the social network
Genre: Drama, Biography
Director: David Fincher
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield. Justin Timberlake
Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg creates the social networking site that would become known as Facebook, but is later sued by two brothers who claimed he stole their idea, and the cofounder who was later squeezed out of the business.
It should not have taken me as long as it did to see this movie. I love the work of David Finver and with how much work I do on the internet the story of facebook should have been something I needed to see. I suspect it was the fact that facebook’s history and Mark Zuckerberg didn’t seem like a David Fincher kind of project. I regret not seeing it earlier because the social network is one of the most enlightening films I’ve seen of late.
Before going on I want to be clear that I am discussing the social network the film by David Fincher; not the actual Mark Zuckerberg or his actions. I understand that the movie, like any film that claims to be based on actual events, is not totally accurate. I will have to take the word of other people on that as my knowledge about Mark Zuckerberg starts and ends with “he’s the guy that made facebook. Yes, he was involved in some legal disputes over facebook’s creation and it’s common sense that Mark Zuckerberg, or anyone involved in this film for that matter, is not exactly as they’re portrayed. If you want to know about the real history of facebook and those involved, wikipedia is a good place to start. It’s probably pointless to point out exactly what I’m discussing but consider this paragraph a disclaimer for the inevitable comment of “You’re wrong because in reality blah blah blah the movie doesn’t even touch on blah blah blah.”
The Virtue of Being an Asshole
The tagline for the social network was “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies” and it certainly lives up to using that as a theme. The film opens with Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) on a date with his girlfriend Erica (Rooney mara). Their final date, actually, as she breaks up with Mark because he’s kind of a jerk. No… not kind of. He IS. Erica tells him that he’ll be successful not because he’s intelligent and skilled with computers but because he is an asshole. That’s exactly what Zuckerberg does throughout the entire film. From writing a blog about his now ex-girlfriend inspiring him to create a site ranking campus females that brings down Harvard’s servers. This success brings him an invitation to create a prototype social network site for the more prestigious students that exploits the affluence of having a harvard.edu email address. Zuckerberg agrees to work on that project but then immediately creates “The Facebook.” The Facebook starts as a social network for Harvard which eventually spreads to other colleges before becoming facebook as we know it today. Zuckerberg goes from being an asshole undergrad at Harvard to being the youngest billionaire who is still an asshole but at least questioning the necessity of being an asshole.
the social network has a generally non-linear set-up as we go back and forth between two separate lawsuits Zuckerberg is facing and the history leading up to those civil actions. In other words we get to see Zuckerberg being an asshole while simultaneously seeing him face the consequences for those actions. Are those consequences necessarily bad though? He’s being sued by a former friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who helped found facebook and found himself being cut out of its success. Zuckerberg is also being sued by the group of prestigious students who feel they’re entitled to some of facebook’s success because Zuckerberg stole their idea. Certainly one could see these as being the results of what happens when you steal the intellectual property of others or tey to force former friends out of what they helped create. That’s not what I took from the film, however. These are not the consequences of Zuckerberg’s actions, they are the cost of success.
The film shows how Zuckerberg conceived facebook from hacking harvard’s own in-house social network as well as drawing inspiration from being invited to make a “Harvard Only” version of friendster and myspace. At the lawsuit for this he states “If you had created facebook you would have created facebook.” Zuckerberg doesn’t say he stole it but rather he took the idea that others did not have the ability to act upon, he improved upon it and made it his own. Was that ethical? Ethics are a debate for another day. the point is Zuckerberg was successful, he earned billions from improving someone else’s idea. Yes, he ended up paying $65 million for that “theft” but as a young lawyer points out to him at the film’s conclusion, he should just pay that settlement because he’s already won the larger prize. $65 million is not much money when you consider facebook’s considerable assets. To succeed you’re going to have to be an asshole to get to the top and it’s only then that you can finally afford not to be an asshole anymore.
Friends Are Bad Business
Zuckerberg founds facebook with a friend and business major, Eduardo Saverin. At first they share the same goal. Saverin puts up the money and then Zuckerberg creates this cool new social network with it. Eventually their business ideals begin to grow in different directions. Zuckerberg wants to maintain this cool new social thing, let the public determine what it is, while Saverin feels it should be immediately monetized with advertising. Their difference in opinion strains their friendship which only becomes worse when Sean Parker (played excellently by Justin Timberlake) enters the scene.
Sean Parker is well-known as the man who created Napster. Yes, it went bankrupt after a flurry of lawsuits from the RIAA and record companies but nobody can deny the impact it had on the recording industry and digital rights management. This is what Sean brings to the table, in addition to a stron love of the party lifestyle. It is Sean that drives a wedge between the friendship that started facebook.
