Sunday, October 3, 2010

At the Movies: (Surfing) The Social Network

When I first heard about the movie The Social Network, I was interested. I hadn't known that a Harvard undergrad was the mastermind behind Facebook, or that he hatched the whole thing while I myself was in college. I wanted to know what kind of person this guy was, and why he was motivated to create such a Web site. Which is a little curious in and of itself seeing as I'm not the biggest Facebook fan (despite the fact that I'm on it). So, this afternoon, my mother, sister, and I went to see The Social Network. The theater was packed with people of all ages, which surprised me (somehow I expected to see mainly twentysomethings).

I should begin by saying that the entire story is told as a fragmented flashback. That is, in the beginning we find out that Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is being sued by his best friend and a couple of big man on campus types for creating Facebook. The back story begins with Mark and his girlfriend hanging out in a classically dark and depressing looking college town bar. Mark is telling his girlfriend how badly he wants to be accepted into the Phoenix or the Porcellian, two exclusive intellectual Harvard social clubs. He drones on incessantly in a voice not unlike a robot's, ignoring his girlfriend's attempts to guide his monologue into a conversation. The scene clearly establishes Mark as an intellectually superior but socially inept computer nerd who seems to have no feelings (as opposed to the more common stock character of the sensitive, lovable nerd). Predictably, his girlfriend dumps him, and he retreats to his room to get drunk and spill his post-breakup vitriol into his blog. Spurred further by alcohol and bitterness, he goes on to hack into Harvard's server data to create an online game in which guys can rate girls' hotness factors (a pursuit slightly less demeaning than comparing girls to farm animals, which was the game he initially devised). The Web site is a huge success, gaining unheard of hits overnight. The next day Mark is approached by a pair of trust fund case twins (the aforesaid big men on campus) who want him to develop their pet project, an unsophisticated social networking Web site called Harvard Connect. Mark agrees, then avoids them for the next month or so to develop his own Web site: The Facebook (an endeavor which does not involve using Harvard Connect code). The brainchild is Mark's, but the start-up money and financial savvy belong to his best (and only) friend, Eduardo. The way Mark sees it, people are even more interested in finding out stuff about people they know than they are in finding out stuff about celebrities. More particularly, guys want to know if certain girls have boyfriends without having to make fools of themselves, and The Facebook facilitates garnering such information. Apparently, Mark's one of those geniuses who knows how to capitalize on what people want despite being the world's worst people person. Meanwhile, Eduardo has been invited to pledge the hallowed Phoenix club, a fact that exacerbates Mark's sour grapes, causing him to quip, "You'll never get in." (In this, Mark turns out to be wrong.)

What happens next is kind of anticlimactic. As The Facebook (the "the" isn't dropped until later) gains popularity, Mark and Eduardo begin to argue about the direction of the project. Eduardo wants to host ads to generate revenue, but Mark doesn't, reasoning that doing so too soon would compromise the integrity of the site. Then Napster creator Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake - who else?) gets involved, and things begin to escalate before the inevitable plummet. Interestingly, Mark isn't in Facebook to make money. He's more invested in hosting a party that everyone wants to go to, with certain hopefuls being "shut out" via rejected friend requests (similar to the way in which he was shut out from those exclusive clubs, although he never puts this into words). To be sure, Sean agrees that launching ads before it's time is like throwing the coolest party of the year and then sending everyone home at 11:00. In one of the movie's most compelling lines, Mark says to Eduardo, "You want to shut the party down!" (Just for the record, I think the most compelling line is uttered by Eduardo as he heads out to the Facebook offices by Mark's invitation. It went something like this: "I didn't know if I'd been invited to the meeting or the party, so I dressed for both." Random, I know, but it seemed markedly funny to me in a deadpan way set against the movie's otherwise humorless backdrop.)

As a thinker and fellow creative type, I respected Mark's vision and his commitment to his project. He'd dreamed up something big, and in his own weird way, he was true to it. But he wasn't a very nice guy, and on more human grounds I didn't like him at all. Not the way he trashed his ex-girlfriend online or the way he took $19K of his best friend's money for start-up fees and then cheated him out of his shares (on the very night when poor hapless Eduardo was wondering if he'd been invited to California to crunch numbers or party down). Movies in which you can't root for the main character are always difficult to enjoy, and The Social Network was no exception. It was informative and engaging in an academic sort of way. But it was in no way the kind of stirring human drama I'd anticipated. I'd been ready for Internet-bred social upheaval (in "You wrote what about me on Facebook?!" fashion) and a classic little guy against big, bad corporate (or in this case, academic) America tale. What I got was a dry documentary headlined by a misanthrope in a hoodie.


T.V and Book Addict said...

Yikes, that's unfortunate. It sounded like an interesting story from a financial point of view, but overall not my kind of movie. I'm glad to know it's just what I thought it would be.

The Tote Trove said...

Yeah, I think deep down I had a feeling it wouldn't be my cup of tea either. I was really surprised to hear that it did so well this weekend and got such good reviews. But then again, it may just be that people are all caught up in the hot button Facebook angle and want to check it out. Maybe as the weeks go on its popularity will fade.