The Social Network shows us the struggle between what Marshall McLuhan calls the old environment — a hierarchical social order based on property — and the new environment, one based on the every which way network. The very structure of the film — legal depositions — brings this to the fore. The old environment is suing the new environment for intellectual property theft. But, in the new environment, what does such a thing even mean?
Social media is an endlessly evolving set of ideas and functions. It is, and will remain, a perpetual mash up. Ideas in this new world are networks, are networked. The Winklevoss’ mashed up MySpace, Friendster, and Match. So Zuckerberg does the same thing. The lawsuit is the site of collision between old world propriety and new world network.
The Winkelvoss’ idea is built on the old model of hierarchy and property: chicks, they say, want to date Harvard guys. Zuckerberg takes their idea of exclusivity but applies it to the network: it’s not property and social hierarchy that determines exclusivity. It’s the user’s own sense of a network, his or her friends (in every sense of that word). Their two ideas could not be farther apart.
The film, meanwhile, occupies this very strange position, as much a symptom of this battle between hierarchy and network as it is an argument about it. The dramatic arc of the film is built around what appears to be an irony: the guy incapable of friendship builds the most successful social networking site built on “friends.” Indeed, there is an undercurrent of critique of social media, that it is alienating, that the friendships are false, that all those Facebook “friends” are built on the misanthropy of one man.
But from whose perspective is this ironic? The world of online friends and the world of flesh friends are two different worlds that overlap in multiple, complex ways. The word “friend” may be common to both but everyone knows that the definition is different in the two worlds, that words — like the new social body — are networks with multiple meanings.
And whoever said that being socially successful made you reflective of the social? Zuckerberg — Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg — is socially insecure, aggressive, defensive, awkward. But this doesn’t mean he’s not in a position to understand social dynamics. On the contrary, it seems that it is precisely his alienation that allows him to grasp the nuance of social politics in a way the more successful in the social body — the Winklevoss brothers — fail to grasp.
Now, there is a refrain that runs through Fincher’s film, a refrain echoed in the reviews of the film, that Mark Zuckerberg is an asshole. While Zuckerberg may, in fact, be an asshole, the behavior in the film that’s supposed to make him an asshole is not worthy of that title.
Sure, he’s socially awkward, arrogant, at once shy and aggressive, at times cruel. To his girlfriend, yes, he’s an asshole.
But to his so-called friend, Eduardo? Perhaps in real life but in the terms established within the film, Eduardo is the asshole who contributes almost nothing to the site that would become Facebook. A few thousand dollars? Sure, important and worth something — around .03%, which is exactly what he gets. He’s a lousy businessman who, beyond a small angel investment, does nothing except potential harm to the company. He should have been tossed from the company — and he was.
Is Zuckerberg an asshole to the lawyers during the deposition? No. The process is insane and predicated on antiquated laws. He was persecuted by jealous, resentful ingrates and so he’s pissed off and shows it. This, alas, does not make a man an asshole.
Is he an asshole to the would-be founders of Harvard Connect? Not for one second. Steal their idea? Huh? Mashing up ideas from existing businesses is the nature of invention in interweb innovation. Weren’t they stealing from MySpace, from Friendster, from Match?
How about his relationship with Sean Parker? Justin Timberlake’s Parker understands the best of business — party, enjoy, and work hard. Parker, as depicted in this film, is a refreshing voice in the corporate world.
No, Zuckerberg is not an asshole. He just upset the social order and the old school came looking for what it thinks is rightfully its. But it’s not theirs, anymore. The social network of the digital realm has turned the social network of the real world on its head. A weak, overly articulate Jew who likes to code can have 500 million friends and 24 billion dollars.
The film’s claim to irony — an asshole who invented “friends” — is simply the last gasp of the old environment as it struggles for survival.