The Social Network
October 27, 2010
Combine a skillful screenplay from writer Aaron Sorkin with the focused vision of director David Fincher and you have yourself one hell of an awesome movie. Their collective brainchild, The Social Network (2010) based on Ben Mezrich’s novel The Accidental Billionaires (2009), is indeed a stand out film amongst this year’s cinema releases. And there are a multitude of reasons why. Unable, and perhaps even a little unwilling due to their exhaustive nature, to list them all here, I’d like to focus on the film’s most central concern. Running through its core like fishing wire is the fascinating and fantastically flawed character of Mark Zuckerberg (expertly executed by an understated Jesse Eisenberg).
It’s worth saying right away that the majority of viewers will likely err on the side (for in lieu of its lawsuit foci, it is about sides) of Zuckerberg’s co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who is the more endearing and certainly emotive of the two. However, I would like to look at the film from the viewer perspective of alignment with Zuckerberg as I found Saverin, though appealing if one is connecting to the film passively and/or emotionally, is actually a far less interesting character. Conversely, despite his social awkwardness, lack of tact and all round asshole behaviour, Zuckerberg is the true hero in the film and it’s because of his annoying but deeply humanizing traits that his character deserves the greatest attention.
Unable to relate to the “average” (in every sense of the word) person, Zuckerberg is a misunderstood and often misguided genius. Dumped in the opening scene by girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) because of his incessantly insulting and inconsiderate nature, Zuckerberg isn’t heartbroken, he is perplexed. Here is a problem for which his inordinate aptitude and IQ cannot even fathom let alone solve. His reaction? To deflect the problem onto someone (or someones) else. In creating an impromptu website called facemash.com, where students can rate the hotness of their female peers against one another, this is exactly what Zuckerberg does. He transfers his anger, frustration and what might even be a little bit of upset into a clever endeavour undermined only by its petty, crude exterior. This is how Zuckerberg copes: we all have our mechanisms, some more favourable than others, but what’s so interesting about Zuckerberg’s is that his coping mechanism combines itself with his intelligible talents, an ability that is really rather admirable.
Aside from the insane amount of money the site eventually comes to generate and be valued at, the most significant achievement of Facebook is its reach: over 500 million users worldwide. And to think that all this began in a wee Harvard dorm room born of inebriation. Having myself been at university during the mid 2000s I can actually remember when UCL (University College London, of which my university, King’s College London is a part of) “got Facebook”. It was some time in 2005 and you had to have a college email account to join and you had to be invited by another user. So fast-moving was its reach that I can recall walking along the Strand with a friend who, upon passing a total stranger, yelled “Facebook!” as we passed. It seems, even though the two individuals didn’t know each other and had never before met, they had, through pictures and links online, a very real connection. More than just Zuckerberg’s dream of “the entire social experience of college, but online”, Facebook simultaneously created a new social experience of college life offline.
But I digress. This anecdote is only mentioned to illustrate the momentum with which the site moved and, despite my not joining Facebook until but a few weeks ago (I have my reasons), it has come to change the way in which we – not just university students now, we everyone – have come to communicate, promote, share, socialize and interact. Yet here is the story of a man who, insofar as the film would have us believe, could not communicate, promote, share, socialize or interact successfully with his peers. Still, he is the impetus behind the revolution. The film then posits the idea that it is only someone who struggles with the restrictions of their own social context who can successfully create and implicate a new one. And this is why, despite the reasonable grounds held by Saverin, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) and their business partner Divya Narenda (Max Minghella) for filing lawsuits against Zuckerberg the film still posits Zuckerberg as the rightful inventor of Facebook, his own cutting remarks the final word on the subject: “If you were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”
Narenda and the Winklevei (as Zuckerberg so calls them) claim Zuckerberg stole their idea after agreeing to work with them on their own social enterprise The Harvard Connection. Zuckerberg, maintaining that “They had an idea, I had a better one.” leaves them behind not because their idea is no good but because he isn’t interested in anything that they represent. Painfully aware that he is not a part of the college elite Zuckerberg knows that where you can’t assimilate, you surpass. When the Winklevei and Narenda physically arrive in the UK, Zuckerberg is already there – online. While the other students are revelling in college life from parties to one night stands; Zuckerberg is already there, playing host to their antics – online. The film regularly juxtaposes the social aspects of other students’ extroverted lives with Zuckerberg’s introverted college life, which, for the most part, involves sitting at a computer typing endless lines of code. Why? Because who wants to be the puppet when you can be the puppet master? Zuckerberg doesn’t create Facebook because he wants to share his college experience online and it’s not because he wants to access anyone else’s either. Zuckerberg creates Facebook because his intellect is superior to his peers and so, instead of just involving in social activity, he has the ability to evolve social activity.
But what of all this recognition, fame and fortune if our “hero” ends up rich but alone? Especially seeing as we are constantly reminded throughout the film that Zuckerberg isn’t really interested in the money. Add to this that he never (at least insofar as the film’s narrative is concerned) successfully manages to enter into another romantic union, he loses anyone he could once have called his friend, and is ultimately as he began: alone, alienated but intelligent. Despite the final words from his counsel, “You’re not an asshole Mark, you’re just trying so hard to be”, the majority of audiences will still likely come away thinking he’s a bit of a tool. Sorkin and Fincher then would have us all believe Zuckerberg isn’t too bad of a guy, but that he’s still a bit of an asshole who you probably wouldn’t want to “friend” (so to speak). But this is the film’s wonderful irony. The man who services us all with a platform where we can share, promote, like and comment on our own and each other’s statuses, activities and achievements has no place in it.
He doesn’t get the girl, he doesn’t reconcile with Saverin and he doesn’t appear to live happily ever after. But that, in my humble opinion at least, is a far more relatable and more endearing “hero” than is found in the vast majority of Hollywood narrative cinema. Here is a hero narrative that necessarily can’t end with complete and tidy resolution because human life and its interconnectivity, much like Facebook, is an ever-evolving process that will never in effect be “finished”. A hero shouldn’t “overcome” adversity, he/she should continually be working through it. Zuckerberg’s character then is much like his creation: it is constantly in flux. So if we all like Facebook, and it’s imperfect, shouldn’t it follow that we like its founder?
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.