Film Commentary

The (Anti)Social Network

October 15, 2010

It’s bandwagon time. That’s right. I’m one of those people. As the title of this post may suggest, I’m writing about the current media attention that has been garnered by Fincher’s latest directorial effort, The Social Network.  If you’re reading this, I hope I needn’t point out the movie’s bulging portfolio of accolades and hosannas from the greater part of the critical crème de la crème, aside from a minority of grouchy dissenters (among them, Armond White, who has as much insight into film as does a blind person into the color purple).  I also admit, I’m a little late to the party, as articles on Zuckerberg/Facebook (in relation to the film) have been anything but sparse.

One note, before I begin this mini-manifesto: I’m not usually a  bandwagon kind of bloke (just ask any of my closest friends).  Now, as a means of disclosure vis-a-vis a probable bias, I admit that I do not have, nor have ever had, a Facebook account.  It is due, in part, to my general disinterest in social media, or perhaps some other phobia toward the emerging reality of constant connectedness.

Or maybe I’m just a xenophobe. Who knows?

After watching the film, however, I became rabidly curious to know more about the creation story of Facebook, even though I have often had a slightly contemptuous reaction to the service. I happened upon a piece in the New Yorker that was published prior to the release of the film, written by Jose Antonio Vargas (entitled, “The Face of Facebook”).  I  was glad to find such an article because I had already known that neither Aaron Sorkin (writer of the screenplay) nor Ben Mezrich (author of The Accidental Billionaires) had the opportunity to interview Mark Zuckerberg for the film. In the article, Vargas spends time with Zuckerberg and attempts to demystify some of the perceptions about him. He is shown to be somewhat penitent for his youthful brashness (particularly in response to some IMs that were uncovered during the investigation to one of the lawsuits) and an overall pleasant person. Vargas also interviews Sorkin, and in a way predicts some of the back-and-forth that has appeared following the release of the film.

For the sake of full disclosure: I enjoyed the article.

A couple days ago, however, I ran into another article by Vargas, this time published in The Huffington Post. Here, Vargas comments on the backlash that is being received by the film.  In the article, he writes:

Hollywood’s stereotypical portrait of the introverted uber-geek has already gotten some in the tech community — even those critical of Zuckerberg — all riled up.

Okay, pause right there.

Doesn’t anyone else find this a bit humorous?

The film neither purports to be or ever feels like a documentary. Vargas even admits this in his article. But then he goes on to criticize the film in its inability to paint a fair picture of who Zuckerberg is, of his true motivations behind the creation of Facebook, and of the vibrant community that now exists because of the infiltration of social media into the public mainstream.

Ultimately, Vargas’ main complaint is that Hollywood misses the mark concerning the medium of social networking:

The Social Network is a Hollywood movie about a topic that Hollywood fails to understand.

I would like to refute that nugget of wisdom with my own:

The Social Network is a Hollywood movie, and no one in their right mind should fail to understand that.

Funnily enough, the film’s more fervent dissenters know this, but they continue to preach fire and brimstone against the film for its inability to document or meticulously recreate the facts behind Zuckerberg or the world of social networking — almost willingly ignoring it as a work of fiction; as a work of art.

Seriously: it’s not rocket science.

Another article on Fast Company, written by Ellen McGirt, has this to say:

After all the fretting about online privacy and reputation management, two of the slowest, least nimble and most expensive media—a paper book and a feature film—have left the biggest scar. A lasting impression of Zuckerberg and the early Facebookers that is largely unfair. it is also unfair to shareholders, partners, and Facebook users.

Who is McGirt kidding with this victual of failed logic?  Is she trying to start a revolution of roughly 500,000,000 Facebook users?  A fictionalized depiction of Zuckerberg can potentially be unfair to Zuckerberg, sure.  But unfair to Facebook users? How is that possible?

In the article, McGirt asserts that the motivations to create Facebook, as exemplified in the movie, are shallow and untrue. She states that it is a “revenge quest” of a dejected and lonely nerd who is seeking to get laid.

The premise of her argument lies in her inability to experience the film for what it is: a pinprick of deeper, human emotions that are much larger (and much more important) than an attempt to retell events as they happened. The viewer has about 10 – 15 minutes of character development to sift through before the Zuckerberg character (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is sitting in his dorm room, writing code for the Facemash website. Are we (as the audience) supposed to believe that the single action of his girlfriend breaking up with him is the reason that Facebook is later created?

This viewpoint is a bit naive and lazy. To really understand why Facebook was created, one would need much more back story, such as Zuckerberg’s early obsession with coding, or his father’s gentle and constructive encouragement during his youth (much of this can be found in the aforementioned New Yorker article). I’m sure there are many, many other factors. But to throw all of that into a film that already feels condensed would be artistic murder.

In short, the film is not attempting to answer the question: Why was Facebook created?

Instead, it seems to propose a set of circumstances that could have triggered the multi-billion dollar enterprise.

