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In 2010, The Social Network was searing — now it looks quaint

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‘Creation myths need a devil’

the social network

Does It Hold Up is a chance to re-experience childhood-favorite books, movies, TV shows, video games, and other cultural phenomenon, decades after release. Have they gotten better like a fine wine, or are we drinking cork?

When David Fincher’s Oscar-winning movie The Social Network hit screens in 2010, Facebook had 500 million users and a valuation of $25 billion — facts which appear on the film’s closing slides, along with the information that Mark Zuckerberg had recently been minted as the world’s youngest billionaire.

As of the end of last year, the company’s own statistics claim it has 1.86 billion active users. It’s valued at around $400 billion. While that seven-year growth is staggering, what’s actually uncanny is how markedly the way we discuss Facebook has changed since 2010. When Vanity Fair put Mark Zuckerberg at the top of its annual list of 100 worldwide influencers that year (affectionately named “The New Establishment”), the publication apparently struggled to justify the choice. Zuckerberg’s accomplishments, as listed: “Facebook runs more banner advertisements than any other website” and “[Facebook] drives more US visitor traffic to some sites than even Google.” In other words, to the average reader: “You know, technical stuff.”

But today, Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg are publicly more than the technical stuff that turned the former into one of the world’s most powerful companies, and the latter into one of its wealthiest citizens. The company employs 17,000 people in 15 countries, boasts nearly a third of the world’s population as users of its service, and has invested heavily in a buzzy, controversial project to make the internet (and Facebook) accessible to everyone in the world. And Zuckerberg is the fresh-faced poster boy for tech optimism and flashy philanthropy. He’s left the door open for a side-career in politics, and lately, he’s been playing with a notion of himself as the steward of the internet’s soul.

With that in mind, I revisited Fincher’s Facebook film (written by Aaron Sorkin, whose script won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar). The Social Network was and still is one of the sharpest movies I’ve ever seen — it’s the rare example where Sorkin’s reflex for writing witty, whiny men with outsized intellect and poorly disguised narcissism serves as an advantage instead of a handicap. It’s paced with the precision of a metronome, it’s shot and edited like a daylight-hours horror movie, it’s a more seductive scene portrait than Almost Famous or Annie Hall, and it has at least four career-high cast performances (Andrew Garfield, the quietly Oscar-snubbed!).

But watching The Social Network in 2017 is also weird, disorienting, gag-inducing, and full of unintentional laughs. It’s only seven years old, but it feels like a relic, a naïve movie with quaint, softball critiques of Mark Zuckerberg and his creation.

Film critics at the time seemed to be betting that The Social Network would serve as a major historical document. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers credited it as the film that would forever “define the dark irony of the past decade.” Jim Emerson’s review at RogerEbert.com started with 300 words from Erving Goffman’s landmark 1959 essay “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.” The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis called it a “resonant contemporary story about the new power elite,” and linked out, on that line, to a summary of C. Wright Mills’ 1956 book about bureaucratic authority figures. It’s not really clear what Emerson or Dargis were saying, other than they believed Zuckerberg would be pretty powerful, and that the moment seemed portentous enough to warrant tying their reviews to classics of contemporary sociology. It’s a handy, comforting way of trying to slot Zuckerberg into power structures that had already been studied, rather than acknowledging the fact that upending those (and replacing them with sweeter-faced but insidious new power structures) was the DNA-level goal of what he was building.

the social network

Last month, Mark Zuckerberg published a 6,000-word manifesto about Facebook and its place in the world. What it seemed to concede — amid lots of platitudes about community, family, the world stage, and some probably well-meant but ultimately vague promises about reducing misinformation and making more sophisticated content filters — was that Facebook has more or less inadvertently become one of the world’s most influential institutions, one run by unelected, extremely rich people who have spent several years denying the responsibility their power gives them. Facebook is more than a social media network — it’s also where 44 percent of Americans get the majority of their news. And the world as seen through Facebook looks completely different to different users, depending on what personal information they’ve historically fed the site’s algorithm.

This winter, journalists entertained the idea that Mark Zuckerberg might be thinking of running for political office, even as he wriggled around accusations that Facebook’s fake news problem influenced the 2016 presidential election. Zuckerberg has always tried to walk an awkward line between touting online connection (of which his product is the paragon) as the greatest achievement of the new century, and shirking culpability for anything negative that might result from it.

That’s been harder than ever for him this year, following the election of Donald Trump and a renewed panic over the role of online political discourse. Just about everyone who read Zuckerberg’s new Facebook treatise labeled it as chilling — a manifesto declaring that a technology platform is aiming to perform dozens of tasks that would usually be considered the purview of governments. But there wasn’t much public discussion about the most nauseating factor: Zuckerberg took on this role of digital emperor of the world… accidentally. Watching The Social Network, with Jesse Eisenberg portraying him as a bitter child in flip-flops, underlines how nightmarish it is that a person could just wander into this role.

