Published September 30, 2010
A few days ago, having arrived early at the press-critics screening of “The Social Network,” the new movie about the creation of Facebook, I found myself staring at the big blank white screen in front of me, killing time before the movie started. And I thought to myself: In the movie era, you went to the movie theater to be entertained, but you had to wait for the scheduled time -- or when the projectionist was ready -- for the show to start. By contrast, in this new era of video on demand, the show starts whenever you want it to start; you’re the boss. And if you’re playing a video game, you have even more control over the show. No wonder video, streaming to a device near you, is surging, while video games are now a bigger business than the movies. And did I mention that Internet types--most notoriously, Sean Parker, the creator of Napster--developed the “file-sharing” technology that undermined the music industry and threatens to do same thing to the movie and television industry?
No doubt Hollywood knows all this, too; they know that the digitalization of entertainment put new power in the hands of the digitalizers, at the expense of the content-creators. So yes, the moguls of L.A. might be jealous of the geeks in the Bay Area; who knows, the moguls might even hate their guts. If so, that might explain why “The Social Network” is so venomous toward the Valley -- the movie equivalent of the Stuxnet worm -- aimed right at Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook.
By now, everybody understands the importance of Facebook as a social and financial phenomenon. The company claims 500 million users worldwide, which is one in every 14 or so people on this earth. Even if the real number of active users is well below that half-billion mark, the rise of Facebook over the last seven years still represents an enormous, even heartening, achievement. At a time when the American economy is in such trouble, it’s nice to see someone building up a $25 billion company, right here in the U.S. Meanwhile, in strange coincidence with the release of the movie, opening Friday, Zuckerberg last week appeared on Oprah to announce the gift of $100 million to the Newark, N.J. public schools. At his side during this well-choreographed political pageant were the Democratic mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, and the Republican governor of the Garden State, Chris Christie.
Ah, but as Balzac said, behind every fortune is a crime. The film is told as a series of flashbacks, as Zuckerberg sits in the conference room of a law firm, fending off allegations from two different sets of aggrieved parties -- all of whom, even the lawyers, come across as nicer than Zuckerberg, albeit not as smart.
Taking us back to Harvard in 2003, the film asserts that Zuckerberg, then a sophomore in the college, did, in fact, manipulate and maneuver his backers and partners out of their fair share of the company. Zuckerberg and Facebook settled with both sets of plaintiffs -- although, of course, settlements are not the same as admissions of guilt, even if the movie makes them out to be. As far as the film is concerned, the audience is left to ponder the words of two different women, one at the beginning of the film, and one at the end: Is Zuckerberg an “ass----,” or he is he merely “trying so hard to be one”?
In the hands of director David Fincher -- and more to the point, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin -- the film zips along. The white-hatted plaintiffs chase after the black-hatted Zuckerberg as the value of Facebook -- and thus the financial stakes of the legal game -- double and double and double. Sorkin’s overcaffeinated -- and he has been known to use harder substances -- writing style leaves teenagers and twenty-somethings tossing off witticisms in ways that would tax the mind of even the quickest improv comic. When a male character -- the notorious Napster-man Sean Parker played rakishly by Justin Timberlake -- describes himself to a woman he has just slept with as "an entrepreneur," she comes right back with, “So what have you ‘preneured’?” Her words are simultaneously punnish, playful, and sexy. As with his past work -- “A Few Good Men,” “Sports Night,” “The West Wing” -- Sorkin’s writing is always entertaining, even if the audience is not convinced that on-screen characters could be so snappy and still be credible as characters.
Yet in the case of Zuckerberg, based on all that we know about him, we can believe that he’s that smart and that quick. And if he seems off-putting, even grating, maybe that’s because he’s too busy thinking of something that hasn’t been thought of yet, even as he is answering a question that hasn’t been asked yet. A soon-to-be ex-girlfriend, unable to keep up, says to him, “Dating you is like dating a Stairmaster.”
Harvard, like any other school, is socially stratified, and so when the film begins, Zuckerberg, no BMOC-type jock, is nowhere in the Harvard social scene. And while the experience of being left out fills him with resentment, it also fills him with ideas. With a website such as “Facemash,” soon to be “TheFacebook,” and finally “Facebook,” Zuckerberg could create the experience, or pseudo-experience, of being an insider and offer it to everyone. He is “taking the entire social experience of college and putting it online.” In a world where cool and social hierarchy are everything, Facebook offers a new platform for cool, a new architecture for hierarchy. The Sean Parker character, who helps Zuckerberg crack the world of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, provides useful historical context: “We lived on farms, we live in cities, now we live in the Internet.” If so, whoever creates the nicest places to “live” will be handsomely rewarded. And so far, at least, there’s no better place than Facebook.
Moreover, Zuckerberg, the chief executive, executes brilliantly. He understands the value of exclusivity as an early buzz generator; in its first few years, Facebook was available only to those with an “.edu” suffix in their e-mail addresses -- no parents and grandparents allowed. In addition, he stays laser-focused on the technical performance of the site, even as he applies a discerning aesthetic eye on its “look.” It must be clean and mostly white, he decrees, with no cheesy adds; he thus forgoes short-term small money for long-term big money. Citing the influence and importance of fashion, he pronounces, “We know that it is cool, but it is never finished.” So even in Sorkin’s writerly imagination, Zuckerberg is more restless artist than bottom-line-feeding greedhead.
So is Zuckerberg a good guy, or a bad guy? Surely there’s no easy answer to that question--and just as surely, “The Social Network” will not be the last word, nor the last moving image.
All we know, right now, is that the nerds got their revenge on Hollywood, and now the Cine-Empire is striking back.