The Social Network: What’s Your Status?

There is a scene about midway through The Social Network, the new David Fincher movie about Mark Zuckerberg and the founding of Facebook, in which Zuckerberg and his business partner, Eduardo Saverin, meet with Sean Parker, the celebrity Internet entrepreneur and co-founder of Napster. The scene takes place in the spring of 2004, when thefacebook.com had been out long enough for people to realize it was big, but not long enough for anyone to grasp how big. After many rounds of Appletinis and much discussion of how the Internet business world operates, Parker (played by Justin Timberlake) leaves, but before he goes he imparts some advice to his younger colleagues: “Drop the ‘the.’ It’s cleaner.”

This is a nifty bit of storytelling, in which a magnetic personality with only a little bit of substantive input manages to charm the Internet’s Next Big Thing with a beautiful grasp of marketing.

Except it’s not really accurate. Facebook was initially known as The Facebook because the rights to “www.facebook.com” were already owned, and Facebook wouldn’t actually be able to purchase the rights to the cleaner domain until the summer of 2005.

But, as I said, the scene makes for good storytelling, and that’s really what Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, the film’s screenwriter, are after with the movie. Although The Social Network frames itself as a legal drama about the site’s founding, with the action unfolding as it is retold through the various depositions of the various parties involved in the various lawsuits that the site inspired, it never gets bogged down in the details of either case, preferring instead to paint in broad strokes on a rapidly unfolding canvass.

In many ways, this is the movie’s strength. Fincher, director of Fight Club and Se7en, is adept at moving quickly through a story, and the way he weaves through multiple threads of narration and timelines is never confusing, boring, or needlessly complex. In fact, it is kind of amazing, and a credit to Fincher’s direction, that a movie comprised of so many business meetings, contract-signings, depositions, and legal debates is so consistently entertaining. Complementing Fincher’s fast-paced direction is a typical Sorkin script, full of biting one-liners and witty dialogue.

At the same time, though, the movie is also full of glaring liberties that had to be taken in order to fit the story into this neat little narrative. The basic conceit of the film is that Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is an arrogant but insecure asshole who constantly feels pressure to impress people. He is insensitive and self-absorbed. When Saverin, Zuckerberg’s best friend, gets an invitation to join one of Harvard’s exclusive final clubs, Phoenix, Zuckerberg assures him that “it was a probably a diversity thing.” In the film’s opening scene, after getting dumped by his girlfriend, Zuckerberg gets drunk, hacks into the online facebooks of every Harvard undergraduate house and, in an act of misogynistic payback, creates a site, FaceMash.com, that allows people to vote on the attractiveness of girls.

It is a credit to Eisenberg that he embraces his character’s unkind attitude and never feels the need to soften it with inappropriate vulnerability. Zuckerberg, after all, believes he deserves all the rewards the world offers him and most of the ones it doesn’t, so anything but resentment of his peers would be incongruous. Unlike most actors, who would play this arrogance as a façade for desperation to be liked, Eisenberg never lets his veneer of self-assuredness crack.

Unfortunately, the movie’s plot does this for him, making all his arrogance seem like pent-up resentment of the more privileged. After shaming every Harvard girl on campus, Zuckerberg wins the attention of the Winklevoss twins, along with Divya Narenda, who had been trying to get their own site, Harvard Connection, off the ground. Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss invite Zuckerberg to code and design their site. Zuckerberg agrees, but at the same time begins work on his own site, thefacebook, and soon bails on the Winklevosses and takes thefacebook live, with the financial backing of Saverin.

It cannot be ignored that the Winklevosses are 6’5” blonde twins from “a family of means,” who row crew and belong to a final club of their own. Ah, those final clubs. They become the neat little scapegoat of the movie, being blamed for all of Zuckerberg’s misbehaviors, insecurities, and resentments. When the Winklevosses (or, as Zuckerberg refers to them at a later deposition, the Winklevi) first meet with Zuckerberg, they take him to their club, the Porcellian, but since he is not a member, they can only take him as far as the bike room. While they tell him about their idea for Harvard Connection, Zuckerberg is lost in thought as he stares at the pictures on the wall, as if he is so entranced by the glamour and status of the lifestyle that he can’t help but agree to assist them.

Indeed, the whole plot of the film is motored by the insider/outsider tension, and this is where the differences between the film and real life become less a question of “creative license” (like Parker’s line about the “the”) and more a question of lazy storytelling. The real Zuckerberg, for his part, denies ever having an interest in the final clubs, and I tend to believe him. After all, the idea of the nerdy Jew who resents privilege because he feels pre-emptively excluded from it sounds more like a generic archetype—specifically like one of several characters from Sorkin scripts past—than like a real person. Indeed, for all of its wit and humor, much of Sorkin’s script feels like it was written on autopilot. It takes the generic form of so much of his work: Clever banter, clever banter, industry-specific jargon, clever banterheavy-handed, simplistic moral lesson.

Part of the problem may have come from confusion over the point of the movie. As Tim mentioned to me after seeing it himself, the movie is a historical representation, but it makes no pretense of being entirely accurate; it is about a cultural phenomenon, but it never really gets into the specifics of that phenomenon; it is an untold story, but one most people were already somewhat familiar with. Other than the fact it’s the talked-about movie of the moment, it’s not entirely clear why we should be watching this movie, and thus not entirely clear what Sorkin and Fincher’s point was in making it.

This is not to say that the movie isn’t fun, clever, and enjoyable. It is all of those things, but it is also a little tiresome, not all that substantive, and noticeably lacking in depth. The Social Network is a very watchable movie, but it’s not especially thought-provoking.

What’s frustrating is that the film so easily could have been. The story of Facebook, after all, is the story of a brilliant idea, who had that idea, and how that idea grew and evolved. It should be a story that addresses questions like, “Who owns an idea?” “Who deserves to profit from it?” “Are loyalty and genius simpatico?” Etc. At a few moments, The Social Network is that story. Far more often, though, it is the story of a kid who is pissed off that he didn’t get into an exclusive club.

It’s certainly possible that Mark Zuckerberg was upset that his friend got into a final club and he didn’t, and it’s possible that he resented the wealth and status of the Winklevosses. Even if that’s true, though, are these really the most important things to take away from this story? Is the story of Facebook really the story of one man’s attempt to get back at his ex-girlfriend? These kinds of anecdotes may make for a neat little narrative, but not for a truly great movie.

After all, who really cares if the man behind one of the most important innovations of the modern era is kind of a jerk?

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3 responses to this post.

  1. I know that Sorkin isn’t for everyone, but I adore his work. I understand the flaws in his writing that you pointed out, but I think that they add to the appeal of the writing in some strange way. That’s why I love the Toby Ziegler character and I also thought that the Zuckerberg character was great. Though I don’t agree with you on their similarities…

    Reply

  2. […] this review describes the potential harmfulness of these Final Clubs, but then asks whether Zuckerberg’s […]

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  3. […] Take: It’s going to go to The Social Network, right? Isn’t this the consensus? I mean, as overrated as that film was, people loved Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay. To be fair, the dialogue was witty and the film was […]

    Reply

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