had lost touch with during Eriterean-Ethipioan War in the late 1990s. He's found two while typing their names on Facebook's search box -- one is in Lebanon, he says -- and hopes to find more. "The world is getting smaller, you know," Bekele told me. When it comes to social activism and organizing, Facebook can be used for good or bad, its users ultimately driving its meaning.
The truth is, Facebook is as much a creature of the showboat Andy Warhol -- everyone gets more than their share of 15 of minutes fame -- as it is of the humanist E.M. Forster: "Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die."
I'm a digital native, a part of the "millennial" generation who, like Zuckerberg, has grown up with Google, Wikipedia and AOL Instant Messenger -- instant, immediate connection, where every private citizen has an online identity. I don't have a utopian or dystopian view of the Internet; it's just a reality I personally am still adjusting to. To others like me, what happens online translates offline; increasingly, there's a fluidity between our online and offline identities. As I walked out of the theater at 2:30 a.m Friday, I was reminded of one moment in the movie. It's a made-up scene between Zuckerberg and his ex-girlfriend Erica, who becomes a victim of Zuckerberg's drive-by-blogging -- he calls her a "bitch" and posts her bra size for the online world to see. The confrontation between the two would have been much more effective without Zuckerberg being told that he writes from "a dark room" because he's a "failure at human contact." The heavy-handedness aside, the ugly consequences of violating someone's privacy easily speaks for itself.
The scene reminded me of the truly tragic story of Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers University who took his own life after his roommate, 18-year-old Dharum Ravi, recorded his private sexual encounter with another man and shared it online, via Twitter and iChat. Before he jumped off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River, he signed onto his Facebook account and wrote "sorry." A Facebook group memorializing his death, created after the news broke on Wednesday, has some 75,000 members.
Social networking -- a flattening online world built on people and their real identities -- is here to stay, and it's not just about Facebook. At a time when we need to have deeper, more serious conversations across the country -- especially in middle schools, high schools and colleges -- about the irrevocable impact of social networking in our lives, we have a movie that purports to be about social networking but ultimately proves to be a mostly fleeting distraction. See it; you probably will. Just don't expect any real insight about our evolving online reality, or about the 26-year-old CEO that's helping shape it.
Then again, The Social Network is a Hollywood movie about a topic that Hollywood fails to understand.