In 2010, quotes from the 2004 history that The Social Network portrays were already supposed to be funny. They took their humor from the dramatic irony inherent in how quickly the life of the internet was moving along. There’s Justin Timberlake’s famous line as Sean Parker: “You know what’s cooler than a million dollars? A billion dollars.” By 2010, audiences knew a billion dollars was cooler than a million dollars, though they didn’t know that in a matter of years, a billion dollars would sound like nearly nothing. There’s also what is supposed to be a very impressive, seductive moment when Parker woos Zuckerberg with fancy cocktails and beautiful women, telling him, “They’re scared of me, pal, and they’re going to be scared of you.” He doesn’t specify who “they” are, but his words call up an idea that was en vogue in 2004 — the point of “disruption” being to piss people off, take names, and charge full steam ahead, without care for any of the un-fun consequences. It inadvertently dates 2010 as well before Silicon Valley’s very recent anti-bro backlash, the delayed side effect of a hyper-masculine culture of “break stuff, change the status quo, who cares what happens next as long as it’s different.”

the social network

A few lines from the film feel particularly hilarious seven years later. For one: “We don’t know what it is yet, we just know that it’s cool.” Facebook... cool?

More jarringly: “You know Peter Thiel? No reason you should, he just runs a $2 billion hedge fund called Clarium Capital.” In 2010, Americans generally didn't know who Peter Thiel was, a fact acknowledged in the script with Parker lecturing early Facebook CFO Eduardo Saverin. Now Thiel is an open wound for Facebook. He remains on the board even after he buried a successful, popular news outlet over a personal vendetta, and even as he serves as an enthusiastic mouthpiece for various nightmarish political philosophies. His cinematically secretive data-analytics company Palantir is poised to help Donald Trump make good on several of his most extreme campaign promises regarding immigration.

You wouldn’t have to explain who Thiel is in a script today, though you also probably wouldn’t make a movie about Facebook, one of the most expansive, influential institutions in the world. You would just as soon try to write a narrative script about the entire US government, or every tendril of the Catholic Church.

When Sorkin was writing the screenplay — based on courtroom depositions, a handful of anonymous interviews, and Ben Mezrich’s concurrently written book The Accidental Billionaireshe said what interested him wasn’t Facebook the company. “The invention itself is as modern as it gets, but the story is as old as storytelling; the themes of friendship, loyalty, jealousy, class, and power.” In his conception of the Mark Zuckerberg story, the worst thing a Silicon Valley power player could do was cheat friends out of mutually attained fortunes, or write mean blog posts. (“You called me a bitch on the internet, Mark. The internet.”)

Rashida Jones plays the spectator in The Social Network, a kind law school student sitting in on one of Zuckerberg’s depositions. She tells him at the end that he’s “not an asshole,” and reprimands him for “trying so hard to be.” That’s supposed to bookend the break-up line he was dished by Rooney Mara’s character in the opening scene: “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.” Though viewers have barely seen anything of Zuckerberg in the first minutes of the movie when that biting criticism feels true, he’s pulled terrible things by the time Jones’ character acquits him. But the scope of what he’s built is offered as a way to offset his hateful attitude and shady behavior, so you’re encouraged to forgive him. Jones’ character shakes off everything she’s heard about him in the course of the lawsuit, noting, “Creation myths need a devil.”

the social network

Film critics made the understandable mistake of identifying Zuckerberg as powerful in only an antiquated sense of the term, but Sorkin made the worse one of letting him off the hook as a kid who’d been hurt. (All this supports the argument that, as Zuckerberg wished, we shouldn’t have made a film about him while he was still alive.) The Social Network is still a useful, enjoyable memento, but it’s clearly written with very little appreciation of its own stakes, and a lot of reverence for the brilliance of its central figure. In 2010, it may have read as a searing portrait of the moment when, as Dargis said in her review, Zuckerberg turned “his life — and ours — into a series of zeroes and ones” But it only took that idea as far as a lonely dinner or a dark room.

Now, that closing scene — Eisenberg hanging back in a conference room after his deposition, sending a Facebook friend request to his ex-girlfriend, then endlessly refreshing his page to see if she’s responded, feels hollow. Not only that, it feels stupid. Whether Mark Zuckerberg is an asshole in the small-scale interpersonal sense belabored over in the movie doesn’t really matter — you could call him an asshole for a bunch of grander reasons, like assuming rich people are broadly benevolent enough to replace government safety nets, or calling it “crazy” to remove Peter Thiel from Facebook’s board, and calling it “pretty crazy” to ask whether fake news on Facebook helped Trump win. Zuckerberg isn’t a villain because he treated some people badly when he was 20 years old. If anything, he's a villain because he’s one of the most powerful people alive, and nobody asked him to be.