After seeing The Social Network I met a film student outside the theater and asked him if he thought it was weird that Hollywood had managed to make a compelling film out of such a recent bit of Silicon Valley history. It was strange, he said, and pointed to other famous historically-based films. The first major film about the Holocaust was released 16 years after the end of World War II, he said. But the first films about 9/11 – Paul Greengrass’s “United 93” and Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” – came out only five years later, in 2006, while many of us were still trying to make sense of what had happened. Nicolas Cage, star of “World Trade Center,” said the films were not meant to entertain, but to serve as some kind of history texts. “This is what happened. Look at it. ‘Yeah, I remember that.’ Generation after generation goes by, they’ll have ‘United 93,’ ‘World Trade Center,’ to recall that history.”
What had been an unspeakable and unthinkable event was quickly ushered through our collective psyche to the point where it would not just be spoken of but turned into material for a Hollywood script. That of course was after it would be turned into material for a Washington script, with a much messier and still unseen ending, for a movie that still occasionally plays on CNN. In both cases, the ability to think about recent history — in this case, the most widely seen event in history, and also probably one of the hardest to think about — was dispensed with in favor of a way of responding to it.
This is not just a Hollywood or a Washington or a news media thing: it happens on the Internet, every day, all the time. Through links, updates, headlines, Tweets, those of us who spend an increasing part of our lives online are routinely reminded that history is being written right now. And old media, Hollywood, Washington, the news, are all now inseparable from the Internet. We don’t need to digest history: if we want, the Internet is there to do it for us, and to do it before we can.
And there, history gets twisted all the time. What the NYU student told me about how long it used to take movies to get made about historical events wasn’t quite true. The first major film about the Holocaust wasn’t made 16 years after World War II. It was in 1948, three years after the end of the war, that Montgomery Clift starred in a movie about a young Auschwitz survivor searching for his mother across post-World War II Europe; it was called The Search.. So maybe after all our media’s not as fast-paced these days as we think we are. But of course we are. I looked this up in seconds on Wikipedia.
Somewhere in your News Feed, eons ago, there was a barrage of snipes and questions directed at the veracity of The Social Network. From the start, critics (led by Facebook of course) complained about how the film plays fast and loose with the truth about the website, Mark Zuckerberg, and Harvard. How “real” is it, really? How fair is it? Type “The Social Network is” into Google and the first suggestion is, the social network is it true?.
Built on rumors, over-dramatized, sensationalist and, said critics, unfair to the real Mark Zuckerberg and the “veritas” of Harvard. Others said the movie badly re-inscribed negative stereotypes about computer nerds — namely that they see the world through their computers, and that they are nerds.
The critics were right of course. The movie is a rough take on the facts, and demands all kinds of questions about verisimilitude, intent, and originality. If it raises those questions through the story, it does it only briefly, while avoiding some of the bigger questions about Facebook, about privacy, security and a world in which our advertising is our incessant friend.
But superficiality, truth-bending, dramatization, unfairness, and very sketchy characterization – let’s call it “storytelling” – is just right for this movie. In the wild back country of Facebook, anxiety about what’s real or important is the background noise that is so prevalent you never really notice it. If the film dramatizes, skews the truth, treats Mark Zuckerberg and everyone unfairly – and inspires all kinds of questions about how it represents reality, The Social Network is not just about Facebook: it’s just like Facebook. It’s a recursive movie, a fun house mirror pointed at Facebook, the fun house mirror we point at ourselves. It adopts the logic of Facebook, and runs with it, fast.
Not only does The Social Network meet our expectations about the computer hacker dropout, about Ivy League elitism and Internet vanity, but it has an ironic, elegant, elegiac tragic twist to it. Zuckerberg, in the movie, is a blank-faced geek who cares little about other people but who is so driven to be accepted by social networks that he decides to build the one website to rule them all. In the process, he loses the only friends he ever had. The tragic cherry on top: like everyone else, at the end of the movie, he ends up getting sucked into the vortex of his own creation, incessantly clicking “refresh” to see if a girl accepted his friend request.
There is in this movie version of Zuckerberg a story as old as the ancient Greeks, and like the idea for the social networking site in screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s account, the themes themselves have been lifted, he admits, from those early tragedies. (The real Zuckerberg has affinities for ancient Rome and Greece, has incorporated a Latin translation feature into Facebook, and is known to quote lines from the movie Troy.)
