“Every creation myth needs a devil,” a sympathetic attorney tells Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, in the last scene of David Fincher’s dazzling, engrossing The Social Network. It’s a slyly subversive line, simultaneously summing up and calling into question much of the interpretation of events we’ve seen over the last two hours — and it gains another twist when you know that the line was neither dreamed up by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin nor copied from life, but was first uttered by a Facebook executive after reading the screenplay. It’s a mashup of art and criticism — a fortuitously collaborative, revisionistic coda to a fictionalized account of the social media age.
If The Social Network is a creation myth for the era of Facebook, what does it tell us about the world in which we live, the people we have become? As with other myths, different commentators may draw out different levels of meaning. Viewed one way, it highlights the elusiveness and malleability of the most explosive commodity of our times: ideas. Intellectual property can be so indefinite that even when you know you have something great, you may not be able to say exactly what it is, let alone where it came from or who has rights to it.
What is Facebook? Halfway through The Social Network, even Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg in an electric performance) can’t say what it is, though he’s emphatic that he invented it. How is it different from MySpace or Friendster? How is it different from HarvardConnection.com, the proposed site that Harvard seniors Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss ask Zuckerberg to build for them — and what makes that different from MySpace or Friendster? Questions like these have very different levels of urgency depending on whether they crop up in exploratory discussion between Zuckerberg and the Winklevosses or under cross-examination by lawyers after the fact.
Viewed another way, The Social Network illuminates the strange blend of emphemerality and indelibility that defines our times: On the one hand, our lives are changing at breakneck speed, and people live more than ever on the cusp of an ever-evaporating Now — but on the other hand nothing ever goes away, and we are more than ever tied to and defined by events and people that could once have been mercifully consigned to the obscurity of the past. Connected with this is the unsettling blend of anonymity and the loss of privacy. Sitting alone at a keyboard, computer users are freed from social constraints for their actions, yet the scope of their bad behavior is wider than ever, and they are not the only ones who will have to live with the consequences.
None of these ideas is revolutionary, but The Social Network embeds them in a taut, intellectually exhilarating narrative in which daredevil dialogue simultaneously defines characters and obscures motivations. The movie is canny and knowing about human nature, but somewhat agnostic about getting to the bottom of anyone or anything. Perception overshadows reality; what actually happened may matter less than the story that a lawyer could suggest to a jury, or a storyteller to an audience. The Social Network doesn’t really try to explain what makes Zuckerberg tick, and most of us may never know how true to life the depiction is, but many of us know people like the movie’s Zuckerberg, and the portrait rings true in that sense.
History has been written, in large part, by people not unlike the Winklevosses: aristocratic golden boys who know how to use their ample advantages, and how to leverage the talents of others. The future may belong in large part to people like Zuckerberg, whom the movie presents as an inscrutable little rodent in a hoodie and flip-flops, tense and peevish, unreflectively arrogant in his intellectual superiority and ambition, almost as lacking in self-awareness as empathic awareness of others.
The opening scene, a blistering back-and-forth between Mark and a girl named Erica (Rooney Mara) whom he has been dating, establishes the tone. The dialogue ricochets unpredictably among several subjects at once, Erica gamely trying to keep up with Zuckerberg’s mental acrobatics, Mark oblivious to Erica’s emotional responses. It’s all about Mark. Somehow it’s always about Mark. At the moment he’s obsessing over how to distinguish himself in a population of people who all got 1600 on their SATs, such as getting into a finals club. It goes without saying that Erica didn’t get anything like 1600 — and she’s going to B.U., not Harvard — which means she is ancillary to the discussion, although Mark does want her to be supportive, since it would be in her best interests for him to succeed and be in a position to take her to parties where she would meet people she otherwise wouldn’t. Erica breaks up with him with the kind of speech that people often imagine saying beforehand or wish they had said afterward, but seldom succeed in delivering unless they’ve carefully rehearsed it. It is explicit, succinct and devastating, and for once Mark has no comeback.
Not for the moment, anyway. Mark finds his voice later that night while simultaneously ranting vindictively at Erica, pounding back beers, and taking out his frustrations by creating a down-and-dirty website on the Harvard network inviting male students to rank the relative hotness of coeds in side-by-side pairings of one photo against another. Confessedly drunk and angry, he creates Facemash, as he calls it, in a single night while simultaneously blogging his progress and hacking the photos from the online facebooks or directories of individual university residences. It’s a tribute both to the social potential of the Internet and its seductive power to exploit the worst sides of human nature that the site quickly goes viral and the traffic overwhelms the Harvard network. (The blogging, the site and the crash all really happened; the girl’s name (and possibly the relationship and the breakup) are fictional.)
