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What is the social network?

Published: October 15, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.


The Social Network, if you haven’t already heard (or seen for yourself), is a real ripper of a film. Between sharp performances, a Rice Krispy script (it snap-crackle-and-pops!), and the kind of visual electricity we have come to expect from David Fincher, the whole thing is just filthy—in the good way. It could make your mom feel 20 again and probably look it too.

This article is not a review, but an analysis, so I don’t need to ruin it for you, which I assume I am not really doing by telling you the essential thing: it’s about Facebook.

It is a well-made film that has received well-deserved acclaim and awards-buzz. The Social Network is one of those rare films that seems to have tapped a vein in the public consciousness – and a very juicy one at that. No matter what you may hear from the tumultuous chorus of commentators, the sheer size of their numbers is telling. Something about it has struck a chord. Whatever it is, it prompted Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers to write—tweet, actually—that “it’s the movie of the year that also brilliantly defines the decade.”

This might seem surprising. How can a movie about facebook be decade-defining in a decade that has seen 9/11, a global recession and Barack Obama?! My friend Shea Riester, writing for Brandeis’ other newspaper, opened his review of The Social Network by asking, “How can a movie about Facebook possibly be any good?” He goes on, “I assumed the film would be as emotionally vacuous as Facebook itself because, after all, that’s what it’s about, right? Wrong. The film isn’t really about Facebook at all; it’s about people.”

With every bit of respect to Shea, I am here to side with Peter Travers. The Social Network is, for better and for worse, decade-defining. Era-defining. Not only that, but to dismiss Facebook wholesale is rather misguided.

The Social Network is not just “about people”, in the way Shea means. The whole story ultimately boils down to people and the tools they create and use; it is a story of how humans cooperate, conflict, and give rise to new things. But the movie does more at the level of “big issues” than it really does with the narrative-level human drama. True that the true-story legal saga is very compelling at a narrative level. You also have an examination of Zuckerberg himself, the larger-than-life genius with such an interesting psychology.

It resembles a creation myth. Loosely based on true events, interweaving many threads, taking subjective liberties in a partially self-aware way—when push comes to shove it is silly to get caught up on the literal or specifics. In The Social Network, we are treated to the status of witnesses in the birth of something very big, with Great Relevance all the way back to the very small. This big thing, Facebook, stands for something bigger still, technology in society, all of which wraps upon itself back to square one at Human Nature.

Yes, human nature. In a movie about Facebook. Yes. Fulfilling its end of the art-life-art bargain, Hollywood has at last digested and regurgitated its comprehension of an enormous socio-techno-cultural phenomenon, in the most spectacular fashion since The Matrix.

What is The Social Network? It is not a website, its not a movie, it is a paradigm. It is, more specifically, a manifestation of two important phenomena in the Information Age: evolution and interconnection.

Let’s start with evolution, and the story of The Social Network. It relates the true-life sage of lawsuits against Mark Zuckerberg for intellectual property infringement, by fellow Harvard students who claimed he stole their idea with Facebook.

Now, as we are all too familiar, this website isn’t very complicated. You make a profile, connect to other users, communicate, share things and possibly use some random applications in the meantime. These are the features. What is the point?

Successful inventions, fundamentally, do not invade us, their hosts, us, nor do they totally replace or create something anew. They only actualize what is already there. This is true not only of modern technology but of all tools, ever. Doorknobs fit our hands. Shoes protect our feet. Flight fulfills a most ancient fantasy, and a crucial practical need as well.

Why are we so addicted to Facebook? We aren’t. We are addicted to the social sphere. Who invented Facebook? No one. Facebook invented itself. Mark Zuckerberg made functional an idea that had been growing for a long time. It was the fact of human social interaction, the need to know what is “up” with your peers, to communicate and share, to feel connected, that evolved and became what it has become. It is still in progress; it always will be. “It’s never finished,” Mark’s screen-depiction states. “Just like fashion.”

In the entire film, only Zuckerberg and one other character really understand this. It is he and fellow techno-visionary, the Napster inventor Sean Parker who add so much fuel to the story’s crazy fire. They echo each other poetically: “The Facebook is cool. That’s what it’s got going for it.” “You don’t even know what the thing is yet. How big it can get, how far it can go.”

Facebook, like any other great invention, “jacks in” to the innate needs and capacities of the human mind in order to achieve widespread adoption. Telephones enabled our speech. Guns enabled our violence. Language enables our thinking. This is a creation story, and we are the creators.

This is a second stage in evolution, in which selection is no longer “natural” but human. Our tools reveal us. And cyclically, as we understand ourselves better we are able to improve our tools. Scientists recently constructed a model of long-term memory access based on the Google search algorithm, which itself was inspired by a theorized conception of human intelligence. This is the incredible process happening around us. Everything we do and use has literally evolved from within us.

The second notion is of interconnectedness. If there were space or time you could write a dissertation about it. Suffice it to say, the concept of a “social network”—the idea of a “network” at all—is at heart.

Mark Zuckerberg did not invent Facebook; he took it from the world of ideas and put it down. I did not write this article; I consolidated the ideas of many dozen authors, who themselves learned from thousands more. We are all repeating each other. It’s all a web, a mesh, a network. It is an entire constellation, you are a single star. It is “out there” but it is also right here. It’s on my desk. It’s in our house. It’s probably in your pocket.

Successful ideas are intuitive; the process is evolutionary. It is happening with exponentially increasing rapidity, like Murphy’s Law, as we become increasingly interconnected. We have made ourselves into a massive brain, each of us a node – see Matt Ridley’s talk on TED.com, “How Ideas Have Sex”.

What Mark did was to bring together old ideas into a singularly innovative implementation. His idea, social networking, is about the sharing of ideas. The same is the truth behind email, texting, Twitter and television: we as a society are a great big brain, each of us nodes. It is an entire constellation, you are a single star.

It is not only Facebook, but digital cameras, computer games, online banking, Wikipedia, the blogosphere, dashboard GPS, self-checkout, text messaging, and–my personal favorite–The Cloud (Google it). These are not just technologies or inventions but transformations. They have ushered themselves in with terrifying rapidity, with relatively little shock and awe, precisely because they integrate with existing social fabric. The most prevalent technologies are not intrinsically new realities; they are extensions of ourselves.

Critics might still respond that digital worlds encourage fake-ness and dilute the real thing. Trent Reznor, who wrote the music for The Social Network, calls it a problem of “abundance and cheapness”. It is all too easy to make a “friend” on facebook, and all too easy to show them an “avatar” of yourself as you’d like to be portrayed. It is harder to forge real relationships. It is harder to find an authentic self. Second Life, dating sites, online forums, webinars; where do you draw the line between innovation and inanity?

These are the challenges we face in the new world. One website I stumbled across raised the possibility of “social networking education.” The etiquette of the playground is no longer enough. We need hard lessons learned on the digital turf. The next generation must know how to wield these tools responsibly and appropriately in noble quests.

In The Social Network, we have two characters trying to convey the enormity of their vision. With help from the writing, the direction, the acting, it totally sweeps you up to their giddy heights. We root for them, in spite of the kind of dreadful feeling that something is amiss, and it isn’t intellectual property.

The characters celebrate when they reach a million users. Well, they should know: A million isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion. Five years later, it’s already halfway there – hypothetically the third largest country in the world. Whatever the “thing” is, it is “cool”, and it is very big, and it seems to be really beyond our control.

We are the network. We create our world. The tools are a robotic arm; we still flex the hand.