10/04/2010 05:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

ReThink Review: The Social Network -- Geek Is the New Punk

With the Social Network coming in #1 at the box office as discussions about the truthfulness of its portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg rage, there's one thing few are disputing -- accurate or not, the Social Network is an extremely impressive movie and an early frontrunner for Best Picture and a slew of other Oscars.

As David Carr of the New York Times pointed out, there appears to be a generational split -- a sure sign of a great movie -- over the perception of Zuckerberg as he's portrayed in the Social Network. Older generations are more likely to see Zuckerberg as a cautionary tale about betrayal, the corrupting power of money and celebrity, and how the internet ultimately fails to provide the kind of authentic human connections we crave. Younger generations who can hardly imagine/remember a world without Facebook are more likely to see Zuckerberg as a driven, uncompromising genius who was sometimes ruthless in his quest to create a new form of communication that has enriched the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

I think this comes down to how different generations perceive the internet and the visionaries driving its innovation.

For years, if you watched the TV news (which most young people don't), you rarely saw positive stories about the internet or social networking. The internet was primarily a tool people used to steal your identity, and MySpace (remember that?) was little more than a way for pedophiles and predators to find their next victims. For many older people, Facebook and Twitter are only used to tell people what you had for lunch.

Younger people know different. The internet is anything you need it to be (library, store, entertainment center, news source, thieves den, etc.) and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are whatever you use them for (soapbox, promotional/activism tool, meeting place, meaningless info outlet, etc.).

It's no coincidence that the advertising for the Social Network describes Zuckerberg as "Punk Genius Billionaire" in that order. For younger people, internet innovators, hackers and geeks are the true rebels -- the punks of a new generation. For proof, one need only watch one of the Social Network's exhilarating opening scenes as Zuckerberg not only hacks into the systems of several Harvard organizations to steal photos of students for his hot-or-not website, but blogs about it as he's doing it and later refuses to apologize or show regret for his clear breach of privacy rules. It's hard to get more punkrock than that.

Hackers and internet geeks, like other rebels, are creating and living in a world where the accepted rules and laws simply don't apply, and being able to circumvent them is more than enough reason to do it -- a decidedly punkrock attitude. It's why the creators of worms and viruses can be reviled for the havoc they cause, yet still afforded a begrudging respect by those who appreciate how cleverly they were able to exploit systems' weaknesses. It's why Shawn Fanning, the creator of Napster, was a hero to millions and a master criminal to the establishment -- so was Robin Hood. Many of our heroes are heroes precisely because they refuse to obey rules.

The willingness to break rules is an important part of the internet ethos that Zuckerberg's character adheres to. Another aspect of this is the recognition that coolness and innovation should not be sacrificed for quick financial gain -- in the punk vocabulary: don't be a sell out. This is the primary source of friction between Zuckerberg and his partner, Eduardo Savarin (played by Andrew Garfield). While Savarin has been called the conscience of the film and appears to be the most wronged of all the players in the Facebook saga, he is also the most insistent that Facebook monetize/sell out immediately by courting advertisers, a move Zuckerberg rejects as a fatal threat to Facebook's nascent coolness. So while Savarin is portrayed as a nice guy, betrayed friend and victim, he is also out of touch, in over his head (both in terms of Facebook and in his relationship with his girlfriend) and in direct violation of internet ethos, making it understandable why Zuckerberg would push him out. Would it have been better for Zuckerberg to have retained his friendship with Savarin and have Facebook become another ad-infested ghost town like MySpace?

Many people condemn Zuckerberg as a sad but intelligent loser who was fueled by anger, jealousy, loneliness and alienation, sacrificing the few authentic friendships he had to create something that ended up being (arguably) great. Another way to look at it is that Zuckerberg is like many of the world's great artists, musicians, visionaries, etc. -- people who are often isolated in their own worlds, have a hard time relating to people, and are driven as much by negative feelings and the need to exorcize personal demons and right past wrongs as a desire to make the world a better place. But who cares why they did it when that's so easily trumped by the fact that they did it? If we got rid of all the music and art that was driven by artists' feelings of inadequacy, anger, loneliness or a desire to get laid, would there be any left? If we disqualified history's great figures who served higher principals but had messy personal lives, where would we be?

Critics have scoffed at the idea that the Social Network has any generational relevance. But with its portrayal of a tech geek/internet purist as an uncompromising genius punkrock artist, the makers of the Social Network have created a character that young people can understand while baffling older generations. The Social Network also points to a level of nuance in movie good guys that young people have shown a willingness to embrace. They don't demand that their heroes always be infallibly good -- just that at some point, and maybe only once, that they do something truly great.

Check out my ReThink Review of the Social Network for KPFK's Uprising show by clicking on the image below.


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