Social Network

By Rob Patterson

I went to see The Social Network, aka the Facebook movie. And immediately wondered if I should at least lessen my time on the site, and maybe even take a break. Even though for me, and many millions of others, it’s a prime source of all but daily entertainment. Not that Facebook is a bad thing — though it can be highly addictive — or that the movie itself should be blamed for my feeling that way.

It is a fine film, worthy of much of the general praise it has elicited. Director David Fincher is a smart and skilled filmmaker with a keen, artful eye and savvy at shaping and telling a story. West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the movie, is a master at elucidating both the bonds and conflicts of friendship and working together. His script is full of keen interchanges and clever bons mots, so much so that I did think: Do people really talk like this?

No. And no matter. Before the first act was over, it was clear to me: This is the creation myth of something that occupies a wide bandwidth of the current zeitgeist. Sorkin confirmed my impression when he had a character say just that — it’s the creation myth — about the contentious story that emerges as Facebook founder/developer Mark Zuckerberg is sued by others involved in or who he interacted with as he started Facebook as a Harvard University social site.

Someone I know on Facebook (ha!) noted how the movie is “being compared with Citizen Kane, but I’m calling it The Godfather for the Internet Age.” It’s not that good a film by any means, nor as significant.

It tells the story in a canny structural mix of jumping back and forth between the lawsuit depositions and the tale itself (fictionalized but based on the book The Accidental Billionaires). A number of the performances are quite impressive: Armie Hammer playing both twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the sons of privilege who allege that Zuckerberg stole their idea for a Harvard social site, and pop singer Justin Timberlake as young Internet visionary and go-getter Sean Parker, proving he has acting chops galore. And lead actor Jesse Eisenberg creates a cinematic version of Zuckerberg that is quite effective, so much so that it evoked what stuck in my craw as I left the theater.

The discussion over what’s true vs. fictionalized by Sorkin centers on Zuckerberg’s supposed motivations in the movie: Envy over not being part of the social class that gets tapped for Harvard’s selective “final clubs,” and that time-honored inspiration, showing up a woman who spurned him. But what bothers me is how the Zuckerberg of the movie seems so disconnected from real life, and is portrayed as a cauldron of inner emotions underneath a surface of flattened affect.

The Social Network in a way almost contradicts its title by, as it seems to me, being about how digital connections are replacing face-to-face social contact. Not that the Internet doesn’t offer great power for connectivity. But there’s aspects to it I find troubling, and I know I am not alone.

And they are embodied in the film’s Zuckerberg character, which strikes me as a rather heartless and feckless sort — and as a result, disgruntled. Maybe not purposely so, but definitely lacking in a certain full-blooded humanity and social integration. Hence I felt misgivings after the film at being a part of something that such a person created and continues to run and profit from.

I’ve certainly noticed how the Internet and spending much time on my computer (occupational hazard) has affected me as well as others. I’ve even identified what I feel is a significant phenomenon I perceive in online behavior that I call, only half jokingly, digital personality disorder. There’s a perceptible difference I’ve noticed between how people are when communicating via Web tools as opposed to in person.

This is already a ripe subject for social and behavioral observers and analysts. And Zuckerberg’s recent $100 million gift to the Newark, N.J., schools certainly suggests that he has a sense of true humanity, though one can also compare it to John D. Rockefeller’s turn to charity after the Ludlow Massacre on the advice of his PR consultant Ivy Lee.

The film ends with Zuckerberg trying to “friend” (in Facebook lingo) the woman who dumped him. And the greatest significance of The Social Network may be how what he invented and the fame and fortune it still failed to fully socialize him. The movie captures the brave new web-connected world we live in. But I can’t help but wonder how much I should live within that world.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2010

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