Sunday, October 3, 2010

The billions justify the means: 12 notes on Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook, and David Fincher's The Social Network

"It’s technology, not business or government, that’s the real driving force behind large-scale societal shifts.” ---Sean Parker

"To have ultimate victory, you must be ruthless."
---Napoleon Bonaparte

1) When Mark Zuckerberg launched theFacebook in 2004, he found his Archimedes' lever to change the world, and now we can contemplate the movie version of this momentous event: David Fincher's compelling The Social Network. Two basic ironies emerge from the film:

a) A shy, anti-social young man electronically seduces the world by appealing to everyone's social instincts.

b) Goaded on by sexual rejection and class resentment, Zuckerberg invents the ultimate club that establishes its own kind of exclusivity by allowing only members with the Harvard.edu address, but then he gradually lets everyone join. Like a bunch of lemmings, we do.

2) What's the appeal of Facebook? It makes everybody feel like they are the star of their own electronic magazine, the center of attention in their pool of "friends." Ironically, while we each feel like we're mastering that universe, The Social Network emphasizes we're all really being controlled by the master manipulator, the puppeteer Zuckerberg whose invention both fascinates us and control us. As David Kirkpatrick writes in his Vanity Fair article concerning Sean Parker, "500 million people now spend 700 billion minutes a month" on Facebook.

3) What are the problems with Facebook? If you want to opt out of the system, Facebook pleads with you to stay, plastering the screen with large pictures of your friends, and pointing out that they will miss you.
Facebook strives to be addictive, to claim your attention all of the time by obliging you to compete for other people's attention. The social network feeds on our desire to be noticed, turns us all into attention-whores, mini-celebrities seeking to extend the reach of our pool of friends.

4) So why does The Social Network work so well? In part because it appeals to the audience's greed, its feeling of being socially excluded, and its pleasure in watching a fast-talking young fellow connive and trick his way into becoming the tech Caesar and the youngest billionaire on the planet. He knows how to harness the power of writing addictive computer programs. Ultimately he doesn't need Harvard, and drops out during his sophomore year. By mixing up the scenes between Zuckerberg's early days in Harvard and later depositions in court, Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin tease the viewer with the quick transition from Zuckerberg's modest $1000 start-up to lawyers talking of millions of dollars of revenue. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg exhibits an increasingly arrogant dismissal of the proceedings. We wonder how this young kid can be so estranged from legal proceedings and then we realize that he can afford to be that way--the young kid is already a multi-millionaire.

5) In one of the deposition room scenes, Zuckerberg stares out of the window at the rain. The lawyer asks:

"Mr. Zuckerberg, do I have your full attention?"

"No."

"Do you think I deserve your full attention?"

" . . . You have part of my attention. You have the minimal amount."

In our new attention economy, Zuckerberg allocates control over what to concentrate on, and what not, as befits his increasing command over Facebook. And now David Fincher claims our attention with a movie about the man who holds our attention. Where will it end?

6) Fincher has also jokingly said that
The Social Network is the Citizen Kane of John Hughes films. While there is one key difference (Zuckerberg does not inherit massive wealth whereas Kane does
), the two films do share the stories of a close personal friend who is there at the outset of the tycoon's career (Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton) and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield)). In Citizen Kane, the night scene in which Charles comes up with his declaration of principles has a rough parallel in The Social Network when Eduardo visits with Mark in his Harvard dorm and writes an algorithm on his window. Both friends also attempt unsuccessfully to act as a conscience for their respective tycoons later. I wonder if Fincher and screenwriter Sorkin intentionally alluded to the classic film.

7) From Zuckerberg's e-mail correspondence back at Harvard:

ZUCK: yea so if you ever need info about anyone at harvard
ZUCK: just ask
ZUCK: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns
FRIEND: what!? how’d you manage that one?
ZUCK: people just submitted it
ZUCK: i don’t know why
ZUCK: they “trust me”
ZUCK: dumb fucks

8) From the Entertainment Weekly October 8 cover story concerning The Social Network:

"Asked about the movie's overall truthfulness, [Film producer Scott] Rudin offers a carefully worded reply: `You can't make untrue statements about someone without running the risk of getting sued. . . Look around and notice that nobody has sued us.'"

9) In case anyone felt inclined to get tired of Jesse Eisenberg's sulky mien, Justin Timberlake appears as Napster-internet-wunderkind Sean Parker and continually threatens to steal the movie. I liked the way Sean persuades Mark to hold back on advertising to keep Facebook "cool." Little wonder that The Social Network has received such an enthusiastic critical following. In his uber-successful way, Mark shares many of the new journalists' concerns: how to boost the number of page views? How to monetize? Moreover, how does one maintain a brand identity? Having turned down offers of billions of dollars for Facebook, Zuckerberg appears as much interested in control as in money. I still wonder how much his calculations include attempts to manipulate the Facebook user. As mentioned in the recent Jose Antonio Vargas profile in The New Yorker:

"Zuckerberg’s ultimate goal is to create, and dominate, a different kind of Internet. Google and other search engines may index the Web, but, he says, “most of the information that we care about is things that are in our heads, right? And that’s not out there to be indexed, right?” Zuckerberg was in middle school when Google launched, and he seems to have a deep desire to build something that moves beyond it. “It’s like hardwired into us in a deeper way: you really want to know what’s going on with the people around you,” he said.

