Movies

‘The Social Network’ At 10: Looking Back At A Founder’s Mystique Gone Awry, And The Creation Of A Monster

The Social Network, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher, winner of best adapted screenplay, editing, and score at the 2011 Oscars, turns 10 years old on October 1st. 10 years seems short in film years, but a lifetime in social media years. If movies haven’t changed much in that time, Facebook certainly has.

It’s impossible to separate The Social Network from the social media milieu it depicts, and in which it was created, a story about a group of inventors that is fundamentally tied to our shifting view of what they invented. In 2010, Facebook wasn’t that far removed from its founding (in 2003), and its mission statement hadn’t evolved all that much. It was still, in the view of the general public, a place where one shared pictures and relationship statuses, posted thoughts and chatted, doing more or less what the site had originally intended: making and maintaining connections, lubricating the social networking process.

Watching The Social Network‘s most memorable trailer now, the one with the Scala & Kolacny Brothers women’s choir singing Radiohead’s “Creep,” which (arguably kickstarted the craze for trailers set to slowed-down dramatic covers) it’s striking how much it looks like a contemporary ad for Facebook:

Punk. Genius. Prophet. Traitor. Billionaire.

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Zuckerberg, Snoop Dog, and Sean Parker in 2011

Inasmuch as The Social Network promised a lurid exposé of Facebook’s “asshole” founder (quoting Rooney Mara in the movie’s first scene), everything about the film’s initial marketing seemed geared towards convincing us that everyone was really cool. Just listen to the initial marketing:

David Fincher’s The Social Network is the stunning tale of a new breed of cultural insurgent: a punk genius who sparked a revolution and changed the face of human interaction for a generation, and perhaps forever. — Sony Pictures Entertainment

A revolutionary punk genius! Mark Zuckerberg! It’s hard to remember a time when the guy who frequently becomes a joke meme for his ghostly sunscreen, casual munching of dry toast, and pathological repetition of the word “smoked meats” could be considered a punk, a revolutionary, or maybe even a genius.

I’d love to lay the sexification of Mark Zuckerberg (everyone’s favorite alabaster AI bot) at the feet of Aaron Sorkin, whose chief skill even long before The Social Network had been his ability to write catchy screeds into the mouths of prickly nerds. For my money, I love a good dumbass whisperer, like Richard Linklater or Nicholas Pileggi or the writers of The Sopranos, capable of cobbling together smart, hilarious dialogue out of interactions between people who really aren’t that smart. Sorkin does the essentially the opposite, a kind of competence porn where characters much smarter and more articulate than us converse in ways we wish we could, like extended, stylized staircase wit. Sorkin isn’t the only one who writes this way (Good Will Hunting might be the apotheosis of the genre) and while his style is easily parodied (ahem) it’s hard to deny that he’s very good at it (even if his characters are all kind of assholey in a way that you eventually come to think of as autobiographical).

More than likely though, this juiced-up, sexified conception of Mark Zuckerberg most belongs to Ben Mezrich, the author who wrote The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal, the book on which The Social Network was based. Written in Truman Capote, novelized non-fiction style (which is to say, supposedly based on exhaustive research, but unsourced and written like narrative fiction), it too was full of imagined scenes and imagined dialogue representing supposedly true events, seeming thoroughly sensationalized. Sample prose: “Time was only another tool of the establishment to Mark.”

Some of the most Sorkin-y-seeming scenes from the movie actually came directly from the book. Like Eduardo Savarin (Andrew Garfield, in the movie) contemplating why Harvard Jews like himself were always dating Asian girls. Even the scene in The Social Network where Eduardo and Mark hook up with Asian girls in adjoining stalls comes directly from the book. Specifically, this passage:

Eduardo’s heart slammed in his chest as he careened into the bathroom stall, his Italian leather shoes skidding against the tiled linoleum floor. The tall, slender Asian girl was straddling him, her long bare legs wrapped around his waist, her skirt riding upward, her lithe body arching as he pressed her back against the stall. His hands roamed under her open white shirt, tracing the soft material of her red bra, his fingers lingering over her perky, round breasts, touching the silky texture of her perfect caramel skin. She gasped, her lips closing against the side of his neck, her tongue leaping out, tasting him. His entire body started to quiver, and he rocked forward, pushing her harder against the stall, feeling her writhe into him.

You think Mezrich got all that detail from his research? Also, how was the floor both tiled and linoleum?

All of which is to say that, inasmuch as The Social Network seems like typically slick mythmaking from Aaron Sorkin, it’s actually a kind of Russian nesting doll of bullshit, with Sorkin turning Mezrich’s horny prose into his signature overlapping dialogue.

The book was the product of an author who was himself a Harvard grad, who seemed to specialize in stories of brainy, corner-cutting precocious success stories, always from Ivy League schools. In addition to Accidental Billionaires, Mezrich also wrote Bringing Down the House, about card counting math whizzes, which was adapted into two movies, 21 (starring Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth), and The Last Casino. Later he wrote Ugly Americans, about Ivy Leaguers who arbitraged Japanese index futures, and the more or less self-explanatory Rigged: The True Story of an Ivy League Kid Who Changed the World of Oil, from Wall Street to Dubai.

The aughts had us convinced that snot-nosed Ivy League overachievers — who were suddenly being positioned as clever punks and plucky underdogs — were soon going to rule the world. And that this might even be a good thing, or at least, a cooler thing. What both The Social Network and Mezrich’s entire oeuvre as a writer reveal is the general public’s appetite for the mystique of the founder in the aughts — some punk rock supergenius who never slept and only thought about his invention, with barely time for earthly pleasures like clothing, sleep, or food. The Zuckerberg of Mezrich/Sorkin/Fincher’s creation only wore hoodies and sandals, and stayed in coding while his peers were out partying, and generally contributed to the outsider aura we associated with brilliant people back then.

