The debate has begun. Many who know Mark Zuckerberg and his company are upset about the inaccuracies in The Social Network. Movie critics on the other hand love the movie. Few, though, are reflecting on what these two sets of reactions tell us about the moment we are living in.
We live in the midst of a social revolution and this movie represents the effort of mass media to make sense of the changes going on around them. Facts are not important. It is about symbols, metaphors and mythologies. It is about constructing grand narratives to shape our understanding of why things are happening.
And in this corner of the ring . . .
Let’s start by addressing at face value the two sides. The Social Network is full of inaccuracies according to those who are close to the personalities and the companies. David Kirkpatrick, author of the now definitive book on Zuckerberg’s company, does a great job of summarizing the major inaccuracies that underlie the entire film in his commentary here.
The response of the movie creators is that this is not a documentary and not meant to be accurate in all dimensions. Entertainment must be served first and foremost. This strikes me as a bit disingenuous, although all too common of Hollywood, given that the movie purports to be about real people and real historical events, down to the final trailers telling us what happened to each of the major characters. In fact, none of the key players in the making of this film has ever met Mark Zuckerberg, the subject of the movie. And neither the Director nor the scriptwriter has ever participated in his online social network. As we will see, though, the core inaccuracy of the film is key to supporting the mainstream media view of what is going on.
On the other side of the fence, we have the movie reviewers in the mainstream media who have, almost without exception, been ecstatic about the movie. In fact, the website Metacritic indicates that the movie now has a metascore of 97, based on 40 movie reviewers, the highest score of any movie currently showing. In fact, this metascore puts it into the top 20 of movies of all time, along with The Godfather and Lawrence of Arabia.
Roger Ebert calls it “the film of the year...so far” and gives an ecstatic review here. David Denby calls it “brilliantly entertaining.” Peter Travers gushes “The Social Network lights up a dim movie sky with flares of startling brilliance” and “it gets you drunk on movies again.”
Now, admittedly, this is a very good movie. It is well acted, the dialogue is wonderful and fast-paced, visually it captures and holds the attention, the music score reinforces the dramatic arc – all in all, it is well constructed and deeply entertaining. Everyone should see the movie as a compelling and beautiful example of story- telling. But is it really up there with The Godfather and Lawrence of Arabia?
Who's got status?
Clearly this movie is speaking powerfully to these mainstream media reviewers. But what is it saying? It is ultimately about the tragedy of the social revolution that is playing out around us.
I don’t think it is accidental that the movie is called “The Social Network”. From the outset, this movie is not really about Zuckerberg’s company (which it only describes in the most fragmented way), but about the evolution or, rather, revolution in social networks. More specifically, it is about redefining status within social networks.
The movie reeks of obsession with status. It is set largely on the Harvard campus where, for many, status is everything. Of course, simply being a student at Harvard is a mark of status. This becomes clear from the first scene when Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend from Boston University is made painfully aware that Harvard is better. But Harvard students are themselves made aware that there is a deeper hierarchy even at this pinnacle – real status is being “punched” to join one of the elite and very private social clubs at Harvard, and there is a pronounced hierarchy even among and within these clubs.
As an aside, the focus on status perhaps helps to explain the appalling presentation of women in the movie. With few exceptions, women are portrayed as drunken and drug addled pursuers of men with status, whether it is the buses of women from a lowlier college pulling up for a party at a Harvard social club or the women hanging out as Facebook groupies in Silicon Valley. Apparently, while the sources of male status may change, women remain second class participants in these social networks, desperately seeking to be around males with status. It is clearly a man’s world under either regime.
The mainstream media, especially Hollywood, is all about status, so it can relate in a visceral and powerful way to this theme. But the movie is ultimately about new technology platforms that are undermining traditional forms of status and creating global foundations for new forms of status. And mainstream media can really relate to this. As the mainstream media crumbles, wrestling with loss of audience, corresponding loss of advertisers and never-ending rounds of layoffs of creative talent, people in this industry are deeply aware of the revolution playing out around them.