When it comes down to it, many important motivations in life are driven by a very basic subset of human emotions. Who is not to say that Zuckerberg was driven by jealousy, envy, regret or loneliness? It may be that he truly wasn’t. But these emotions are like triggers. They can be the spark needed for an explosion. Whether or not these feelings comprise the true seedlings that grew into Zuckerberg’s Facemash (which yes, I know, included both males and females, unlike what the movie depicts) is a variable only Zuckerberg can identify (something I doubt he’s willing to do in the public domain).

As a film, however, Fincher’s The Social Network succeeds in allowing us to connect with the character.

There is no demonizing of Zuckerberg in the film. Is it unflattering? Most likely so. But the film is using his story as a vehicle to questions about life that are far more interesting than trying to decipher what is or isn’t true in the film. Some can watch the film and see Zuckerberg as a true, American entrepreneur. Others can watch it and see him as a total asshole.

Your reaction to this film will mostly be informed by your personal demons. By what we see reflecting back at us as we contemplate on the story that is unfolding.

McGirt claims that Zuckerberg is a truly compelling person, but that “what we have instead [in the film] is a poorly sourced non-cautionary tale that turns real businesspeople into nerd Flat Stanleys for no good purpose than mild entertainment (sic).”

Mild entertainment? Really? What passes as real entertainment for you? Spreadsheets and annual reports? Critical reception, as well as public perception/reception of the film clearly shows that it provides much more than just mild entertainment.

Throughout her article, McGirt is seriously peeved that the movie does not accurately portray any of the players in the Facebook game. She even ends her piece with a laughable attempt at satire by making up an unfunny (and unwitty) story about how Sorkin “shanked” the lead of a school play by planting weed in his own locker, using the spotlight to carry his way to fame.  She writes:

[It isn’t all true] but, I mean, it sounds like something he could do. It’s a better story that way, right?

No, actually, it isn’t. Which explains why McGirt is a businessperson, and Sorkin is a writer.

A couple of articles in Slate — one written by Luke O’Brien and another by Nathan Heller — provide a more intelligent, yet critical view on Sorkin/Fincher’s tale. Heller concedes that “The Social Network is openly built according to the laws of narrative fiction, not documentary,” but states that Fincher still misses the mark in giving depth to the setting (Harvard) and the social circumstances behind Facebook’s inception.

O’Brien writes:

Let’s accept petty deceptions like these [denoted in the article] as a necessary ingredient in a dramatized story. The problem is that Sorkin doesn’t gloss over facts to get at any truths about Facebook’s founding. He is trafficking in dramaturgy.

Hallelujah, at least he concedes that The Social Network makes for a good story.

Because, well, it does.

There are various other examples of writers/bloggers who are finding similar issues of contention with the film and its portrayal of Facebook’s inception. Most, if not all, insert the disclaimer stating their awareness that the movie is a fictionalized story; yet they go on to criticize how terrible of a job it does to portray the facts.

Talk about incongruous reasoning.

As I was conversing with a friend a couple days ago, I mused at how interesting it would be if some unknown stranger crafted a story about my life, taking into account all my peccadilloes of youthful negligence, or moments of less-than-stellar behavior. I’m fairly sure that it would be easy to demonize me, or at least to insinuate that my motivations for success are less than heroic. It might make me feel a bit uneasy. But it also just might make my life sound a little bit more interesting than it actually is. Not that this alone is a reason for a misconstrued depiction of my life. I’m merely illustrating that a better story could be told about me if it were, in fact, untrue.

Movies, and to a greater extent, art in all its forms, are a way to inspect, reflect and comment on the world around us. These works have their own narrative–their own rules. It is hard to imagine a world where every movie would be inspected with such hard-pressed scrutiny, such as to ascertain reliability or truthfulness.

Do we hear complaints germane to Shakespeare’s creative liberties in crafting a story about Julius Caesar? Of course we don’t, because we acknowledge that Shakespeare really wasn’t writing about the Roman emperor, but about the themes of ambition, envy and betrayal.

Personally, I believe a significant part of the backlash toward Sorkin’s screenplay is due to the mental real estate that is occupied and dominated by Facebook, or perhaps more importantly, the wonderful, wide (and wild) world of social media. Most of the people whom I’ve referenced above have met with and spoken to Mark Zuckerberg. They have had an opportunity to know the man behind the face(book). They work in a field of technology and social media. Most of us do not have any of those luxuries. We will go into the movie, perhaps with absolutely no idea about who this person is, and leave with what may be a false impression of what he is like.

Is this a reason to criticize The Social Network as failing to live up to some fabricated standard alluded to by journalists, bloggers, businesspeople, and so on?

Our current culture is one dominated by new forms of media and communication. We no longer live in an era where a majority of everyone’s voice is a silent murmur. Our infatuations with celebrity are now being lived out in our own bedrooms, with access to means of communication that would have been unthinkable just a decade or two ago.

Facebook has come to represent a virtual community of people who are screaming for attention, or connection, or both. I am not denying the power and the benefits provided by the service. But what I mostly notice is a community that is carefully fabricated, delicately crafted to portray elements of ourselves which are, for the most part, fictional. A Facebook profile is now a gateway to a projection of the self, which, ironically, dissipates the impact of what a person truly is.

