Friday, October 08, 2010
The Social Network
Marketers and critics are lauding The Social Network as a movie which defines a generation. As a member of its purported generation, I have what to say about this assessment.
I think that this statement has good intentions, although a little overreaching. Namely, I do not think it’s accurate to declare that it’s the film which defines a generation. If anything it should refer to the website upon which the film is based. This film tells the story of how Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) founded Facebook back in his dorm room at Harvard University. It’s unclear how much of the film is true to reality as all parties involved signed non-disclosure agreements as part of their settlements with Zuckerberg, but the filmmakers insist they have stuck to the truth to tell an honest story (and to, of course, avoid libel lawsuits).
To say that the film defines a generation is a bit of an overstatement. It might be more accurate to say that the film is about a website that has had a lot of influence over a generation. I know, not nearly as catchy, but what would it mean that this film defines a generation? Is it the backstabbing or the selfishness of the main character which defines my generation? Or perhaps the people Zuckerberg left in the dust in the generation being defined. Are we a generation that has been betrayed by others? I’m not quite sure what it means to say that this film defines me and my peers.
The Social Network, or The Facebook Movie as it is colloquially being called, is based on Ben Mezrich’s book, The Accidental Billionaires. With the real Saverin acting as consultant, the story is clearly one sided and frames Zuckerberg in the most negative of lights. According to this film, Zuckerberg is an antisocial and amoral social climber who only cares about getting in with the cool crowd and has no regard for the hurt he causes along the way. He creates facebook as a way to get back at his ex-girlfriend, and alienates his best friend in the process.
Sorkin’s screenplay is nothing short of poetry and the acting is stellar. The cast recites Sorkin’s words with ease as they fully embody their characters. The narrative structure of the film is particularly interesting to note. Interwoven within the storyline are two separate lawsuits. One is between Zuckerberg and twins, Cameron and Tyler Winkelvos (both played by Armie Hammer) and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), the group from who he supposedly stole Facebook from. The other is between Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), his only and best friend at the time who he pushed out of the company as it was about to hit its stride. What I can only imagine was one of the more daunting editing tasks, the film pieces together accounts of what happened between these three parties as the website started and began to grow. It also expands to include how Sean Parker, Napster founder (played by Justin Timberlake) encouraged Zuckerberg to implement some significant changes.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this film since seeing it. Mostly, about what the world thinks about my generation if it thinks that this film defines us. The title assumes people are networking socially. Zuckerberg has changed the word friend from a noun with a distinct definition and specific traits to a verb with a scattered definition and amorphous meaning. Friends are no longer those with whom you connect with on a personal level, share interests and traits with or even know directly. In our age of “social networking,” Facebook defines a friend as anyone who you want to have a digital dotted line to. It has gotten to the point where if someone isn’t, God forbid, on Facebook, they must be some sort of outsider or social deviant. I am an anomaly as someone who only accepts or sends out “friend requests” to people I actually know. Once “friends” with someone you are free to block people, limit their access to your profile or even unfriend them at your will. If this was actual reality there would be some consequence to that behavior. At the very least the other person would know! Today, rarely is that even the case. What kind of friendships are those? The film portrays Zuckerberg as borderline Aspergers with no sense of remorse or notion of consequences nor is he capable of making and retaining friendships. Has he created a culture where everyone is mimicking him? Is that what we should be socially aspiring to? Is that how our generation is seen by others? Are we a considered to be a demographic devoid of social responsibility and unable for connecting on personal levels? While these questions are probably impossible to definitively answer, the questions themselves are important even to be considering.
Moreover, according to the film, Zuckerberg was intent on maintaining a certain level of exclusivity on the site to keep people thinking it was “cool.” As someone who himself was excluded from Harvard’s elite final clubs, college sports teams and often felt alienated from social gatherings, this was his way to get back at the world. He created a place where he got to choose who was able to join or not. At its inception this held true, limited to Harvard and a few elite colleges, Zuckerberg could hold control over his definition of what makes cool. However, as he saw the monetary potential the site could have and his greed for putting his digital fingerprint across the planet he seems to have lost sight of his original intentions (well, maybe his secondary intentions after he got back at his exgirlfriend). Initially, he didn’t even want ads on his website, lest people not consider it “cool.” However, almost making a 180 degree turn from what the movie claims he said about the site, today Facebook is overrun by corporations and other organizations trying to make their own mark on the Facebook network. These companies believe that tapping into a preexisting and preorganized community in “social media” it will help them build their own brands. To me at least, this is the antitheses of what socializing means. Since when is capitalizing on social connections for monetary gain socially acceptable? I guess the answer to that is since Zuckerberg did just that to his own real life social network he has set the standard.
Personally, I think to say that this movie, or even the website, defines a generation is minimizing all the other things that young people today are doing these days. Yes, we keep up with people we once knew in previous lives through the computer screen by never having to actually talk to them. Instead of connecting directly with a long lost high school friend you can now just click a link and be connected with them. You learn what town they now live in, where they work, who they married and see their kids. All from the privacy of your apartment (or, lets be real, cubicle). Facebook fulfills a voyeuristic need in all of us, but this is not new; it’s something Hitchcock knew half a century ago when he put voyeurism at the center of many of his narratives.
However, despite this growing trend I do not believe that our generation is defined by a change in the way we interact with people from our past. Maybe the word “friend” now has a broader interpretation, but real true friends are still the people we want to hang out with, share intimate details with in person, and keep them up to date with what’s going on in our worlds. Furthermore, there are far more important things than a social media website which has defined my generation. What about the job crisis and how many of us are professionally stunted because of the economic meltdown? What about the thousands of soldiers from my generation who have given their lives and limbs for this country? Those are just two major happenings in our adult lives which have greatly effected us and I believe will have a far more lasting effect than how we define the word, “friend.” We are a generation raised as multitaskers who, for all our lives, have been trained to take on as many projects and activities as we possible can, and to reduce us to a single idea is insulting. I do agree that Facebook has probably changed the way my generation interacts with the world, but to reduce is to being defined by it is a little overreaching.