Several times the personal lives of the characters and the relationships they have with each other are shown in more detail than one would expect from a film of this type. However, the way these people interact as friends often says a lot more than how they act as businessmen. As the film’s tagline says “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies,” and Zuckerberg makes enemies out of everyone he considered to be a friend. The amount of friends someone has on facebook says noting about that person’s character or their personality – it is a gauge of success and social status. Sean Young points out to both Saverin and Zuckerberg that that successful men have a picture of them catching a huge marlin instead of bagging several hundred trout. This analog is explained by showing that Zuckerberg wants the marlin while Saverin is content to avoid risk and accept the trout. Would facebook have been as successful under Saverin’s business ideals in comparison to the business ideals Zuckerberg picked up from Sean Parker? That’s hard to say for certain. The fact is, facebook is worth billions of dollars and in order to get there Zuckerberg had no choice but to cut his friend out. The fact that Eduardo and Mark were friends first creates the drama – leading to suspicion that Eduardo is cuto out of the company over personal, petty reasons instead of solely business needs. Would Eduardo have sued if he and Zuckerberg were simply business partners instead of friends?
The Cost of Ideals
The motivation of the characters is perhaps the most important thing about the social network. Eduardo and Zuckerberg have two very different reasons for creating facebook. Eduardo saw it as a profitable business venture while Zuckerberg sees it as something cool, something fun, something that assures him of social status. One scene that resonates with me the most is when Mark and Sean are at a club. Sean tells a parable about the man who created Victoria’s Secret – building a small company from nothing but an idea, finding success then selling it off for $4 million. Upon finding out that the company he created is now worth $500 million, the founder of Victoria’s Secret leaped off the Golden Gate Bridge. Sean brings this up as a parable, later citing the value of his advice to Mark by explaining “the water under the Golden Gate Bridge is very cold.” Sean also explains to Mark his reasons for creating Napster. It was not about money, it was about success and status, it was created out of spite over an ex-girlfriend. Sean’s not upset that Napster filed bankruptcy after all the lawsuits from record companies. he feels Napster’s ideal, to change how music is shared on the internet and how record companies and the like look at digital media was a success. he’s right about that, the DMCA spawned as an almost direct response to what Napster started.
This leads to a question that serves as the film’s strongest theme. Sean Young and Mark Zuckerberg are both revolutionaries. Napster failed financially but its effects are still felt today. Facebook changed the face of society forever – more than just the internet. Employers consult facebook as a primary way to find out about a person. Your actions and comments on facebook can end you up in jail. Facebook is responsible for recent laws regarding cyberbullying and harassment. Recently a statistic revealed that over one-third of divorces filed contain the word “facebook.” There is no doubt that if Zuckerberg’s goal was to change the world he succeeded regardless of any financial benefit. One can certainly argue whether society has improved or suffered as a result of facebook. Are people more or less connected today? Does the accountability for (or lack of accountability for) words and actions on facebook help or damage society? the social network does not ask these questions. Instead, the social network asks the viewer to question the value of their ideals and determine if it’s worth it to them.
In the social network the cost of these ideals were worth it to Mark Zuckerberg. He achieved the success he wanted, but at what cost? The film details how he sacrifices all of his friends, all kinds of human connection really, in pursuit of facebook. It’s a price not many of us would be willing to pay. Zuckerberg ends the film alone, sitting in an empty office and refreshing facebook, looking at the profile of his long lost girlfriend. The camera lingers on his loneliness for a long while as we’re told about how successful facebook is today and how Mark Zuckerburg is the world’s youngest billionaire. He’s all alone but look at all he accomplished.
What’s That Mean to Me?
One does not need to be achieving facebook levels of success in order to question the cost of their ideals. I’ve seen marriages, friendships and business relationships either blossom or burn based upon idealistic facebook posts or tweets of anything. Remember when the CEO of Chick-Fil-A made clear his opinion about gay marriage? There were consequences for that action through boycotts and controversy – the cost of pursuing that ideal. How many times have you heard of someone either losing or not even being considered for a job because of facebook posts or tweets – the consequences of pursuing those ideals. You want to make that public post about abortion or politics? You want to discuss your employer or the actions of a competitor publicly because “people NEED to know”? Do you want to to badmouth someone else in any sort of public forum? You go ahead and pursue that ideal but you need to know if paying the cost of those ideals is something you can afford. Cam you afford to lose your job or lose your friends over the need to post something on facebook? Are your ideals worth that? Can you afford a business where you employ friends that can be liabilities? Is that something you are willing to pay to pursue that ideal?
That is why I enjoyed the social network and why I found it to be so enlightening. It’s not a movie about facebook – that’s just the background; facebook is but set dressing in the social network. This excellent movie with terrific performances from all is simply about a man who chose to pursue his ideals, regardless of the cost. the social network is not entirely based upon fact nor does it presume to be. The film tells a story and delivers a message. It makes me wish that Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake would get more profound acting work because they’re both quite talented but that’s besides the point. I like entertaining movies, which the social network most certainly is, but beyond the pure entertainment it’s a rare treat to find a movie that makes you raise questions and aks “what does this mean to me?” The technical aspects of the social network are all in fine form but asking me to question the cost of my ideals is what turns the social network from a good film into a fucking great one.