The Social Network concerns Mark Zuckerberg and his cybercreation, Facebook, the website that now boasts 500 million active users and has made its “inventor” a multi-billionaire. On his site, you’re free to divulge your most praiseworthy, intimate, and perverse behaviors to thousands. Merely register, and you instantly become a star, inviting the scrutiny of your “friends,” as the site identifies your co-respondents. Furthermore, your chosen circle can grow exponentially, since each of your friends has the option of suggesting you to their friends, who can likewise do the same. Should you be up to something sufficiently exceptional or weird or lurid, your circle could possibly rival that of the Almighty’s, having a center that’s everywhere and a circumference nowhere. Like certain celebrities, you’ll taste Lucifer’s temptation. Don’t you deserve to outshine the Bible’s out-of-date deity?
Not that Zuckerberg designed his site with such blasphemy in mind. No, his sinning was far less grand. His enterprise was driven by jealousy and anger. He wanted to strike back at the girl who had dumped him and, while he was at it, all those other girls whom he assumed would be only too glad to snub him in favor of more presentable swains. At least this is the way Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher have dramatized it in The Social Network. They’ve instructed Jesse Eisenberg to play Zuckerberg as a hopelessly gauche young man whose behavior suggests he may be suffering from Asperger syndrome, the form of autism characterized by high intelligence, obsessive focusing, and a striking lack of empathy.
We meet Zuckerberg first in a college bar with Erica (Rooney Mara), a pretty Boston University coed. He’s trying to impress her with his Harvard connections and how he intends to make it into one of the school’s prestigious Final Clubs. It’s important to know the right people, he explains. As he patters on, she becomes increasingly restive and finally excuses herself, saying she has some studying to do. He expresses astonishment. After all, how much study time would anyone need to put in at BU? This is a step too far. Erica takes aim and fires. “You’re going to be successful, and rich,” she tells him with seeming sweetness. “But you’re going to 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.”
The rest of the film will confirm her prediction implicitly, while its conclusion will do so explicitly when another young woman observes, “You’re not an asshole, Mark; you’re just trying too hard to be one.”
Stung by Erica’s dismissal, Zuckerberg runs to his dorm, where he works through the night hacking into the other dormitories’ websites, electronically snatching the profiles of their coeds complete with headshots. With this digital information, he constructs his own website, Facemash. Each page features pictures of two coeds and invites users to choose which is lovelier and make whatever other comments they wish. Facemash, indeed. It’s Zuckerberg’s kick in the face to the gals who think him unworthy. The girls are outraged, and the boys delighted. Soon Harvard’s server is so overloaded with male responses to Zuckerberg’s invidious invitation that it crashes. It seems that, despite the de rigueur training in tolerance and gender awareness throughout prep school, the Harvard gentlemen are simply raring to demean the ladies.
For this stunt, Zuckerberg is put on probation, but it’s no big deal. He’s become an overnight campus celebrity. The Winklevoss twins, prominent members of the Porcellian Club, the most exclusive of the Final Clubs, invite him to work with them on their idea for a social website to be called HarvardConnection. It will be exclusive, of course, inviting only the best of the best to participate. Then, as if to signal their devotion to exclusivity, the Winklevi, as Zuckerberg comes to call them, meet him in the bicycle room of their club, a foyer to its inner sanctum to which Zuckerberg cannot be admitted. With gracious noblesse oblige, they offer him a sandwich. No wonder the Jewish wunderkind came to betray these handsome WASP scholar-athletes.
Zuckerberg has been described by many commentators as being an outsider’s outsider, a young man insulted by the privileged’s closed doors. Using the Winklevi’s idea, he devises the website that will become Facebook and takes it online without acknowledging their admittedly small role in its inception. From this moment, the war is on. Eventually, the Winklevi bring suit against him, as does Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg’s classmate and closest friend who put up the money with which the site was launched, only to be iced out once it became profitable. Their suits have been settled now, with the Winklevosses coming away with $65 million added to their already bursting trust funds, while Saverin may be over $100 million to the good. Although both suits’ legal merits were questionable at best, there was no trial. Zuckerberg’s lawyers realized he would never prevail before a jury. He was simply too unlikably arrogant. Besides, people who have neither the connections nor the wit to escape jury duty rarely sympathize with billionaires.
