Until I saw The Social Network, I had never really thought much about Facebook, but suddenly, I wondered: How the heck does Facebook, a free site, make all those billions of dollars? Turns out that it’s advertising (how mundane!), and turns out that I never even noticed the ads on the right side of my Facebook page. They are either really good ads, subtly worming their ways into my subconscious mind, or they are really bad ads that have utterly failed to attract my notice. (Whatever algorithm Facebook is using to ascertain which ads will make me click is a little off. For instance, I noticed an ad there for Christian Louboutin shoes. While it’s true that I wear shoes, and in fact like shoes very much, Christians are several notches above my pay grade. And the heels are way too high for me.)
The Social Network is no Facebook ad. The movie immediately grabs the attention, with a barrage of dialogue – penned by Aaron Sorkin – that’s fast, sharp, smart and combative. The conversation that the movie drops into is between Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), future billionaire and Facebook founder, and his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara). They’re in a bar, and rat-a-tat-tat, rapid-fire words fly across the table. Some of them hurt; some of them are meant to hurt; some of them are just further evidence, for Erica, of Zuckerberg’s obsession with status and his thinly veiled disdain for her lack thereof (she only goes to Boston University, while he’s at Harvard).
There is always collateral damage when Zuckerberg starts talking. Erica sums up his character in one word. The fight and the beers that he drinks and his quest for vengeance have Zuckerberg blogging into the night, and then taking it out on every female student at Harvard. He creates a website publicly ranking them all as hot or not. It’s mean-spirited, it’s an instant hit and it crashes the university’s computer network.
A few months later, Facebook is born – but not before Zuckerberg makes a few more enemies. By the end of the story, he’ll have made even more and betrayed his best (and only) friend. The irony, the paradox, the incongruity of the story is that the man who launched millions of online friendships has no friends, no people skills, a level of social ineptitude and insensitivity that’s almost pathological. Zuckerberg comes across as the smartest guy in the room, but also the most clueless: someone who, if he cares at all about other people, doesn’t (or can’t) show it.
Eisenberg, who typically plays affable nerds and losers (Adventureland, Zombieland), is anything but affable here. He plays Zuckerberg as someone who’s intensely, competitively brainy, but missing certain essential character traits: a sense of decency, loyalty, empathy, a conscience, the ability to listen – you know, the sorts of things that one would look for in a friend. Confronted with uncomfortable truths or socially difficult situations or people whom he thinks are beneath him (that’s almost everyone), Zuckerberg goes eerily blank, like he’s withdrawing into that void in his soul.
The Social Network is the story of a man who, pathetically motivated by petty revenge, creates a medium for human beings to connect with one another, and Zuckerberg simultaneously reaches out to and pulls back from human contact, while the movie thoroughly resists trying to make him attractive or sympathetic or even self-aware. Every time he opens his mouth, something awful comes out. The only person who really seems to get Zuckerberg is Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the Napster and Plaxo creator who is a slick, slippery, paranoid, Svengalilike business guru to him. Parker manages to insinuate himself into the Facebook fold just in time to cash in.
The Social Network is based on Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires. It interweaves the account of Facebook’s beginnings with two depositions for lawsuits against Zuckerberg. His best friend and Facebook co-founder and financier Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) is suing him. So are Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer, playing both as comically perfect creatures: rich, handsome, athletic Harvard men), who claim that Zuckerberg stole their idea when he created Facebook. Cameron and Tyler represent the old elite, born into privilege, hobnobbing with royalty, reeking with class and status. Their adversary represents the new elite, powered by microchips, with the online masses at his back.
Sorkin’s script is a great one; it crackles with intelligence, wit, emotion and psychological insight. Director David Fincher, drawn as always to dark material, creates an intensely heady, brainy modern-day tragedy that hits on Shakespearean themes of friendship and betrayal, human frailty, ruthlessness, power and ambition, loneliness. The Social Network builds momentum as it moves through the astonishingly meteoric rise (there’s yet to be a fall) of Facebook’s fortunes. Fincher toggles back and forth between a dark and oppressive Harvard (it has never looked so gloomy on film, all shadowy and cold) and brightly lit corporate offices where Zuckerberg faces his accusers and their lawyers.
How to make an interesting movie about words, computer code, ideas, cloud relationships? Fincher and Sorkin do it – first by capturing the thrill of creativity and genius as a small cadre of visionary computer hackers conquer the world with one really simple, really big idea, and then by creating an uncomfortably close, disquieting account of the casualties, of the real flesh-and-blood friends who get slaughtered. The movie tells a particular version of the Facebook origin story (a fictional one, according to Facebook, Inc.), and it’s utterly fascinating, hurtling through the details of how the biggest club in the world (one in 14 humans is a member) got started in a dark, angry dorm room at Harvard University.
The Social Network is a Digital Age morality tale, a tale of cruelty, betrayal, triumph. We see daily the maliciousness and viciousness of mobs cloaked in the anonymity of bits and bytes. The Social Network suggests that the callousness was a kind of original sin, written into the code by the creators. They unleashed a monster – the evil twin of the webtopian unifier of humanity. Zuckerberg didn’t create the monster; he just created a new place for it to hide in plain sight, surrounded by friends.