After an advance screening of “The Social Network,” I met an excited film student from NYU outside the theater and asked him what he thought of the movie. He focused on the film’s contemporaneity, its speed, which I couldn’t stop thinking about either.
He told me that the first major film about the Holocaust was released 16 years after the end of World War II. But, he said, 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, perhaps 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.
One thing: even if he read it on the Internet, what that 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. 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 it up in seconds on Wikipedia. The movie was called "The Search".
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, like privacy, security and marketing.
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.