Citizen Zuckerberg

by maxmosher


For some reason there was a lot of hostility towards ‘The Social Network’, the movie about facebook inventor Mark Zuckerberg. I had at least two friends who balked at the overly dramatic trailer and declared “Won’t be seeing that!” Maybe it was because we felt like Hollywood was piggy-backing on a Gen-Y phenomenon, or that we couldn’t find exciting the story of an invention, like the telephone, which we use every day, take for granted and somewhat resent for its intrusion into our lives. The ubiquitous of facebook is what makes the history worth telling.

The film has not only received mostly positive reviews, but was quickly compared to ‘Citizen Kane’, a mixed blessing as the comparison immediately invites the kind of ‘who do you think you are’ derision that appeared after Obama was compared to Kennedy. But it’s not cinematic innovation that ‘The Social Network’ is linked with Orson Welles’s 1941 classic, but rather plot elements and themes. Both films are about outsiders who achieve riches and power by creating media empires (for Kane, it was newspapers) with a brilliant sense of timing. Although both men are helped by understanding the darker sides of human nature (Kane knows that people want to read about scandals, Zuckerberg, that people want to post about them) neither man is very good at friendship and the second half of both films focus on the alienating nature of success. ‘The Social Network’ even features its own “rosebud” ending!

Another wave of hostility hit the movie from another direction when people complained about screenwriter Aaron Sorkin playing around with the facts. As far as I can tell, the main criticism of the guys who are actually portrayed in the film is that none of it was that dramatic. The complaints would presumably been much worse if the movie was boring, which it definitely is not. While the movie makes a big deal of nerdy Zuckerberg wanting to impress girls and exclusive campus clubs, he claimed in an interview that these were never inspirations for creating, as it was called then, ‘The Facebook’. Truth be told, these ‘Great Gatsby’-esque motivations are a bit dusty and unbelievable: what would a computer genius, whose earlier computer program was coveted by Microsoft when he was 18 years old, care about fraternities?

Not as though there’s not still fun to be had at fraternities’ expense: the testosterone-y named Armie Hammer is perfectly cast as twin brothers Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, WASP princes who would go on to be Olympic rowers. The special effects are flawless (we’re a long way from Lisa Kudrow talking to herself in splitscreen on ‘Friends’), and with his Zack Morris-good looks and deep, aristocratic voice, Hammer proves a perfect foil.

A foil without a hero, though, as the movie doesn’t know what to make of Zuckerberg himself. “Every creation story needs a devil,” Rashida Jones, as one of his lawyers, tells him near the end, and she could be speaking of the film itself. With too many nasty stories to ignore, the movie still tries to justify Zuckerberg’s actions and at times, despite his screwing over his friends and horrendous way with women, you do feel sorry for the guy.

Some have said the movie is sexist, and it’s hard to argue it isn’t. Partly it comes from the unavoidable fact that the facebook team were all male, but that doesn’t excuse the portrayal of girlfriends as angry and irrational. The movie sets up some disheartening female archetypes, all seen through the eyes of men: brunettes are smart but complicated (like Zuckerberg’s first girlfriend, who speaks “in code”); Asian girls, slutty but crazy (one almost burns down an apartment). Blondes are ideal but aloof, like the first female facebook employee we ever see, strutting away in a tight mini skirt.

Actually, the whole movie is filled with archetypes, from anti-social computer geeks (who, ironically, invent social networking sites) to pompous varsity jocks.

I’m sounding really critical. Thing is, I enjoyed it and think everyone our age should see it, as there is much to discuss about one of the defining experiences of our generation.

Which leads me to my final critique: the movie spends so much time on the micro-dramas that the macro-story of how every university student (and eventually, 1 in 14 people in the world) ended up putting all their information on the internet. The facebook-ization of the population is seen mostly in off-hand comments (a girlfriend of a founder demands to know why he hasn’t changed his relationship status from ‘single’ yet). Perhaps the film makers thought, given that we experienced in first hand, audiences didn’t need to be caught up on how and why facebook spread from the dorm to the preschool to the old folks home. But years from now, either when social networking has disappeared or when it’s become so commonplace that no one even notices it, audiences will need to know why this ‘creation story’ is important at all.

Here’s one of infinite reasons: afterwards, my friend Jacob and I went for a pitcher of Strongbo at the pub in the Flatirons building. Every time facebook came up indirectly in the conversation (“I got a message from…”, “I found out on facebook that…”) I’d say “Cheers, Mark Zuckerberg!” and raise my glass. I did it over and over again.

The story is important, despite the inaccuracies, despite the sexism, because it changed the world.

And now I’m going to post this and link it on facebook.