The Antisocial Network

The Social Network is not really a film about Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg.

If you were hoping for a roman à clef along the lines of Primary Colors, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Whatever truth there is inside this movie is buried deep in layers of hyperbole, spin and ego; it’s spelled out quite nicely by a character named Marylin Delpy (played by Rashida Jones) near the end, when she says depositions are mostly exaggeration or perjury. Given that the whole movie is essentially told at two depositions, by people with major bones to pick against Zuckerberg, it’s basically spelled out that whatever happens in the movie need not reflect whatever actually happened.

You gotta this video out, brah, I'm telling you this kid HE TOTALLY LIKES TURTLES ITS INSANE BRAH here lemmie type in the url

But this is not a bad thing. The Social Network is interesting, never dull and that clouded testimony only helps the overall story: since it’s cobbled together from self-serving characters and probably not true (I believe the official line is something like “they only got my fashion sense right”) I found the five W’s seemed less important than first expected. By movie’s end, I didn’t really care who invented the website, I cared about what it ws like to be at it’s heart upon creation.

That’s what makes Social Network so riveting: it’s about something more than social networks. It’s about success, what happens when a good idea explodes and rises up and you can hardly keep track of what’s happening and suddenly your friends aren’t really friends anymore and strange people start handing you drinks and smile, saying “Trust me”. Unlike some of the other movies this year – Inception comes to mind – it resonates, even if it doesn’t overwhelm. Zuckerberg sticks with you: what drives him? How was it that somebody so antisocial, somebody who only seems to understand interaction in analytical, third-person kind of way, was able to helm something which ties people together unlike anything before it?

The Social Network spends a pretty large chunk of time painting Mark Zuckerberg as a loner and nerd. He’s played like somebody with an Autism-sprectrum disorder, who has a tendency to tune out society and daydream; at one point in the movie, Zuckerberg tells a lawyer he has less than 10 per cent of his attention. It’s conflicting sometimes. He’s able to function enough to get into Harvard, to make friends and even to convince a girl to go to a bar with him. But he also seems to not understand how people interact: after a girl rejects him, he drinks then rips her on his Livejournal but never apologizes and he seems mystified by her anger – the final shot in the movie is him is him adding her as a facebook friend and sitting, refreshing, waiting for her to accept his friend request. Throughout the entire movie, it’s like he doesn’t get why people are mad at him. Wouldn’t they have done the same in his position?

Indeed, he doesn’t really seem to have friends in the sense you or I would: his relationship with Saverin is one-sided, alternately petty (especially after Saverin gets into a fraternity) and demanding of Saverin’s connections and money.  But this isn’t to say Zuckerberg comes off as manuipulative: he himself is easily manipulated: Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake) basically leads him around on a string for most of the second half of the movie, getting him to do his dirty work for him, while Parker can party off Facebook’s capital.

Is Zuckerberg a bad guy? He’s unlikeable, yet he doesn’t seem especially bad. He’s not a manipulative genius who gets rich of other people’s labour (after all, he seems to do the bulk of Facebook’s coding). He makes some shitty moves, but in the end he comes off like a robot who knows a dictionary definition of friendship, but doesn’t really get what a friend is.* To him, is a friend somebody who isn’t actively suing him? Somebody willing to extend any kind of connection? Somebody who accepts his friend request? The movie never really resolves this, but it offers some insight into Zuckerberg’s mind; remember, he still tried to defend Saverin to his lawyers, even as Saverin was suing him.

However, Saverin wasn’t the only person suing him; he was also taken to court by three people – the Winklevoss twins and Divya Narendra – who hired him to develop The Harvard Connection, a kind of proto-Facebook. The relationship between these two parties  reminded me of another software movie I saw years ago: Pirates of Silicon Valley.

That movie was about the duel rise of Apple and Microsoft, the connections between them and – like Social Network – what happens when you get famous and rich fast, in this case how quickly Apple rose and how Microsoft tagged along after them, essentially ripping off Apple’s Operating System in creating Windows. I remember a key scene where Steve Jobs (ER’s Dr. Carter) confronted Bill Gates (one-time SNL cast member Anthony Michael Hall) for stealing his code and Gates said something to the effect how Apple stole Xerox’s OS first, so why get mad when somebody rips him off. The implication there isn’t that Microsoft stole anything that Apple owned, but that  a larger company – Xerox – had a great idea they didn’t know what to do with and the first company that really did was going to take the spoils; Apple was able to, but only for their line of computers. Microsoft, thanks to their omnipresent DOS, was able to spread theirs out a lot further into the mainstream.