Constructing a narrative of the revolution
What to make of this revolution? To accept it as profound and enriching would be too difficult. On a deeply personal level, it is tragic. A way of life that mainstream media participants were brought up to admire and aspire to is dissolving. But the narrative of The Social Network is not that it is tragic for those who achieved status the old way. Rather, it is tragic for the revolutionaries. They are achieving what they wanted, but finding it empty. This is the real message of the movie and deeply satisfying to those on the mainstream media ramparts watching the hordes gather for the final assault on the old regime.
But to construct this narrative, some license with the truth would be required. David Kirkpatrick informs us that Zuckerberg was uninterested in joining the Harvard social clubs. The movie on the other hand suggests from the first scene that he very much wanted to get in and was deeply resentful of those, including his best friend, who did get in. In fact, Zuckerberg was driven by a very different motivation – a desire to catalyze a very different kind of social network, one defined by sharing and transparency, rather than hiding behind brick walls and conducting humiliating rituals and holding drunken orgies.
The tragic hero
Motivation is one thing, character is another. It is particularly hard to admire the revolutionary that is breaching the walls. So a little more license with the facts is in order. The movie portrays Zuckerberg as a person incapable of forming deep relationships with others and as someone who would in fact betray many of those he dealt with. The key point in the movie is that the relationships he developed were not deep or meaningful, but superficial and calculating, much like the caricature of the online social network world held by those who view the virtual as the enemy of the physical. The last scene of the movie is particularly poignant, showing Zuckerberg trying to “friend” on his social network platform the woman who dumped him in the opening scene of the movie and checking back repeatedly to see if she had accepted.
In fact, as David Kirkpatrick and others who know Zuckerberg well, point out, Zuckerberg is shy and reserved (I like him already) but also has little insecurity, anger or resentment. He has a rich network of personal relationships, including a woman he started dating shortly before launching Thefacebook (as it was known then) and with whom he now lives.
But these facts don’t support the story that the movie wants to tell. Of course, they could have made Zuckerberg evil, but they didn’t. They made him a deeply tragic and flawed character who was simply trying to connect with the social networks around him and, as an outsider, ended up creating a new order that also was deeply flawed. True, his social network platform has 500 million plus participants and is still growing rapidly. True, Zuckerberg is the youngest self-made billionaire in history, but he could never create more than superficial relationships while pining for the real relationships that were beyond his grasp. And the real tragedy, according to the movie, is that the social network catalyzed by Zuckerberg is replacing real relationships with superficial relationships for everyone.
In case this message is not clear enough to the audience, the movie reviewers hammer it home. Here is Peter Travers: “Fincher and Sorkin . . . define the dark irony of the past decade. The final image of solitary Mark at his computer has to resonate for a generation of users (the drug term seems apt) sitting in front of a glowing screen pretending not to be alone.” A key part of the grand narrative is to explain the large and growing following of social networks in terms of addiction. In fact, one of the characters in the movie, observing the rapid adoption of Facebook exclaims: "1,000 people overnight? If I was a drug dealer I couldn't give away drugs to that many people!"
Or, here is David Denby: “ After all, Facebook, like Zuckerberg, is a paradox: a Web site that celebrates the aura of intimacy while providing the relief of distance, substituting bodiless sharing and the thrills of self-created celebrityhood for close encounters of the first kind.”
An historical tragedy of epic proportions
There it is in a nutshell. The revolutionary is winning but the victory will be empty. He has taken something good and transformed it into something shallow. The narcissists have won and distracted everyone from the depth and substance that we, in the mainstream media, have been providing. The world will be worse off, defined by alienation and loneliness. It is a tragedy of global and historic proportions.
Seen through this lens, the distortions in the movie are not simply there to create a more engaging story; they are there to help construct a narrative of the revolution that helps to reassure the ancien regime that they were on the side of humanity. It is no wonder that the mainstream movie reviewers are jumping out of their seats and offering standing ovations.
The mainstream media continues to gush over this movie -
"Once in a generation . . . a tour de force." - Stephen Holden
"A brilliant movie" - Frank Rich
"It sends you out of the theater buzzing, breathless and eager to tell all of your friends . . . that you've just seen what might end up being the best picture of the year." - Bob Mondello
"Devastating and dazzling. It lifts you to a state of exhilaration." - Joe Morgenstern
"Truly great." - Lou Lumenick
"Exhilarating." - Ann Hornaday