The Social Network

by MBKuhl

The Social Network is prickly.  And brooding.  How something manages both prickliness and brooding, moodiness and wit, is a bit of a marvel.  It’s also a marvel given the tone, which is a sort of dull elegiac or a subdued panic.  The plot is fairly simple: Mark Zuckerberg (who in the film seems to little resemble the actual Zuckerberg, except inasmuch as they’re both pricks), encouraged partly by slouchy  loneliness, partly by the excitement of building things and mostly by other people’s ideas, creates a multi-billion dollar company.  Some people have quibbled over the accuracy of the story the movie tells, but I don’t get any impression that the movie’s account of history intends any uniqueness, much less uniqueness to the particular facts of the history of Facebook’s creation.  Sure, these are actual people, but only so much as they make the story relevant to the actual people watching.

Beginning with a half-drunken night at Harvard and ending with a very sobering afternoon in Silicon valley a few years later, the movie jumps back and forth in time between the actual creation of the website, and company, and the legal discoveries brought on by those cut out of the deal.  The whole process is a little, as my mother said after watching it, like watching the creation of a sausage. The focus isn’t as much on the details of the coding involved in the site’s construction or the mechanics of assembling capital and infrastructure for a leviathan-like business, but on the relationships between those involved.  Those logistics (the math, the contracts), however, become symbolic: the first algorithm Zuckerberg uses for Facebook’s earliest iteration is taken from his friend, who writes it out on the window of Zuckerberg’s dorm room when demanded, kind of rudely and for nothing in return.

It’s an uneven exchange, based on vaguely false pretenses.  Someone is sort of used, but used sort of willingly (there is the tacit, unspoken promise of something exciting being created in partnership).  This dynamic reverberates throughout: an idea, an algorithm, a conversation are turned from potential into actual motion without any clear articulation of who gets credit for them.  This sort of thing happens regularly all over the place, especially with entitled, white early 20-somethings.  The difference here of course is that billions of dollars are at stake, and everyone knows it.

If I follow the tone and perspective rightly, there aren’t unequivocal goods and evils. That is what is most unsettling about the movie: a kind of energetic apathy excites everyone.  This is a group of what must be the most empowered hapless people in film history.  The losers, the ones cut out of the project despite originating the idea, get 65 million dollars.  The co-founder, more mercilessly cut out, gets presumably much more.  Naturally, the question becomes, what is really lost?

Maybe even more pressing, what is really gained?  The project they orbit around and come to inhabit is a sort of productivity divorced from production.  They create a thing that, like mobil phones, no one knew they needed until it was there, and now can’t seem to live without.  Initially, at least, Facebook itself doesn’t do anything per se (it merely reflects things that have been done, or comments on them).  As such it becomes a fitting collective incarnation of the film’s characters, each of whom have to take from other people to make anything, and frankly look better in small moments, in a few select photographs, a few edited witticisms.  We always edited ourselves, but Facebook lets us do it entirely-this looks like an overwhelmingly appealing (and then necessary) feature for everyone in the movie, if not for an entire generation.

Despite all the high drama, however, The Social Network has no catharsis, no climax.  The anxiety, excitement and wit don’t waver much.  Heady argument is absent.  You are left, like one of the characters, a hapless witness to a slowly growing unease.  It’s a lingering unease too, especially if you check your Facebook after the movie.