As much as the movie may be inventing a new Hollywood genre, it’s also just dusting off some old characters – Orestes, Faust, but also Gatsby, Gekko, Charles Foster Kane, and even Max Fischer – and updating their statuses a bit. Whether they needed that update, in the form of an unemotional geek, is a good question, and highlights certain technology anxieties that only go unspoken in the movie. But technophobias aside, the movie suggests another character altogether, one much more mundane.
To Facebook’s early adopters and its most regular users, the movie is something like the site itself: a good reflection of its audience. In its traipsing through the vicissitudes of college social life and the launching of high-stakes jobs that have an ambivalent attachment to virtue or morality, the movie is a portrait of a slice of young, ambitious Americans. (Zadie Smith talks about this in a very nicely written, disgruntled piece in the New York Review of Books; her admonitions and solutions for Facebook’s audience leave a lot to be desired, as any might.) They – okay, we – grew up alongside the Internet; for us, connecting via text message, email and Facebook message is even more natural than face-to-face communication, mainly because it’s more efficient.
And to Sorkin’s Facebook Generation, efficiency is everything. We’re somewhat privileged, manic, entrepreneurial – a group eager for, first of all, acceptance, respect and reputation that is accompanied by the potential, the speculative possibility, for financial success and social rank. Calculating, brusque, with zingers for everything.
At some angles, aren’t we the social media version of the Organization Kid, the privileged, well-educated and soulless young resume-filling American archetype that David Brooks described in 2001? We (I can’t deny some affiliation with this camp, accidental or not) are those who “work their laptops to the bone,” may be “good-natured,” but about whom “instead of virtue we talk about accomplishment.”
In many ways, Facebook, as both a story and a website, is a useful lens for this sort of person. Brooks described meeting a Princeton politics professor who drew the distinction between the “self-mastery” of earlier, value-oriented generations, and the “self-control” of the modern corporate one. “[T]he conquest of the self is part of what it means to lead a successful life,” Robert George tells Brooks. “It’s not enough to make a corporation succeed. It’s not an external problem. It doesn’t lend itself to a technical solution. Four hours spent studying in the library is not self-mastery.”
Nor are that many hours spent on Facebook, building a profile, browsing walls, sharing photos. The careful self-control of one’s public persona for purposes of acknowledgement and acceptance is the underlying logic of the social network. And those things – a desire for acceptance, a determination to control – also apparently drive the movie version of Mark Zuckerberg to build his site to begin with.
But how much control we have over our online information is really a matter for Facebook to decide. (Its recent decision to let users download their data amounts to something magnanimous and also false; thank you, Facebook, for letting us have a copy of the data we have provided to you.) And what’s our obsession over control about anyway? Like the site itself, The Social Network is in many ways a profile in how people, many of them determined control-freaks, lose control. They get dumped, they get robbed, they get in trouble, they get sued, they get arrested, they get betrayed; they lose their ideas, their friends and their privacy.
Underpinning all of these small crimes are flawed people with broken moral compasses. In trying to achieve social success, they violate long-held social rules. They are individuals who have lost and perhaps found themselves within “the social network.” But no one in the movie, not even the imperial Zuckerberg, is capable of anything like “self-mastery.”
George described a moment when he and a colleague were urging their students not to commit plagiarism. The honor code goes against it, George told them; the Internet makes it easier to plagiarize, but also much easier for faculty members to catch plagiarists. Besides, he concluded, God will see you doing evil. Suddenly there was an awkward shifting of chairs and a demurral from his faculty colleague. The idea that it is possible to do wrong sitting alone in your room, even if you don’t cause another person any harm, is hard, George said, for modern Americans to comprehend fully. The problem is that this idea is at the heart of understanding what it means to be virtuous.
This anxiety over the place of virtue also rumbles beneath the “Social Network” version of Harvard. But the only ones to speak up for it are the Winklevoss twins, the wealthy old boys who get bilked by Zuckerberg. When they march into the president’s office to protest, pointing to the school handbook’s rules of conduct, he scoffs at their old-fashioned naivete (this really happened, supposedly).
