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The Social Network: Because People Like Being Alone Together

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Sometimes there's nothing lonelier than a crowd.

That's especially true on Facebook, a social network that has swelled to 500 million members because people really like being alone together.

Facebook was launched from the dorm room of Mark Zuckerberg -- it would make him the world's youngest billionaire -- but the site may not have started there. The Social Network, the first blockbuster movie spotlighting the digital infrastructure of the millennial generation, traces three competing stories about Facebook's birth.

First, there is the archetypal entrepreneur outsmarting the entire establishment. As a child, Zuckerberg hacked through security systems designed by adults. As a brash Harvard drop-out, he mastered the alchemy of computer code, turning strings of symbols into programs and experiences that people have come to need on a daily basis. (Americans now spend more time on Facebook than on the next five most popular websites combined.) This is the capitalist narrative that runs closest to Facebook's popular press coverage.

Then there is the accusation of a more sinister alchemy: the theft of other people's ideas and property, especially of the intellectual and intangible sort, for Zuckerberg's private gain. The Winklevoss twins, a pair of sculpted Harvard rowers who commissioned Zuckerberg to build their model for a college social network, press this case. (The real brothers won big, ultimately settling a lawsuit with Facebook for $65 million.)

Finally, inevitably, there is plain old greed. Zuckerberg's best friend and business partner, Eduardo Saverin, is the most responsible and trusting character in the film, and the upstart company screws him the hardest. Even though Saverin is the co-founder and original investor in Facebook, his shares get slashed in an accounting scheme he naïvely approves, thinking that the company lawyers are acting in his interest. Then he gets his own lawyers. (Facebook settled with Saverin, too.)

The dazzling script, written by Aaron Sorkin, presses these dueling cases in a vigorous, slashing onslaught, but it does not resolve them. "I wanted to go for a Rashomon quality," Sorkin recently said after the movie's premiere at the New Yorker Festival, so he chose a courtroom drama motif to play out the conflict. All the pretty young plaintiffs came in handy.

The Social Network jumps from depositions in shimmering corporate conference rooms to flashback clashes between angry, entitled elites. Sorkin, who wrote one of the most acclaimed modern courtroom scenes in A Few Good Men, says he pored over legal documents, conducted background interviews with participants and trolled through online detritus to reflect developments at the time. "Nothing has been invented in this movie to Hollywood-ize or sensationalize it," he emphasizes. The real Zuckerberg lived loudly online. While there is no co-author credit, Sorkin uses Zuckerberg's words, archived online so many years ago, for several scenes. The web never forgets.

An opening scene uses a blog post Zuckerberg wrote, intoxicated, during his freshman year, when he aired cutting and sexist attacks on a woman who'd just dumped him. The Internet is written in ink, not pencil, she had once told him, but permanence and sensitivity were not Zuckerberg's priorities at the time.

The film, thankfully, avoids the simplistic lectures that pervade many stories about social media, but it also fails to tackle how Zuckerberg's values, which are largely Facebook's values, impact the lives of its huge user base.

The young Zuckerberg thought nothing of conscripting people's pictures and personal information into his web experiments. He not only did it without their consent but without their knowledge. Forget blogging about an ex. An early scene in the movie shows Zuckerberg lifting pictures of hundreds of women students across campus, posting them on a site called Facemash and inviting male peers to decide who is hottest. Harvard disciplined him at the time, but Zuckerberg soon developed more subtle ways to separate people from their privacy.

Facebook forces users, including minors, into legal agreements granting the company perpetual rights to personal information, pictures and data shared on the site. (That would be like an e-mail provider asserting copyright over everything people send.) It has also repeatedly launched controversial programs to track and sell users' private information. There was "Beacon," an aggressive campaign using people's purchasing habits to cast them in personalized ads, without a heads-up, let alone royalties. (It was revised after a sizable user backlash.) Then there was "Places," a tracking program that Facebook launched this past summer, which enables users to publicize their whereabouts in real time and, despite the privacy and security implications, the live locations of other people without their consent. It's like a crowd-sourced National Security Agency.

In possibly the most intriguing scene in The Social Network, we see Zuckerberg's critical epiphany as he moves from Facemash's petty theft to the elaborate transfer of intellectual property that will power Facebook. If the new site is established as cool and "exclusive," he declares, students will clamor to give away their pictures and information just to get in.

The rest is history. Now, as Facebook continues to shape norms online and set the bar for aspiring start-ups, it is worth remembering the premise that it was built on. A few more lines from Zuckerberg, which are not quoted directly in the movie, capture the sentiment perfectly. Flush with thousands of profiles submitted by his peers, Zuckerberg typed out his thoughts via instant message to a friend at Harvard:

ZUCK: yea so if you ever need info about anyone at harvard
ZUCK: just ask
ZUCK: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns
[REDACTED]: what!? how'd you manage that one?
ZUCK: people just submitted it
ZUCK: i don't know why
ZUCK: they "trust me"
ZUCK: dumb f**ks

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Ari Melber writes for The Nation, where this article was first published. He has written extensively about how Facebook and social media impact privacy and culture.