The Social Network
It’s A sign of our digital times that my first instinct after watching The Social Network was to go home, log onto Facebook and tell people that I liked it (Gone are the days of a nice casual Facebook poke). Facebook is now so widespread that anyone with a computer (or not) has an opinion to share on its merits and perils. Like all good ideas, one wonders why it wasn’t created earlier – why not replicate your immediate social experience online, whether it’s with your work colleagues, family members or study buddies?
Having recently signed up its 500 millionth member Facebook is successfully on track to achieving what its founder Mark Zuckerberg has always stated was his objective: an open internet where everyone is connected. When he says ‘everyone’ he’s not merely being optimistic: his ambitions are literal. This guy means business.
The rise of Facebook has happened so quickly and so recently that a movie on the matter seems a little too soon for an accurate sense of perspective. But you would be wrong. With the rise and fall of internet companies happening so regularly there is no better time than now to tell what turns out to be a story of ruthless ambition, betrayal and power plays which would make Shakespeare reach for the quill. And a film which unashamedly blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction is the perfect vehicle for telling the story of the creation of a virtual reality.
In February 2004 a young computer programmer called Mark Zuckerberg, along with his roommate Eduardo Saverin (the most sympathetic character by far) launched a social networking website called thefacebook (the ‘the’ was later dropped). It allowed students to create a profile of themselves which they could share with their other friends on the internet. It took off very quickly thanks to students’ inherent desire to want to belong to clubs, to see how many friends they have and to compare their social status with that of their peers and rivals.
What started off as a network exclusive to Harvard soon spread to other universities and then around the world. As thefacebook became more popular, it became clear that the idea may not have been Zuckerberg’s originally. Any attempts by his roommate to address these claims or deal with the unchecked rise of their company are met with Zuckerberg’s defiant indifference. Having been rejected by many of the campus’s elite private clubs, he is determined to create his own club.
Zuckerberg is clearly very intelligent and single-minded, but it’s his insecurities about his own status which fuel his insensitivity to those around him. This inability to relate to others’ emotional needs comes across as borderline autistic, resulting in further estrangement from those around him. For a man whose business is built on friendships, he has a self-destructive tendency towards having no real friends himself. He is the least social person in a world of social networks.
The film jumps off the screen thanks to a script which fizzes with snappy dialogue (courtesy of Aaron Sorkin, who wrote TV’s The West Wing) and a subversive director who loves delving into the motives behind people’s actions (David Fincher directed Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Ordinary scenes drip with tension and atmosphere thanks to the musical mastery of Trent Reznor (the man behind Nine Inch Nails). On paper what could have been a series of abstruse arguments over computers or disputes in lawyer’s office is brought to life with such verve and zest I was on the edge of my seat for most of the film.
The Social Network is very much of its age, but also not afraid of tackling timeless concerns. Community is clearly a good thing, because we are social beings who benefit from our interactions with each other. Whether you’re a naughty child or a disobedient prisoner, the punishment involves solitary confinement. Just being alone can be pure torture. The frequent criticism of the internet is its tendency to isolate people as individuals who are stuck to their keyboards rather than taking a walk outside once in a while.
Yet Facebook’s advantage is its ability to connect friends in an increasingly mobile and global age. If used correctly it may well achieve Zuckerberg’s aim as a positive force. Its critics, however, would urge caution over Facebook’s addictive tendency to encourage narcissism and the worship of the self – neither of which help build community.
Rather tellingly, when film audiences in America were asked what they thought of Zuckerberg’s story, the over-30s saw a character undone and isolated by his own ambition, whereas the under-30s were inspired by his determination to achieve his dream. The Social Network is a reminder of how the rejections, disappointments and mistakes of our own youth help to form insecurities and fears which if left unresolved or unhealed can take us down roads to both great success and great misery.