To evoke the feeling of entitled lawlessness, director David Fincher renders the campus in dimly lit, almost brooding “Fight Club” tones, and charges it, like that other movie, with testosterone and a dark, elitist, almost mad fever. If you were at Harvard in those early days of what was then thefacebook.com (I was, to some untold detriment of my senior year work ethic), seeing this celluloid version of the campus where it was born feels uncannily familiar, like studying the profile of a “friend” you can’t quite place.
Contrary to Sorkin’s vision of Harvard circa 2004, I saw widespread virtuousness there, in the form of social good, courtesy, curiosity and decency; I saw as many women in leadership roles as men. But I also saw lives summed up by achievements and links, by items on a resume, by lists of “likes,” by photos of various exploits – all of it tied together by vanity and rampant efforts at self-promotion. A website to organize and share this information fit in just perfectly.
If the film’s depiction of Harvard as a campus made of elitists, obsessive outsiders, and fawning groupies is cartoonish – and it certainly is – it’s a not a bad cartoon of Harvard, or, for that matter, of Facebook. Then again, as places animated by a certain amount of self-importance, where it is normal to broadcast your life as news to the world, where everyone is pressed to sell themselves (and sometimes, be sold to), where so much depends upon performing, both that college and the online community that it spawned can sometimes look pretty cartoonish to begin with.
You don’t need to use Facebook to care about Facebook. In fact, not using Facebook in some ways means caring enough not to care. And you certainly don’t need to use Facebook to appreciate the story. Nor did you need to be present for the launch of Facebook or have gone to Harvard for The Social Network to hit very close to home. Yes, the the film’s story is still happening: Zuckerberg is still in the throes of accusations, the lawyers for the Winkelvoss twins are still fighting for more money, and the wounds remain fresh.
But the story is immediate in another way too. Like Mark’s programmer minions, most of us are “wired in” to the world of Facebook. You are probably a user: one in 14 people in the world are now living inside a world created by Mark Zuckerberg. There’s a pretty good chance that you’re logged into Facebook right now.
On paper, this is a big Hollywood movie about a website. Acknowledge how strange that is, but then remember that it is increasingly on websites, and on Facebook, that we live. Once, we inhabited farms, then cities, Justin Timberlake’s character says at one point. “And someday,” he proclaims, “we’ll be living on the Internet!” Nearby, young people are snorting cocaine off a nearly naked girl. I.e., the fast, frivolous wired life is already here.
If the M.O. of the internet is speed, Facebook is the particle accelerator. And from its quick pacing to its dense Twitter-wit dialogue to its impeccable timing (just as Facebook has cemented its monumental place in our culture, thanks, in part, to the link-back effect of the movie of course), The Social Network is ruled by an uncanny, vertiginous sense of immediacy. Like the speed of life on Facebook, on Twitter, on the accelerated search engine of Google Instant, that immediacy only adds to to the disorienting feeling that comes from watching very recent events, edited and without much space for thinking.
After the rapid-fire volley of dialogue between Zuckerberg (played with excellent efficiency by Jesse Eisenberg) and the girl he’s dating, we see him running. We don’t know where he’s going, but it underscores some sheer urgency. When he sits down in front of the computer and pounds out a cruel blog post about the girl, he isn’t thinking – he’s just typing, and fast.
When he gets the idea to tap into the Harvard dorms’ websites to create Facemash – the hot-or-not site built of students’ official ID photos – his detailed how-to monologue is a hypnotizing rush of code and backdoor hacks. His friend voices reasonable concern about the privacy implications, but Zuckerberg barely blinks. The gears are already turning in his head when the Winkelvoss twins hire him to build the HarvardConnection network. Speed is central to their lives too – they are constantly preparing for rowing competitions – but then Zuckerberg runs off with their idea.
The hyper-speed story is a neat and roughly accurate encapsulation of Facebook’s growth. And as news cycles and trend lives refresh to meet shrinking attention spans, it also echoes the ferociousness that propels much of the production that happens not only in Silicon Valley but in Hollywood too. What else could have led Ben Mezrich, the author of the book on which the movie is based, to shoot off a 28-page film treatment to his agent even before starting the book?