Some of the bloom was probably already off the rose by the mid-20 teens, even before Elizabeth Holmes — with her Steve Jobs turtleneck, green juices, and canned anecdotes of self-mythology — and the Theranos saga exposed the founder’s mystique for the con it was. It makes sense that 2010, two years post-financial crisis, would belatedly give us the high-water mark of hip disruptor tales.

A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.


Sony

The Facebook founders, who are all about my age — I still remember a drunk friend shouting “find us on Facebook!” at a group of girls in 2004, so novel was Facebook’s existence at the time — came up in those heady days of the aughts, when money seemed to be everywhere, just there for the taking. All the players in The Social Network are in some way trying to get a piece. The already-rich Winklevoss twins and their associate, Divya Narendra, still just college seniors, were trying to muscle into the online dating sector with their proposed project, Harvard Connection (later ConnectU). Zuckerberg, who strung them along for a bit before coming up with the idea for Facebook, got the seed capital for his site from Eduardo Savarin, who had recently made a six-figure profit betting oil futures. And how did he make “$300,000 in a summer,” according to The Social Network? “He likes meteorology. You can read the weather, you can predict the price of heating oil.”

Making money was just that easy! All you had to do was be a shrewd overachiever from a prestigious college (or maybe learn how to flip houses or sling mortgages, as seen in The Big Short). These kinds of stories may help explain why my entire generation is drowning in student loan debt. Who cared how much we borrowed to attend prestigious colleges? We were all going to be rich!

From Connection Engine To Outrage Machine

As even The Social Network itself notes, Facebook wasn’t entirely a novel idea. “The difference between what we’re talking about and MySpace or Friendster or any of those other social networking sites,” Tyler Winklevoss explains to Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, “is exclusivity,” Zuckerberg finishes his sentence, Sorkinly.

Exclusivity. You needed a Harvard email address to use Facebook (“girls want to get with guys who go to Harvard,” Divya says in the movie). And soon after, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, and eventually just about every college, and then basically anyone in the world. The Social Network depicts the feud between Facebook’s founders (Savarin and Zuckerberg) and between its pseudo-founders (The Winklevi and Narendra).

Savarin, as the book and movie tell it, wanted to start selling ads to recoup some of the server costs. Zuckerberg thought Facebook’s biggest asset was the fact that it was cool, which having ads would ruin. It’s striking that The Social Network never attempted to grapple with what was already happening by the time it was released: it was no longer exclusive. By the film’s own logic, that meant it was no longer cool. They had to set it in the past for full effect, with all the groupie sex and equations drawn on windows still seemed fresh.

Ten years later, Facebook being enormously uncool is self-evident, having transformed from a place where friends share pictures and write on each other’s walls to a tool for weaponizing disinformation, where unhinged conspiracy theories warp the brains of susceptible Boomers. Did it get this way because it stopped being exclusive, or because it started selling ads?

Facebook seems to have become infected by the same impulse that has warped cable news, the weird incentives and impulses that make it more profitable to make us hate each other than to help us connect. The Social Network is crystal clear about the initial driving motivation behind Facebook: sex. It was designed by college boys who wanted to get laid. Even as it depicts Mark Zuckerberg as more or less a bitter incel, whose initial, embryonic incarnation of Facebook, Facemash, was a site for rating hotness (and occasionally comparing women to farm animals), the tool-for-trying-to-hook-up version of Facebook seems innocent and preferable to the perpetual outrage machine we have now. Would that people were only using Facebook to get laid these days.

You Can’t Get To 500 Million Friends Without Making A Few Enemies

Originally there was some irony to the plot of The Social Network, paradoxical that the creation of a site dedicated to making friends and connections had been so beset with acrimony and betrayal. Time has stripped away that irony. It now makes perfect sense that a group of shark-eyed businessmen who sued each other the minute they smelled a nickel would’ve founded a site where people go to share misleading stories about how terrible people are. Antifa! Poison vaccines! George Soros!

If there’s anything notable about the difference between The Social Network in 2010 and The Social Network in 2020, it’s that the founders seems to matter so much less to the story. The players in the story at the time seemed like they’d be household names, and other than Zuckerberg, they simply aren’t. Eduardo Savarin renounced his US citizenship and moved to Singapore in 2012 (reportedly avoiding $700 million in taxes). The Winklevi invested heavily in Bitcoin and show up in the news every now and then in crypto-related stories. Chris Hughes (Patrick Mapel in the film, who gets the least screen time of the first four Facebook employees) ran The New Republic for a few years and last year wrote an op-ed in the New York Times calling for Facebook to be broken up. Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake in the movie, the guy who dropped the “The” and said a million dollars wasn’t cool) said in a 2017 interview that Facebook “literally changes your relationship with society, with each other. It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

We seem to care much less about Facebook’s individual founders in 2020 because we realize that Facebook (even with Zuckerberg still maintaining majority ownership and control), like so much of the internet, social media, and e-commerce as a whole, has grown into a monster beyond our control. The question has become not “who made this” but “how can we kill it?”

The Social Network stands as the high-water mark of a certain kind of mindset, a time capsule from a time when we took tech companies’ marketing materials and self-mythologizing more or less at face value, and thought of billionaires as cool punk revolutionaries who helped us connect with each other, rather than amoral profiteers benefitting from the destruction of society’s social fabric. If anything, it makes me nostalgic for the days when the internet didn’t seem like a mistake.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his retrospectives here.

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