Also notably lacking sympathy for Facebook’s mastermind are Sorkin and Fincher. While I thoroughly enjoyed watching their clever film, afterward I couldn’t help feeling that it was exceptionally cruel. Zuckerberg may well be the shit they portray him to be, but he’s 26 and was 20 when he initiated his site. In short, he’s a kid with exceptional skills and luck who behaved badly toward some privileged frat boys. And if, as Sorkin’s script strongly suggests, he suffers from Asperger’s, should he be held fully accountable for his unpleasantness? When interviewers have brought up the issue, Sorkin has hidden behind the same kind of reasoning deployed by other Hollywood slanderers such as Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman, who shamelessly fabricated the life of Princeton physicist John Nash in A Beautiful Mind and despicably besmirched Max Baer in Cinderella Man. Sorkin has said that he was making a movie entertainment, not a documentary, and therefore was not restricted to telling the factual truth. Really? I wonder how he would feel should someone make a film about his life and career in which his work on The West Wing television series was shown to be clandestine propaganda motivated by, let’s say, a Marxist revolutionary agenda accompanied by an abiding desire to mock America’s Christian heritage? Would that be OK, Aaron?
I hold no brief for Zuckerberg, about whom I know very little. From reading about him, especially a fascinating New Yorker profile by Jose Antonio Vargas, I gather he’s a snotty brat. So does this give Sorkin the right to vilify him in a film that hundreds of millions will see and largely take as the whole truth? The movie will forever shape the public perception of this 26-year-old, pursuing him to his grave. By comparison, Orson Welles treated William Randolph Hearst with gentlemanly decency, declaring the newspaper magnate provided no more than a suggestion on which to build his wholly fictional Citizen Kane.
Another annoyance: Sorkin gives only scant attention to what is most important about Facebook. That it’s become the locus of reckless greed and litigious acrimony pales beside its value as a cautionary harbinger. As the Palo Alto sharpie and Napster scammer Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) puts it to the beguiled Zuckerberg, “We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re gonna live on the internet!” Living on the internet? Yes, I’m afraid, and it’s happening at the expense of privacy. One of the ways Facebook makes its enormous profits is by sharing with advertisers and researchers what its users so eagerly reveal about themselves. If you were retained to reach potential consumers of a new, exotic, and unusually expensive beer, wouldn’t you like to know who is regularly shelling out $19 for a six-pack of Dogfish Fort or $9 for a four-pack of Brooklyn Chocolate Stout? You’d likely find your hops gourmands boasting their quaffing habits on Facebook. Should you want to locate scapegraces, you could do worse than putting yourself forth as a potential “friend” on the site, as has the FBI. Zuckerberg has said that we live in an age when privacy is an “evolving social norm.” Undoubtedly true. And what a blessing for our public planners and government snoops. Spotting dissent obligingly self-revealed online will make their work so much easier. The potential for internet abuse is manifold: everything from stalking the young to spreading pornography to empowering those who think that what we need to flourish is a well-informed police state.
In The Phenomenon of Man (1955), the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin speculated that humanity was witnessing the development of what he called the noosphere. With this neologism derived from the Greek words nous (mind) and sphere (realm), Chardin was denoting what he thought of as a collective consciousness enabled by the various communication instruments devised in the modern period. He foresaw a day when the then-incipient computer technology would bind us together in an intellectual and spiritual embrace. We would gain an immensely deeper understanding of who we were and where we were going. The noosphere, in effect, would be evolution become conscious of itself. It would be our next phase, during which humanity would work in concert toward achieving its destiny, which he dubbed the Omega Point. I suppose this was Chardin’s version of universal salvation.
I recall being impressed by his speculations when I first read him in the late 60’s. Now I wonder. Did Chardin foresee Zuckerberg’s confessional, collectivizing Facebook as one more step toward the Omega Point?
If this is the noosphere, I’m with the great Sam Goldwyn: Include me out.