Sorkin meanwhile never read the book, he says, at least not before he seized upon it as the basis for his next script. And recognizing the currency of the topic – and/or presumably anxious that some one else might get there first – Fincher demanded the movie be shot immediately, or not at all. (This speedy logic must also be delicious to the film’s marketers, who needed only sit back and watch as the film’s built-in audience – Facebook millions of users – markets it on its own, in the most effective and fast way possible, by “liking” it and telling all of their friends.)
With its speedy and flawed account of reality, the film manages to express some anxieties about the way we process the world now. We have always made bargains with the media. Now we’re making them constantly, tacitly, and as a result, more often unknowingly. The “truth” is available more quickly than ever; but with so much more of it, offered up by any old “friend,” flooding our inboxes, it is getting harder to think about how “true” it really is. Mark Zuckerberg may or may not be a psychopath, obsessed with exclusivity and acceptance. And Barack Obama may not be a Muslim extremist, and the “Ground Zero mosque” may not be at Ground Zero, and in fact may not be a mosque at all. But in the rush of information, how do we know? And more importantly, how much do we care, and how would we begin to change it?
On the Internet no one knows if you’re a dog. But even if they knew, would it matter so long as you were really cute? When information gets processed at the speed of an update, and content providers are locked in a ferocious battle for shortening attention spans, accuracy has much less value than how many “views” you can draw. Lengthy discussions are unironically dimissed with a “tl;dr”; slowness is a sure-fire way to Internet death. Tina Brown, the editor of “The Daily Beast," recently explained what people want from their news now:
Sexy brain food. Give us something to make us smarter, but for God’s sake don’t make it feel like work. People are in such a glum frame of mind they are looking for confidence, audacity, practicality, and FUN.
That was never really going to be a problem for a movie by Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher, even if it was a movie about something as “work”-like as the story of a website’s founding. Thanks to its creepy trailer – scored by a version of Radiohead’s “Creep,” just to drive the point home – The Social Network had already become a viral Internet sensation well before it was released. The trailer’s popularity (and its melodrama) was registered in the quick succession of parodies it inspired: The Video Website, The Twitter Network, The Other Social Network, The Auction Site. Mark Zuckerberg’s version. The only thing missing was an auto-tuned version.
The parodies were funny but they were also testament to something very serious: the kind of fascination that drives internet memes, that guides conversations, the sort of fascination that can turn a link into one account of reality. Millions of clicks later, Facebook has transformed from merely enormous website into touchstone of a brand new genre: dark Silicon Valley legend. The Social Network’s version of Facebook’s history isn’t quite accurate, but it has already influenced that history. The genie is already out of the bottle, the LOLcat is out of the bag. Facebook’s publicity people may as well have been standing outside a few movie theaters wearing sandwich boards.
Then again, when you run the moment’s largest medium, there’s no need to worry. On the internet we live lighter and even faster than the movie suggests. Even “The Social Network” is just a blip on the social network, which has become our lens, our time-keeper and our repository of what is worth “liking” and what’s not. Whatever The Social Network is doing to the way we think about Facebook, however bad it may make Mark Zuckerberg look as the de facto mayor of the largest virtual city in history, the movie will likely have the same effect on Facebook as all of Facebook’s negative publicity: continued growth.
Over the month of September, the site gained 4.73 million users to reach 138.6 million active users, the largest influx yet. And a recent poll conducted a few days after the Facebook movie’s debut showed that members of Generations X and Y rated the Facebook brand as a 52 on a scale of 100, on average, up from 33 on September 16. Somehow, the website has become a permanent fixture on our screens; Mark Zuckerberg recently assured an advertising conference that a billion members was a certainty.
Facebook’s reach is implacable; it’s as essential as the phone book once was, and more so: this is where we get to be ourselves on the Internet. But what the movie has done to the story of Facebook – mangled it and repackaged it for a wide audience – isn’t unlike what our Facebook lives have done to ideas like “Friend” and “Like.” Qualitative value was lost on the way to the algorithms, and these concepts, like “privacy,” are like words from a primitive language in the face of a colonizing force; they have become the raw material for a new Internet architecture.
And for the most part, this has happened with the fast, unthinking consent designated by clicking on an “I accept” button. One out of fourteen people in the world have entered into a legal contract with Facebook, but it’s a contract that only a few of us have actually read.
