What did The Social Network get right about Facebook?
When The Social Network was first announced, my initial thought was: They're making a movie about Facebook? Yes, Facebook was already a monolithic social tool, and there was chatter about the impact such sites had on millennials’ social interactions. But at that point, it still felt like just another website. Facebook was rapidly expanding, but the dust of MySpace still hadn't settled, and there was no guarantee Facebook was here to stay. Further, even if there was some intrigue concerning Facebook’s effect on our society’s social interactions, I wasn't sure how that could become a full-length movie.
Now, it would seem ludicrous that anyone would question the making of a Facebook movie. The site is not just widely used: it is damn near universal among those with access to the Internet. It is also high-stakes, and frequently part of conversations about international politics and the degradation of privacy. This past week, Facebook has come under fire for allowing a company called Cambridge Analytica, on behalf of Trump advisor Stephen K. Bannon, to harvest the data from more than 50 million Facebook users without their permission in order to influence the U.S. presidential election. Congress is now calling on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to testify about the incident, and Zuckerberg is conducting an apology tour to repair Facebook’s image. Facebook is no longer just a way to like your friend’s Spring Break pictures. It's an amorphous force that has a tremendous impact on global politics.
Director David Fincher couldn’t have fully known what Facebook would become when The Social Network came out 8 years ago. At the end of the film, we're told that Facebook has 500 million members and is valued at 25 billion dollars. Facebook now has more than 2 billion users and is valued at more than 400 billion dollars. Despite this lack of up-to-date context, though, The Social Network still has a lot to say about Facebook’s power. The movie is about the creation of Facebook as much as There Will Be Blood is about the oil industry: both stories of American corporate ingenuity are just convenient backdrops to say something more sinister, and more universal, about why something like Facebook happens at all. As voices decrying Facebook’s villainy grow louder, what can The Social Network teach us about the website’s control on our society?
The Social Network doesn’t open with an ambitious Mark Zuckerberg trying desperately to come up with the next big idea. It opens with a breakup. Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) is at a bar with his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara); as usual, he's doing most of the talking. It's a rapid-fire, narcissistic dialogue, and it's immediately clear he has no comprehension of how to read Erica’s emotions. The exchange sets the stage for Mark’s character for the rest of the film: funny, but socially inept; often correct in argument, but only by way of being completely insufferable. Erica is keenly aware of how Mark sees himself, and tries to burst that image by telling him that he will “go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole.”
After the breakup Mark returns to his dorm, drunkenly insulting Erica on his blog while creating Facemash, a rough precursor to Facebook. Mark has no a-ha moment about how he can change the world for the better, and he's not creating Facemash for money, either. The entire endeavor was rooted in spite. Fincher’s image of Mark isn't that of an entrepreneurial boy genius; it's of a bitter, vindictive college student who just had his heart broken.
Mark and his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) create Facebook soon thereafter, and the site quickly skyrockets. Meanwhile, their wealthy Harvard classmates Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer) pursue legal action against Mark, claiming he stole their idea for the site. The rivalry between the Winklevoss twins and Mark is a reversal of the exclusive social scene laid out in scenes of college parties and secret society initiations. For hundreds of years, posh insiders like the Winklevoss twins were in control of the social dynamic at Harvard, while scrawny nerds like Mark were left on the outside. Now the nerds are in charge, because they figured out how to democratize the entire social landscape. The Winklevoss twins literally lay out exclusivity as the hallmark of their version of Facebook: they only want to allow users with a harvard.edu email.
With the help of Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), though, Mark takes the site to college campuses across the country. As they sit in a pulsating club with Victoria’s Secret models draped over them, a far cry from drunk blogging in the dorms, Sean tells Mark just how personal this whole venture is, declaring “This is our time.” The outsiders are on the inside, and they finally see a path toward owning the social landscape online that they never could in real life.
No matter how big Facebook gets, through, Mark is always isolated. He is surrounded by people in nearly every scene, but even when they are collaborating he is always in his own physical or mental space, believing he’s in control but never truly loved by anyone around him. The only moment of physical intimacy he experiences during the movie takes place off camera.
I hadn't seen The Social Network since its initial release, and I always remembered it as a movie about ambition, about pursuing greatness no matter the costs. Re-watching the film, though, it’s clear that that’s not what the The Social Network is about at all. This is a movie about loneliness, and jealousy, and social exclusion. The online social empire Mark builds throughout the movie is all in pursuit of a real-life social world he never figured out how to access.
At the end of the movie, Mark sends Erica a friend request on Facebook. He’s in control of a billion dollar company, but all he ever wanted was the girl. When the text flashes on the screen telling us Facebook’s estimated value, it’s overlaid with Zuckerberg’s despondent face. He couldn’t care less.
In this way, The Social Network is reminiscent of Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane tells the story of Kane’s (Orson Welles) meteoric rise as a newspaper tycoon. Like The Social Network, the film is, on its face, a classic story of American ambition and entrepreneurism. But by the end, we come to learn that Kane was never really motivated by money or power, but personal loss in his childhood. Erica is Mark's Rosebud, and The Social Network is a Citizen Kane for the digital age.
This personal motivation is Fincher’s focus in The Social Network. He doesn’t really pay much mind to corporate invasions of privacy, or how Facebook might interact with international politics, and because of that neglection it doesn’t really matter that he couldn’t know the global role Facebook would take on. The Social Network isn't a movie about Facebook's relationship to the selling of private data so much as it’s about why we willingly give over that data in the first place.
Fincher’s film argues that the issue of privacy is incidental to the idea that all we really want is to be part of a community, to be on the inside. It’s why we barely blink when the personal information of 50 million people is stolen without our permission. Because all we want is to create a narrative for our lives, and now, with Facebook, we can construct that narrative and watch it play out in front of our eyes in real time.
The Social Network also argues, compellingly, that this tendency predates the existence of Facebook. In so many movies and TV shows, such as Ingrid Goes West or Black Mirror, we blame social media and new technologies for our impulse to construct an image of ourselves. Fincher’s film contends this was a desire we always had, and Facebook is just a tool that amplifies our access to satisfy it. Zuckerberg tells Erica early on he wants to join a Harvard Final Club because “they lead to a better life.” Later, when Eduardo questions Mark’s desire to expand Facebook, Mark’s line of reasoning isn’t about the business potential of the site, but about their own social standing: “Do you like being a nobody?”
The desire to gain social acceptance existed in Mark (and everyone else in this film, for that matter) well before Facebook existed, and it existed in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane well before that. We have always been telling ourselves a story of where we want to be. Now, we can lay it out on a screen. If The Social Network can teach us anything, it’s that if the downfall of Facebook is ever to come it will be difficult for something like the Cambridge Analytica scandal to bring it down, because our collective outrage over the leaking of our private information is secondary to our innate desire to create the narrative of ourselves.
After I finished The Social Network, I immediately hopped on Facebook. So did my friends. We were all right next to each other. The stories of Cambridge Analytica mining private information were swirling in the news, but that all felt distant. I just wanted to see what everyone else was doing, and where I fit into it all.