It seems like the era of social media has created a society of people who are far more powerful than they used to be. Information is literally at our fingertips (particularly when you’re using finger-less gloves in a cafe, like I do.  I’m so cool). Things we would have never had the opportunity to access, people we would have never found, products we may have never heard of.

If you went (or are going) to watch The Social Network with an intent to see how this newfound power affects our lives, then you will likely be disappointed. You’d probably be better off watching a film that more directly deals with this theme (e.g., Catfish).

It is unfortunate that we live in a society whose opinions will be shaped by forms of media which are less than accurate. But lets face it, that’s how things are. Does that mean we shouldn’t use real circumstances, people, and events in order to craft new stories? Should Cleopatra have been made? How about The Aviator? Or Kinsey? Or W.? Or any of a number of biopics? Are they meant to educate a public so starved for cheap information that they can’t pick up a history book, or type a couple lines in a search engine?

After I watched The Social Network, I was interested to learn more about the origins of Facebook, not because I felt the film misled me, but because I already knew it was a piece of fiction. I would have known this even without being told ahead of time. The movie isn’t trying to mislead anyone.

The truth behind the movie is not in an accurate retelling of events, but rather, the bevy of emotions that undulate from scene to scene. It is in the dialogue, so cleverly and meticulously written. It is in the acting, in the cinematography, in Trent Reznor’s excellent soundtrack. These elements combine masterfully, creating a catharsis that is often lacking from your typical Hollywood production.

O’Brien writes in his piece concerning the film:

It’s an abdication of responsibility for a story that pantomimes Zuckerberg and is poised to transform Mezrich and Sorkin’s version of reality into whatever passes for truth these days.

Was it Mezrich or Sorkin’s intention and/or duty to educate the public about the true origins of Facebook? Even if they had attempted to do this, wouldn’t there be someone out there who would have cried foul? Listening to political speeches, reading/watching news reports, and even watching documentaries usually tells me one thing. Namely, the truth is a polarizing notion, based on which side of the fence you are standing on.

Try to get this. The Social Network is not a movie that informs us about Zuckerberg and the reason(s) he created Facebook. It is a movie that informs us about ourselves, our biases, our definitions of friendship, loyalty, jealousy, and betrayal. Zuckerberg’s story is used as a vehicle for these themes. It is not impossible to see how they could have played a part in the creation of Facebook. But it would also be asinine to believe that Zuckerberg’s true identity is identical to what is depicted on film.

The film does little to demystify society’s obsession with the new forms of media. Everything needs to be instant, concise, and precise. If anything, I believe that social media has made us lazy.

Consider this humorous, satirical, albeit poignant scene from Season 1 of Californication, where the protagonist (Hank Moody) is being interviewed on a radio show about his blog. This conversation is as follows:

Radio show host: What’s your latest obsession?

Hank Moody: Just the fact that people seem to be getting dumber and dumber. You know, I mean we have all this amazing technology and yet computers have turned into basically four figure wank machines. The Internet was supposed to set us free, democratize us, but all it’s really given us is Howard Dean’s aborted candidacy and 24 hour-a-day access to kiddie porn. People… they don’t write anymore, they blog. Instead of talking, they text, no punctuation, no grammar: LOL this and LMFAO that. You know, it just seems [like] a bunch of stupid people pseudo-communicating with a bunch of other stupid people at a proto-language that resembles more what cavemen used to speak than the King’s English.

Radio show host: Yet you’re part of the problem, I mean you’re out there blogging with the best of them.

Hank Moody: Hence my self-loathing.

Isn’t it funny how most of society, with this new power of interconnectedness and instant access to information, can do no better than that?

I may smell of an Internet-hating caveman, but it is not so.  As stated heretofore: there are good and powerful things that can be achieved through the means of social networking, and yes, through the power of something like Facebook. But the dangers of becoming disconnected, of regressing rather than progressing, are very real and very pressing.

Relationships are more than staying connected by wall posts and self-indulgent pictures. When interviewed on The View, Sorkin stated:

It’s [social networking] a device that’s meant to connect us, to bring us closer together. I think, and I know I’m in the minority, at minimum there are 500 million people who disagree with me, I think it’s pushing us further apart. I think socializing on the Internet is to socializing what reality TV is to reality.

I tend to agree with him. We now live in a world where our real life is being informed by what we see on TV. We are imitating a parody of ourselves. The same thing is happening within the digital domain. Our real relationships are virtual, and vice versa. Moreover, this disconnect is leading toward an unusual hegemony that is fueled by Internet groupthink.  Again, I would like to stress that all of this is not strictly negative.  There are many useful things emerging out of new media. Yet the trends are taking us toward a more disconnected world.

What Sorkin’s screenplay shows us is that, behind this extremely well-crafted site we call Facebook, there are deeper, human emotions that cannot be deracinated from the people behind the scenes. It isn’t just Zuckerberg, but all of us who live in this new, digital domain. We are all under scrutiny. If there is one thing that this new, digital age does well is that it allows us to hide behind a series of veils, profiles and pics.  How do we face this new age with all these digital defense mechanisms evolving around us? I don’t have an answer for that.

Neither does Sorkin.

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