Mark’s attitude upon being called on the red carpet by university officials is instructive. He is unapologetic, defiant and even feels that he deserves credit for having identified the security issues he exploited. This anarchic sense of entitlement is the essence of the hacker mentality, or one type of hacker mentality, in which ability, achievement and reputation are the only values. If you are stupid or incompetent enough to let me compromise you, then you deserve to be compromised, and I deserve the credit for doing it.
Though short-lived, Facemash succeeds in getting Mark attention from the people he is hoping to impress. Instead of an invitation to join a finals club, though, the Winklevosses — identical twins, both played by a gently self-deprecating Armie Hammer (with the aid of subtle effects and a body double) — come to Mark with a proposal for another website, an exclusive networking and dating site for Harvard students. After first agreeing, Mark becomes frustratingly scarce and elusive, emailing vague promises and increasingly threadbare excuses for development work that it turns out he has no intention of delivering. Instead, with financial aid from his roommate Eduardo Saverin (a soulful Andrew Garfield), Mark is hard at work on a Harvard social networking site of his own, TheFacebook.com.
Did Zuckerberg steal the Winklevosses’ idea? From their perspective it seems cut and dried, but it may fairly be wondered just what they brought to the table. One thing at least seems clear: TheFacebook.com was at least a competing idea, and Mark strung the Winklevosses along while he got his site up and running, giving himself a competitive advantage. The Winklevosses respond with outrage, and the topic of a lawsuit comes up, but is at least initially rejected on touchingly idealistic grounds: As gentlemen of Harvard, they are bound by traditional precepts of honor and decorum. These ideals are rudely shaken when they try to fight Mark on their own terms, petitioning the president of Harvard (a hilariously unsettling Douglas Urbanksi) to expel Mark for violating the student code of conduct.
The fallout with the Winklevosses is inevitable and even strategic. The deterioration of Mark’s relationship with Eduardo, who is the closest thing Mark has to a friend, and who thinks of himself as Mark’s best friend, is haphazard and tragic. Eduardo and Mark clash over direction: As Facebook becomes successful, Eduardo reasonably wants to begin making back the money he’s invested by advertising — but Mark, with the unreasonable idealism of a visionary who is right and knows it, insists that this would be short-sighted, and would prevent Facebook from becoming ... whatever it is capable of becoming, which is potentially something worth far more than advertising now could ever bring in.
The rift is widened by the interloping of Sean Parker (a startlingly good Justin Timberlake), co-founder of Napster, who is a couple of years older than Mark and overawes the younger hacker with his big talk and party ways. Sean is the one who suggests that they rebrand the website “Facebook” (without the “the”), and at least in this account is responsible for inspiring Zuckerberg’s bad-boy business card (“I’m CEO, B‑‑‑‑es”) and his appearance at an interview in pajamas.
Sean is part visionary, part charismatic con man, and insinuates himself between Mark and Eduardo, who can’t quite fathom what is happening, because he is loyal to Mark, and doesn’t understand that “loyalty” is not a concept that computes for people like Mark. “[I]f you ever need info about anyone at Harvard,” Zuckerberg once IMed a friend, “i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns.” Asked how he came by that info, Zuckerberg answered, in four successive messages: “people just submitted it”; “i don’t know why”; “they ‘trust me’”; “dumb f‑‑‑s”. He bothered to put “trust me” in quotation marks, like a bit of unfamiliar jargon.
In the end, The Social Network suggests that even people like Zuckerberg who have the power to shape the world in which we live must ultimately live in the world that they themselves have created. Zuckerberg played a key role in shaping a technology that has enabled hundreds of millions of people to connect in new ways — or, conversely, to avoid connecting, to devote untold hours to games and other diversions instead. But the connections he made that enabled him to do what he did were not connections with other people — which are, in the end, the connections that matter. People like Mark change the world, but it’s people like Erica that make the world worth living in.
There is no excuse for this, I know. So I won’t try. Creation myths may need a devil, but Mark Zuckerberg didn’t make me do it. Mea cula, mea cula, mea maxima culpa.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.