A Second Look at “The Social Network”
June 12, 2011 § 1 Comment
The Social Network is a masterpiece—but its brilliance lies not only in its realistic portrayal of the “internet generation,” which Joseph Donovan notes in his review, but also in its profound critique of this generation. The structure of the film is that of a biopic, chronicling Mark Zuckerberg as he creates the social networking site, Facebook. Donovan is right that the film contrasts the new, “internet generation,” represented by Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker, with the old school generation, represented by Eduardo Saverin and the Winklevoss twins. However, this contrast does not privilege the new generation over the old, but rather points out the problematic aspects of the new generation.
Understanding Zuckerberg’s character in the film is essential to understanding the film’s portrayal and critique of Generation Y because Zuckerberg functions as a microcosm of that generation. In the opening scene, Zuckerberg and his girlfriend, Erica Albright, are having a conversation (or more accurately, she attempts to have a conversation with him), but he repeatedly fails to genuinely listen to her. This dialogue, or lack thereof, is the first indication that Zuckerberg lacks the ability to communicate with other people. Afterwards, Albright (not surprisingly) breaks up with him. The reason Albright breaks up with him is not really “because he is obsessed with Harvard final clubs,” as Donovan claims, but because he is rude, disrespectful, and contemptuous, all of which can be seen in the first scene of the movie. Zuckerberg responds by slandering her on his internet blog. In one of the later scenes of the film, Zuckerberg approaches Albright, but it does not even occur to him to apologize. Saverin, watching them from afar, assumes that Zuckerberg apologizes. When Zuckerberg returns, Saverin tells him, “Hey that was great. That was the right thing to do. You apologized, right?” The difference between the two men can be clearly seen in this scene, which characterizes Saverin as having a sense of respect and manners that Zuckerberg sadly lacks. Throughout the film, Zuckerberg wants to be popular and cool, but he does not realize that his rude and impersonal behavior towards others prevents him from being included in social circles. He thinks as Albright tells him, that people don’t like him because he is a nerd, but it’s actually because he’s a jerk. Unfortunately, throughout the film, he tragically lacks the insight to acknowledge this truth. As a result, he doesn’t focus on changing his disparaging attitude towards others, but rather on trying to be “cool.”
Later on, when Zuckerberg and Saverin are at a business meeting for Facebook, Zuckerberg’s rude behavior towards the prospective business partner costs them the business deal. Saverin, by contrast, shows excellent interpersonal and communication skills in that scene and throughout the film. It is deeply ironic that in the movie, the founder of Facebook, a social networking website that is supposed to be a channel for communication, is unable to communicate well with others. This irony is one of many which indicates that despite its progress in communication technology, the internet generation, like Zuckerberg, has regressed in its ability to communicate with others.
The other characters who represent Generation Y, such as Sean Parker and Tina (Saverin’s girlfriend) are like Zuckerberg in their lack of substantial, wholesome relationships with others. The scene that introduces Parker, in other words, the first impression the film provides of him, shows him as waking up after a one-night stand with a student from Stanford University. They start asking each other basic “get to know you” questions, a temporal irony soon to be followed by another ironic moment. She holds it against him that he slept with her without knowing her name—but she does not even know that he does not go to the same school as her. Through this irony, the film points out that they are both at fault, or as the old adage goes, it takes two to tango. Then Parker, in response to the girl’s comment that he does not know her name, shows her that he actually knows basic facts about her, but that’s all they are, facts. He doesn’t really know her.
Similarly, when Saverin and Zuckerberg go out for drinks with two fellow Harvard students, they hook up with them. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend is at the same restaurant, having a conversation with her friends. The film contrasts mature, grounded Albright enjoying a night of good conversation and fostering true friendships with others, with the superficial sexual activity that Saverin and Zuckerberg engage in. This contrast points out the vacuity of the internet generation’s interpersonal behavior. But more significantly in terms of its artistic value, the film makes this critique without deviating from its narrative trajectory and without diluting its realism because these one-night stands and hook-ups are a part of the college culture where Facebook is born. As Zuckerberg says, referring to his vision of Facebook, “I’m talking about taking the entire social experience of college and putting it online.”By using a setting that naturally lends itself to this kind of subject matter, the Social Network conveys a thematic message that organically grows out of the story itself— and that is one of the film’s strokes of brilliance.
The Social Network also has an incredible unity, another stroke of brilliance. The previously mentioned hook up and one night stands scenes are paralleled by the Harvard fraternity parties (known as final clubs), where everyone is getting drunk and hooking up. In one of those scenes, there are guys rating women based on how hot they are. One of the women at the party walks by, pauses, and says in an offended tone, “That’s my roommate.” Through comments such as these, the film shows that the guys’ actions are denigrating to women. Similarly, Zuckerberg at one points compares women to farm animals and Albright reprimands him for it later on. In this way, the film does not simply portray the reality of what’s happening in these party scenes, but also makes a critical comment of it, giving the audience insight into the significance of these actions.