In a way, Social Network recreates this scene: as the Winklevoss twins fume about how their idea for an exclusive internet club was ripped off by Zuckerberg’s Facebook and take him to court, Zuckerberg retorts with a ‘If you came up with Facebook, why didn’t you create it?” To me, it seemed less a question about creation than intent; Friendster and MySpace were around well before Facebook launched and offered more or less the same thing: a way to interact with friends online. Hell, internet forums and Usenet have been doing it for years longer than Facebook has. What made it different?

In his memoir of advertising, Phil Dusenberry says an insight is worth a thousand ideas. He should know – he was a former creative director of ad giant BBDO. You get a good idea, it can work out for you. A good insight will launch a thousand ideas. Facebook’s key difference was the idea the Winklevoss’ had: exclusivity to Harvard. But while they had a great idea, but they weren’t interested in taking it outside their realm – their intent was to create something for their social circle. Zuckerberg and his original partner Eduardo Saverin’s mixed it up with a deep insight: any post-secondary student would like the exclusivity, not just Harvard alumni.

I’m also reminded of another book: David Kushner’s Masters of Doom, which charts the rise and fall of id software. Like Facebook, there was a huge cast of personalities at id but the core of the company was essentially John Carmack and John Romero, two programmers whose personalities couldn’t have been more different. Romero fancied himself as something of a rock star: he had a taste for fast cars, loud music and wearing his hair long. Carmack was the opposite: he once said his ideal vacation would be sitting alone on a desert island where he could code in peace (he also keeps his hair short and trimmed).

So, you're saying hoodies aren't appropriate for a courtroom, even if I wear a dress shirt under them? What if the hoodie is zipped up all the way? I see.

They remind me quite a bit of the latter part of the Social Network, when the company was wildly expanding, worth gobs of liquid dough and was largely driven by two personalties: Sean Parker and Zuckerberg.Parker was the star, the guy who liked to have a good time with clients (and women) and brought personality to the company. Zuckerberg’s the detail-oriented guy who obesses over the nuts and bolts.

Of the two, Parker is the more interesting character. He’s smart, knows how to work a room and it stuffed with braggadocio. But he’s also a small man in some other ways. He liked to talk a big game about how he changed music, and is all about giving it to the man but avoids conflict, instead letting his partners and lawyers deal with people. When confronted, he flattens like a leaf in the pages of a closing book. When he’s finally confronted by an irate Saverin, he flinches – from somebody smaller, weaker than him, as his own security looks on. He’s prior success with Napster’s left him paranoid and greedy. It’s not hard to get the impression that Timberlake’s Parker was somebody who hopped along for Facebook’s rise to the top. But this isn’t to say he simply tagged on. He saw the potential for the site’s growth (I’m pretty sure he was the first to suggest it go international). He was able to get big money pumped into the site.

For the site to become as wildly successful as it became, it needed needed both; Parker’s schmoozing was good for investors and made good PR while Zuckerberg was changing and adapting the site itself (he seemed most excited in the movie when he comes up with the wall). The way each fed off the other drove the company: Parker needed Zuckerberg’s ideas and programming to keep the company moving forward, Zuckerberg liked to be around somebody as exciting as Parker and the money he could raise didn’t hurt, either.

Ultimately, both sides couldn’t co-exist in the long-term, as they brought out the worst in the other: Zuckerberg withdrew inward, cutting himself off from his old partners, while Parker’s paranoia and party-first lifestyle caught up with him. And that’s what I really absorbed from this movie. Not anything about Facebook – this movie plays fast and loose with facts, I’m sure, if it plays with them at all – but about getting rich and powerful and what that does to you and more importantly, what it does to the people who surround you.


2 Responses to “The Antisocial Network”

  1. March 6, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    FYI the girl he adds to Facebook and constantly refreshes over at the end of the movie is Erica Albright – the girl that dumped him in the opening scene.

    • March 7, 2011 at 12:17 am

      Thanks, got that fixed up.

      You know, in a way that’s even sadder. This girl dumped him, has rebuffed him at every turn and it’s like he still doesn’t get that, let alone why she’s mad at him. And to think, the guy at the helm of a huge social network doesn’t really have social skills. Definitely a thought provoking film.

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