The Social Network is nothing new, but that’s kind of the point. Its structure creates a story of uniquely American ingenuity, individualism, and capital that we’ve seen often, one that follows beat-for-beat the formula of young, ambitious, humble beginnings to meteoric rise toward contested success to the people that really mattered being inevitably pushed out of the way. It is in The Social Network’s belonging to that subgenre which draws apt comparison to films like Citizen Kane, Sweet Smell of Success, or There Will Be Blood – not qualitative comparisons, mind you (the very title of Citizen Kane has become an inescapable and meaningless form of hyperbole in that regard), but comparable in terms of basic narrative structure and genre play.
Such narratives are perhaps more common in films depicting less legitimate business practices – gangster films – which also catalog the rise in stature but fall in character of an outcast who uses the system for their own advantage. From starry-eyed associations with questionable made men (Timberlake’s Sean Parker and the debaucheries of success associated with him) to the inevitable “hit” on one’s kin in the best interest of the business (Zuckerberg and Parker firing Eduardo Saverin), The Social Network is something of a Goodfellas for geeks. Why is it that the first major studio film about the phenomenon of social networking feels like such a familiar movie? Why does it resort to well-honed, expertly crafted but familiar cinematic territory instead of pioneering unexplored terrain analogous to the phenomenon of social networking itself?
The Same But Different
In screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s interview with Luke Mullen’s beard, Sorkin states that Facebook itself, which he admits not being too familiar with, was not his attraction to the material, but rather the timeless themes of friendship, loyalty, jealousy, and power set against a modern backdrop. Despite boundless praise from the critical community and mild box office success so far, and despite the fact that the filmmakers have been up front about not making “that kind of movie,” Sorkin and Fincher have garnered a great deal of criticism from the Internet community for making a film that is not “about” Facebook in the sense of how it has changed our means of communication and identity formation in the early years of the 21st century (for perhaps a more overt study on this aspect of social networking, Catfish is probably your best bet). Some wonder if it was “too soon” to even make a movie that would address such questions, speculating that we won’t truly understand the drastic tide-shifts of communicating in Web 2.0 for a while.
But perhaps chief amongst the genius moves of The Social Network is its cool head on the issue of social networking. Those who criticize the film for not actually being about social networking, and its writer and director for not being fully immersed in the world of the web before making this movie, forget one glaring contradiction: there is significance and meaning in the fact that both Sorkin and Fincher operate functionally, successfully, and relevantly in the world without these outlets. This is to suggest two things: 1) the rhetoric of the web 2.0 social networking “revolution” in communication is more hyperbolically optimistic or apocalyptically pessimistic than the realities of the current situation of human communication actually entails, leaving most dominating social structures virtually unscathed, at least until the young generation who grew up with this move into adulthood, and 2) the perspective of an outsider provides a great deal of insight.
The Inevitable Outsider
It is in this respect that familiarity works in the film’s favor, as The Social Network demythicizes the popular notion that this component of the Information Age has destroyed the classical gatekeepers of American business; the opposite could not be further from the case. The Harvard setting of The Social Network is essential to its point, for in it we see the highly regimented structures of class and merit that not only define the status of the insider, but provides access to status outside of the university that potentially goes all the way to the top. But the well-worn yet trustworthy linear route is not the only path to success at Harvard, rather it is also the outsider tradition of ingenuity, aggressive ambition, and serendipitous timing: the invention of a job rather than the seeking of status to acquire an existing one as articulated by President Larry Summers within the film itself.
Despite the implications of the label, ‘the outsider’ is as traditional a story of the American Dream myth as is the narrative of hard-work, opportunity, and achievement. As the Winklevoss/Zuckerberg deposition shows, who invented something has never been what’s important in American success, rather who did it better and who got there first. Zuckerberg didn’t invent social networking any more than Henry Ford invented the automobile or Hugh Hefner invented the adult magazine for men; he simply saw a way to improve it, harnessed a palpable need, and got there first. Here, Zuckerberg’s success is as precedented as it is unprecedented, as reliant upon the signifiers of success of years’ past (copyright ownership, incorporation, expansion, an appearance on Oprah) as it is a sign of ‘progress,’ for better or worse (the designation of ‘the youngest billionaire in the world,’ after all, has many implications for the future).
If It’s Been Said, It’s Been Said on Twitter
The mistake being made in the assumption that The Social Network has a responsibility to say something groundbreaking about social networking is a farce that assumes we don’t exist in the reality that social networking has enabled, where media is commented upon the instant it is made – a reality where the comparatively methodical and snail-paced process of filmmaking would have a difficult time finding anything revelatory to say on the subject when anybody with a twitter account (yes, this includes me) think of themselves an expert on new media and CNN is all-to-eager to tragically designate anything from Reddit to Chat Roulette as the “next big thing” in Internet communication, whatever that’s supposed to mean.
The Social Network decides to go about its insight differently, giving the inflated rhetoric of new media a much needed break and showing how success, even success through the Internet, is still defined by classical gatekeepers, and finally that Mark Zuckerberg’s story is one that is all too familiar and inevitable. No wonder the dorm-to-riches story makes Zuckerberg resemble iconic hero-villain pioneers like Charles Foster Kane and Daniel Plainview (or even, come to think of it, Don Draper): no matter the time period, it takes the same combination of ingenuity and arrogance, ambition and cold-heartedness, to succeed in America.
Battles Amongst Boy-Men
In the Slate Spoiler Special podcast reviewing the film, Dan Kois refers to The Social Network as a prolonged fight between “boy-men.” I would argue the contrary, that despite any scrawny stature or geek solidarity, in line with Fincher’s prolonged preoccupation with different types of masculinity these are 21st century men in the most direct sense. Throughout the film, Zuckerberg and his immediate cohort are contrasted with the cartoonish villains “Winklevai,” and it is their old school Ivy League masculinity that is the harbinger of their failure, rather than the will of Zuckerberg himself. Their preoccupation with physicality and athletic competition makes them outmoded and impotent in tackling true progress in social networking (exemplified by the race montage and the fact that they’re practicing – rather than doing web development – when they find out sleepless, class-skipping Mark has beaten them to the punch), and they’ve entered a world in which nerd isn’t only chic, but profitable. Physicality and classic handsomeness matter not in web 2.0 where avatars and anonymity form one’s identity.
Then, of course, there’s the much-discussed final scene, where we see how the examination of a Facebook profile replaces what might otherwise be the final reentry of an important minor character if this were a Hollywood film made several years ago, just as social networking itself has “replaced” “real” social interaction. Then again, the same has been said about almost all modern mediated forms of communication, from the telephone henceforth. But this doesn’t mean Facebook has changed the meaning of communication any less, as Mark the character is just as susceptible to the rules of exclusivity and inclusivity, connection and disconnection, the superficial forms of defining ‘friendship’ as any of his hundreds of millions of users, while being haunted by the anxiety of being simultaneously connected to everyone while in some ways not being connected at all, and subsumed by the dramatic irony of seeing everyone you know while sitting completely alone. Social networking here shrinks the world just as it potentially pushes people away, reverberating our main character’s life story.
This quiet closing scene perhaps illustrates best why The Social Network is not (at least, not until this point) ultimately a film about social networking. Unlike the exciting scenes of random Harvard students reacting to the prototypical Facemash earlier on in the film, in socialization with friends or laughing hysterically by oneself, this final image provides the more accurate face of social networking: expressionless and mute, removed from the power of Sorkin’s words and rendered by all means cinematically uninteresting.
Mark Zuckerberg’s communication revolution has arrived not with a bang, but with the banal click of a refresh button.