Passivity is part of the logic of Facebook. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote recently in The New Yorker, against the popular notions that sites like Facebook are helping to foment serious political action, “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.” All over Facebook, the article got lots of “likes.”
The argument – that the internet doesn’t lead to political action – isn’t so worrisome. The problem is the pernicious and persistent belief that the internet doesn’t really matter at all in the real world of action. One merely has to browse America’s thousands of politically-inflected news websites, sites that present a version of reality as loose as any that Hollywood could imagine, to see how online social networks can generate certain ways of seeing the world.
But the Tea Party is only the most local, most democratic example. Wu Hao, the local official most associated with China’s Internet propaganda, said last year that “public opinion on the Internet must be solved with the means of the Internet.” This is why Beijing has built a digital army of online commentators who eagerly perform damage control in comment boxes and message boards across the Chinese Internet.
The phenomenon of the 50 Centers, as they are known for the scant pay they receive for each comment, are not limited to China. As Evgeny Morozov wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, information-anxious governments around the world are joining the Internet fray, and not because they are interested in looking at their friends’ funny photos. They like the logic of a fast and furious information medium where reality is easily manipulated:
In many of these propaganda fights, the quality of one’s arguments often matters far less than their quantity. Victory often comes down to who can construct the most impressive online persona by adding new friends and writing witty tweets. Incumbents, who have state resources at their disposal, usually enjoy a significant advantage. A few months into his Twitter adventure, [Hugo] Chávez announced a plan to allocate 200 staffers and state funds to boost his Twitter presence.
The high-speed spinning of the Internet also explains why the State Department has pursued friendships with online networks, and vice versa. In June, Twitter put out a call for a government liaison, someone to serve as “the closest point of contact with a variety of important people and organizations looking to get the most out of Twitter on both strategic and highly tactical levels.” As sound as Gladwell’s attack is, it also woefully disregards the potential power of social networks: Facebook may or may not be determining our ability to act, but it is guiding how we think.
There’s no conspiracy here, no smoke and mirrors. What makes Facebook possible of course is us. Our data – our network of contacts, our photos, our comments, our favorite TV shows – are not just visible to our friends, but ripe for the picking by legions of non-friendly advertisers, some of whom have called Facebook the biggest game-changer in history. When our personalities and our interactions with the world get reduced to metrics, spread liberally around the world in an instant, can be used to build and feed back into an assortment of models, then we’re no longer in control of them. Hundreds of millions of young people individually spend hours on this website every day, wiring themselves into what amounts to a virtual world. Here “history” is what just happened, a “like” constitutes a desire or an idea, clicking on a link stands in for “interaction,” and everything we do is measured for the purposes of selling us, and selling us things.
In a sense, what makes all of this possible isn’t just an idea taken from a pair of Harvard twins who Zuckerberg called in one IM conversation in college, “f*cking privileged … douchebags.” What underwrites Facebook is all of our ideas, all the time. Melodramatic as it sounds, maybe we’re all Winkelvosses now, slighted but unknowing. Mark Zuckerberg once called his early users “dumb f*cks” for yielding so much information, and it’s not hard to imagine that as with so much else, he has been proved right.
It’s easy to like The Social Network: It’s enjoyable, fast paced, informative-feeling, current. It is just a good story. No, it’s not really true-to-life. It’s a thriller made out of smart staccato sentences in the guise of slant cultural critique and David Fincher’s arresting imagery. It’s not a great representation of real life, but it works as a cool music video, and certainly makes for a great trailer. It’s not a great movie. It’s a vague reflection of the world of Facebook – a metaphor for the place millions of people call their homepage. It’s just a movie.
But is Facebook just a website? If the anxiety over the movie leads anywhere, perhaps it will be to provoke audiences to think a little more about what it is we “like,” and how we like it, and why. The idea that the stories we tell and hear are worthy of doubt and question and irony holds at least because those stories, like our friends, and the things we do and think, are important to us. They aren’t just data, even if that’s our internet ecosystem treats them.
But whatever we do on Facebook, and whatever The Social Network says about us, neither the site or its film adaptation ask that we think very much about it. Why think much anyway when we can click like and keep scrolling down?