Weekly meditations from your humble messenger

With Friends Like These
(The Social Network, 10/11/10)
By Nicholas Nicastro

Who cares about the origins of Facebook? Well, obviously the makers of The Social Network do, as do the moviegoers who made it the nation's #1 box office draw last week. One imagines other interested parties, such as the few hundred souls who make serious study of the history of the tech industry, and business journalists, and management students. But the vast majority of just plain folks are probably much like Bill Maher, who asked the other day, "What's next, Google, the Musical?"
      First, let's take the movie on its own terms. In recounting the Facebook origin myth, The Social Network is a rags-to-riches, pull-yerself-up-by-yer-bootstraps fable for the knowledge industry (which, in fact, pretty much all industries must be, now). Based in part on Ben Mezrich's unauthorized history The Accidental Billionaires, it tells the story of one Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), the Harvard undergrad who designed the basic features of the site and launched it from his dorm room in 2004. Though socially inept, Zuckerberg reads the zeitgeist as well as he writes code: what he calls "The Facebook" almost immediately goes viral, prompting a long and ugly legal battle over ownership of the idea.
      Opposing Zuckerberg in separate lawsuits are his first business partner Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), and a pair of identical twins by the preppily appropriate name of Winklevoss (Armie Hammer and Jon Pence). What happens comes largely from the imagination of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, A Few Good Men), since all the real principles in the dispute signed non-disclosure agreements and could have no role in recounting the story. As history, Network is not just debatable. It's undiscussable.
      To make compelling what is essentially a dreary, he said/they said legal case, Sorkin and director David Fincher aim to make their movie a kind of latter-day Citizen Kane, casting Zuckerberg as the brilliant but flawed genius who creates a business empire at the prompting of its own painful insecurity. Indeed, like Kane, Network crackles along with considerable verbal wit, if not the visual genius of Orson Welles. But instead of muttering "Rosebud" on his deathbed, the Kane of our time ends up brooding in front of his computer, waiting for the lost object of his desire to "friend" him on his own website.
      The question still stands: who cares? Notwithstanding 500 million users and $25 billion in corporate valuation—all abstractions, really—what's at stake in the battle between Zuckerberg and his rivals? The chance that one the warring parties might end up with a few million bucks more in settlement money than the others? The possibility that an unlikeable schmuck like Zuckerberg will die friendless in his entrepreneurial palace, Wii remote still in his hand? True, it is nice that Network undermines the durable myth of the lone genius, transforming the world just with sweat and a good idea. But we all knew that was bullshit already—right? Sitting through two hours of dueling legal hearings, one can't help thinking that watching a good documentary on the effect of Facebook on our real-life sociality—an eruption of addictive but trivial pseudo-intimacy—would be a better use of one's time than this.
      So, by all means: come ye business majors, tech historians, and habitual readers of the gadget column in The New York Times. The Social Network is for you. For the rest of us, the stakes are just too low.

Contact Nicholas Nicastro at his Facebook author's page, Books by Nicholas Nicastro.

©2010 Nicholas Nicastro

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