The Winklevoss twins, like Saverin, provide a telling contrast for Zuckerberg. Unlike Zuckerberg, who does not have much human connections, the twins have a strong fraternal relationship, despite their differences and conflicts. Their deferential attitude towards the Harvard University president, despite his lack of amiability, shows their respectful, kind character in contrast to Zuckerberg’s rudeness. It is also worthy to note how they spend a majority of their time—they row crew, a team sport. The Winklevosses show that they are a part of a team both off and on the field when they meet Prince Albert at a social reunion after a race and offer to introduce their teammates to him. Zuckerberg, on the other hand, is not a team player. In the film, he betrays his business partners, the Winklevosses by stealing the idea for Facebook from them, and moreover, he betrays his best and only friend, Saverin.
Donovan, in his review, misinterprets Saverin as a “tragic figure” of “success in the old system, a young person that did not catch on to the rebellion of his generation, and tried to climb the ladder of life through traditional means of business.” Since Saverin represents the “old” generation, to misinterpret him is also to misunderstand how the film portrays this generation. It is true that Saverin succeeds through traditional means, but the film at no point portrays Saverin as a “tragic figure” for doing so. On the contrary, the film actually portrays Saverin as one of the most admirable, redeemable characters in the film precisely because he possesses the qualities of the “old” generation, such as the ability to communicate with others and most importantly, to be a good friend. The same cannot be said of Zuckerberg, who knowingly allows Saverin to enter into a business deal where his shares are eventually diluted to less than 1% and takes him off the masthead of the website, which originally cites him as co-founder. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg enters into a business partnership with Parker, who is part of the cool, internet generation. Later on in the film, Parker throws a party where drugs are being dealt to minors and the police finds out, he puts the image of the company at risk. By contrast, Saverin is conscious about the law on several occasions in the film, generous, and a loyal friend of Zuckerberg, standing by him when no one else did.
By the end of the film, Zuckerberg is “successful” in the new system; he catches onto his internet generation and galvanizes it, becoming the youngest billionaire in the world. But he has lost Albright, his girlfriend, and Saverin, his only friend. Zuckerberg may have 500 million (Facebook) friends, as the tagline of the film points out, but he has no friends in real life. Zuckerberg may feel superior to those of the “old” generation, which is especially shown in his attitude toward the prosecution lawyer in the legal settlement scenes, but the movie suggests that he is not. The Social Network indicates that despite his intellectual superiority to his peers and to the “old” generation, he is far behind them when it comes to knowing how to treat other people and how to have relationships with others. In other words, he is deficient in what matters most.
In the last scene of the film, Marilyn, one of the assistants in the legal settlement Zuckerberg is in as a result of stealing the idea for Facebook, makes a comment that contradicts Albright’s comment in the opening scene. Marilyn tells him that he is not really a jerk; he is just trying so hard to be one. At first, it was puzzling to understand why this comment was put in the film (perhaps the filmmakers were afraid of being sued by Zuckerberg and wanted to end on a positive note?) because it is at odds with the consistent portrayal of Zuckerberg as a jerk throughout the entire film. Nevertheless, it does not actually present a challenge to the previous characterization of Zuckerberg. First of all, Marilyn herself even says that she assumes that emotional testimonies in these legal settlements are 85% exaggeration. Moreover, there was not only emotional testimony at the settlement, but also evidence and when weighed against Marilyn’s comment, the evidence proves her judgment to be erroneous. However, Marilyn’s comment, albeit mostly inaccurate, points to something true about Zuckerberg. The final scene, which is a conversation between Zuckerberg and Marilyn that includes the said comment, suggests that Zuckerberg is not completely bad. In this scene, Zuckerberg notices that Marilyn hasn’t had much to eat, saying with genuine concern, “All you had all day was that salad. Do you want to get something to eat?” As they are talking, he says, “Farm animals. I was drunk and angry and stupid,” referring to when he compared women to farm animals on his blog. Through this comment, the film indicates that Zuckerberg finally has some remorse and realizes that what he did was wrong. Such instances in the film suggest that Zuckerberg has some potential to grow, or perhaps, that by the end of the film, he has already done so.
Ultimately, the Social Network raises important questions about technology and challenges viewers to question how they use technology. It does not imply that having a Facebook profile de facto makes someone superficial nor that everyone should go deactivate their Facebook accounts after watching the film. Albright is portrayed as using technology and has a Facebook yet she is one of the most substantial characters in the film. Instead, the film challenges viewers to ask themselves, how do we use Facebook and technology in general? Do we use it a la mode Sean Parker, who says “We lived in farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet,” foregoing real life? Or do we spend most of our time living real life, like Albright?
-by Shirley Anghel