What Makes an Asshole?: Thoughts on The Social Network

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. TC mark

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  • Stellar

    Like the part about how innovation is a mash up

  • Naomi X

    The film is great, I think, because of this weird tension — it can't figure out if social media is alienating or liberating. And it's almost like it makes both arguments at the same time. Which probably has to do with Jesse Eisenberg's unbelievable performance, unlikable and totally engaging.

  • ian

    If the new world isn't based on hierarchy, that means it doesn't (or soon won't) matter who your friends are, right? Like, there's no such thing as belonging to the right networks, right?

    • Daniel Coffeen

      Just because there's no hierarchy doesn't mean there's no differentiation in networks. There are always differences — some networks offer better money, better drugs, better sex, better ideas. We know this from our own lives: our network with those friends always brings great food but it is a little boring; that network brings a lot of fun but is exhausting; etc

  • Naomi X

    Hey. I've been thinking about how you describe Eduardo and I think you're not quite right. Zucckerberg is an asshole to him. Not for giving him less stock but for how he did it. He should have, could have, just said: “Ed, we need a new CFO and so we're going to give you x% instead of 30%.” Wasn't Eduardo a key part from the beginning? Didn't he give things up to work on the company — even if his approach was misguided (ads)?

  • Jenx

    I have not yet seen the film and so I can only post about your interpretation of it. You seem quick to establish a dichotomy between “old” and “new” social orders and to reach the conclusion that social networking spells an end to social hierarchy based on ownership. However, you also identify “exclusivity” as the common goal of both Winkelvoss and Zuckerberg. How is exclusivity different from hierarchy, when presumably everyone is seeking to be a member of the most exclusive group? Especially when Zuckerberg becomes a billionaire through his creation it seems to suggest that property is still the core of this “new social order.” Do you really believe that subjective experience is enough to convince some small town guy with a high school diploma that his social network has as much exclusivity as a group of Ivy League educated businessmen? Do you think this small town guy truly believes his social network will allow him access to the tastiest dinners, the newest technology, the swankiest vacation spots? Furthermore, do you believe that the businessmen would ever even allow him into their social network? What you seem to be describing is the old boy network, which is most certainly not new or revolutionary. Should that small town guy be happy with his social network it is in large part because he ignores the very obvious social hierarchy in place and chooses to make do with what he has.

    • Daniel Coffeen

      Hmn. I'm not sure I totally understand your point but here goes my reply.

      FB's exclusivity — I only let these people see my photos, and not these other — seems like a distinctly different kind than the Winkelvosses which is based on inherited social capital and propriety. One exclusivity is immanent to a network; the other, to a hierarchy.

      And, yes, capital remains a common feature to both environments. But the terms of that capital are quite different; they speak to two different modes of capitalism (although both are capitalism of course). The new economy that Zuckerberg is part of, and a catalyst for, is the small town guy eating at the best restaurants and partying like a rock star. That's the whole point.

      It is not the old boy network at all. VCs are investing money in 21 year old nerdy coders. That's one of the key points of the film — this upheaval of the old good old boy network by the likes of a small town programmer.

      Is there still exclusivity based on money? Of course. But access to that money, and the power it wields, has most obviously changed.

      Not sure if I addressed your point or not.

  • http://twitter.com/rislynsey christopher lynsey

    Great article

  • Daniel Coffeen

    A last comment: this essay is not really about the film per se as it is about what the film's about. Structurally, I think the movie is quite interesting in how it proffers multiple perspectives at the same time. It's sort of like Rashomon but with the different view points intertwined.

    Which is to say, I suppose, that the frames function like networks, are networks.

  • Matt

    More good stuff from DFeen… nicely done.

    One of the pieces of McLuhan, Fiore and Agel's handbook to which I am particularly affected (without the girl in the dress, Buckley, and layout it ain't nearly as good, but whatever):

    When information is brushed against information… the results are startling and effective. The perennial quest for involvement, fill-in, takes many forms. The stars are so big, the Earth is so small, Stay as you are.

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