Social Network: Celebrating the New Digitized, Democratized American Dream

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I’ve seen The Social Network, and I think it’s the real deal: A near-flawless, groundbreaking, intoxicating vision of the time span during which a whole new world order defined itself. And I’ve found myself a little perplexed by all the critiques out there that have called into question the shallowness or flimsiness of the fictionalized Mark Zuckerberg character. That’s the issue that initially inspired me to sit down and pen this little rant about one of the most fascinating entrepreneurs I’ve ever seen in a film; there is some plot summary and detailed analysis below, but for a thorough review, you will have to look to other reviews, like this one.

David Fincher clearly loves a challenge.

After the uber-brutal Fight Club, the claustrophobic one-set Panic Room, the anti-aging (and seriously underappreciated) Curious Case of Benjamin Button, now here comes The Social Network. No, not the “Facebook Movie,” as so many have said, but a film about the dawn of a new era, about the great tectonic shift of the communication/economic paradigm and the Mad Hatter who grabbed his surf board and suddenly found himself riding one of the biggest societal waves the world has ever seen. For most moviegoers, the film’s appeal is going to be the behind-the-scenes look at the inventor (or is it inventors) of Facebook; but for others, like me, the movie will register less as a tech movie than a business profile and societal case study. Strip away the web site, and The Social Network is a pulsating immersion in the moment when the business world suddenly changed course and a select few recognized the correction as it was taking place beneath their feet – an up-close view of how the old value systems of success, class status, technology, communication and entrepreneur spirit came crashing down almost overnight. (More on Techland: Facebook and Skype Are Beginning a Beautiful Friendship)

Given the way Fincher approaches the tale, I’m almost certain his interest in the subject matter stems from the enigmatic, at times confounding Mark Zuckerberg – surely the least likely zero-to-Zeus movie hero imaginable. He’s not charismatic or ominous, not suave or explosive; he’s a nerdy dude who exudes misanthropy, who can’t get a girlfriend and feels more at home writing code than partying with his peers. Plenty of ink has been spilt in recent days debating the motivations and intentions behind Zuckerman, questioning whether this renegade brings enough to the table to fuel an entire motion picture. Why does he do anything that he does, the critics ask. And I would venture to say: Because he can. Because this outcast introvert is sick of looking at a system that denies him entry, and decides to create an entirely new system instead. In the first scene of the movie, Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg as a furtive, rapid-fire genius with an ever-present scowl) is on a date, obsessing over getting accepted into one of Harvard’s esteemed societies, aware it could make the difference to his future career trajectory. But as his roommate (a sincere and satisfying Andrew Garfield, the new Spider-Man) is slowly embraced and indoctrinated into Harvard’s secret back halls, Zuckerberg is all but ignored. Then he stops caring. Shifting his energies away from the Harvard establishment, Zuckerberg instead loses himself in 20-hour computer coding shifts, setting out to create something all his own – the coolest party on campus, hosted by the outcast, open to everybody.

Late one weekend night, while the elite societies party, Zuckerberg launches a shoddy web game in which the nerds and nobodies back in their dorm rooms can openly mock their campus celebrities. Harvard’s network crashes. The balance of power shifts.

There’s some evidence (in the film at least) that Zuckerberg creates this first misogynistic viral web campaign to exact revenge against the girl who dumped him. But gradually that exercise spawns “The Facebook,” an online network that takes shape as something far more ambitious. He sees, in the drunken hazy hours of a single night, the power that something viral can have – the way users/customers themselves can spread the word, and bring him all the most important eyeballs on campus.

It’s the technical potential of this social network that Zuckerberg recognizes, and it’s a fine line that Fincher walks in portraying Zuckerberg’s inspiration: Is it possible that Zuckerberg is far less important as a “creator” than as a simple programmer – that the WHY here matters a whole lot less than the HOW? Most business icons saw a consumer need and found a way to fill the gap, but in the case of Zuckerberg, he wasn’t so much seeing something that no one else had seen, but found the magic formula to wrap his arms around a phenomenon. Here was a college student who recognized the power of the online social network – and then rushed to channel that into something tangible. Why he started doing it has little relation to what it is now; the mad scientist created something he didn’t fully understand, and The Social Network is the not a creation myth but a case study in trying to comprehend a whole new concept. (More on Techland: Sorry Facebook Movie, No Actual Facebook For You)

Am I making too much out of this? I don’t think so. Fincher, one of my favorite directors, continuously underscores these contrasts, between this new media invention and the old world way of thinking, just as screenwriter Aaron Sorkin slathers the scenes in rapid-fire Millennial-speak, which zips by at blinding speeds. The idea for Facebook doesn’t begin in a corporate conference room, but in a drunken dorm room; it’s made popular not by marketing departments and contracts, but by computer nerds with eager forward clicks. The elitist Winklevoss brothers (Armie Hammer, Josh Pence), who no doubt believe that Facebook was a concept stolen from them, pursue a conventional approach, paying out cash to hire employees and build a business; Zuckerberg, on the other hand, knows that speed is of the essence, and a great idea in the web world is only as good as its functionality and design. He builds a company overnight, line of code by line of code.

And once Facebook starts to take off, these contrasts become even more explicit. As Zuckerberg’s business partner pushes to monetize the whole project, Sean Parker (a scene-stealing, legitimate Oscar candidate Justin Timberlake) tries to convince the two Harvard students that their business is worth more than a few old-school pop-up ads. It’s bigger than cash flow, beyond revenue streams, with a valuation that stems not from immediate profits but from future potential. It’s a whole new sort of equity. Parker and Zuckerberg discuss the bright future of Facebook – in a conversation held at a night club that’s drowned out by the DJ beats. Parker and Zuckerberg pull a prank on a potential investor – and the VC is so amused by the prank that he invests anyway. (More on Techland: Two Minute Video: Quick and Easy Facebook Tricks)

In so many ways, this is the anti-Citizen Kane, anti-Godfather, anti-There Will Be Blood. Almost every other great entrepreneurship tale is about the man behind the action, sporting the vision and the scars that allow genius to reap profits. The Social Network is partly about a very lucky guy at the right place at the right time, shrewd and smart and more than a little awkward. But the real story isn’t him, or his Vision, but about the USERS – the way that the public rose up and made his invention into something of their own. It’s the story of a groundswell, about this unlikely collaboration between a product and its customers, that manages to upend not just the value propositions of a traditional Harvard education, but of the pre-web economy.

This isn’t a movie about Facebook, or any web site. It’s not about Zuckerberg, or all the others who claim he ripped them off. It’s not about security settings or tagged photos. This is about the shifting sands at the dawn of the technological revolution. In the film’s final scene, we see Zuckerberg approach Facebook not as a creator but as a user for the very first time – the scientist, it would seem, now realizing how much he has yet to learn about his creation. In the film’s final moments, Fincher upends the conventional climax, proposing instead the far more intriguing question: Happily ever after, or back to square one?

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