In 2007, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would become a “platform,” meaning that outside developers could start creating applications that would run inside the site. It worked. The social-game company Zynga—the maker of FarmVille and Mafia Wars—is expected to earn more than five hundred million dollars this year, most of it generated from people playing on Facebook. In 2008, Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook Connect, allowing users to sign onto other Web sites, gaming systems, and mobile devices with their Facebook account, which serves as a digital passport of sorts. This past spring, Facebook introduced what Zuckerberg called the Open Graph. Users reading articles on CNN.com, for example, can see which articles their Facebook friends have read, shared, and liked. Eventually, the company hopes that users will read articles, visit restaurants, and watch movies based on what their Facebook friends have recommended, not, say, based on a page that Google’s algorithm sends them to. Zuckerberg imagines Facebook as, eventually, a layer underneath almost every electronic device. You’ll turn on your TV, and you’ll see that fourteen of your Facebook friends are watching “Entourage,” and that your parents taped “60 Minutes” for you. You’ll buy a brand-new phone, and you’ll just enter your credentials. All your friends—and perhaps directions to all the places you and they have visited recently—will be right there."


I wonder how oppressive it might be to constantly have one's friends' choices surrounding every electronic decision one makes.

10) At any rate, The Social Network succeeds on other levels too. I enjoyed watching the two privileged Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer) react once they learn that Zuckerberg has stolen their Harvard Connection website idea to make theFacebook. Even though they are nice enough guys, they make perfect foils to Zuckerberg, since they belong to the most exclusive Harvard club. They are the jocks that in another movie one would love to hate, and the fact that they are twins makes them inherently comic. They live in a world of assumed privilege, and now all of their gentlemanly notions of proper conduct have no place in the technological world that's about to hit them.

11) Ethically, The Social Network remains ambivalent. Zuckerberg does appear to (spoiler alert) shaft his former best friend by devaluing his Facebook stock. But one could also claim that he replaced his friend with better workers who helped ensure the continuing success of the company. In the end, the billions justify the means. Money creates its own morality, especially when the victims walk away from 65 million dollars in one settlement. Mark Zuckerberg is now the youngest billionaire in the world, now worth approximately 6.9 billion and counting, and Facebook is now poised to surpass Google in size and influence within the next five years.

12) The Social Network is perhaps weakest when it comes to gender, since many of the women of the film are seen dancing in discos, playing the groupie once Zuckerberg starts to become famous. We see them smoking out of a bong or providing a surface for snorting cocaine. Sorkin does frame the movie with Erica (Rooney Mara), who dumps Mark in the first scene, calling him an "asshole" after comparing the exhausting process of dating him to being on a "Stairmaster." Later, Sorkin seeks to balance the arrival of Zuckerberg's new groupies with the persistence of Erica's presence when Mark sees her in a restaurant. She tells Zuckerberg off again for writing of her bra size and other personal details on the internet. Later, once Zuckerberg starts to earn his billions, the women seem less judgmental, though he still wants Erica (who humorously has a Facebook page) to friend him. Perhaps Sorkin meant this last gesture, Zuckerberg insulated within his network yet still trying to make contact, as the ultimate irony of the film.

Related links:

cheering Zuckerberg

the women of The Social Network

hacking into Zuckerberg's profile

the problems with Facebook's nudging

13 comments:

Hokahey said...

Wow! I'm going to take another look at this tomorrow, but already I find your biting observations about Zuckerberg and Facebook ten times more compelling than the movie. I wish the ironies and ignominies about Facebook itself that you point out here had been reflected in the movie.

Simon said...

Is it wrong that I felt a bit bad for the Winklevii? At least the one who held out on the lawsuit. I like how the movie didn't demonize them, gave them actual justification to be pissed.

Interesting ideas, anyway.

Jason Bellamy said...

I didn't think of the connection between Zuckerberg's lack of attention during the deposition and the way Facebook has carved into people's ability to concentrate. I'm not sure what to make of that, but it's got me thinking. Good observation!

Since you've touched on the real Zuckerberg here, one thought: As ironic as it is that the guy who created the site known for "friending" struggles to make and keep friends himself (or, actually, maybe that isn't ironic after all), I had to laugh at the utter hypocrisy of Zuckerberg, who keeps insisting that our right to privacy is over, being involved in lawsuits that resulted in his accusers having to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Sure, sure: He's got a billion-dollar business and can't risk the Facebook brand being jeopardized. It makes sense. But do you know what else is expensive and in need of protection? Our own images, our personal brands. What Zukerberg apparently doesn't realize, or does realize and greedily refuses to acknowledge, is that his company's brand is worth more to him than his own, whereas for the rest of us that's not the case. And so he keeps insisting that it's time we drop our barriers, because that's exactly what his business demands, and yet he changes the rules when it's in his favor to remain private.

Again, to be clear, I'm talking about the real Zuckerberg in this case, as I understand him through various articles, including the one in the New Yorker, which I'd saved to read after seeing the film, and not The Social Network's Zuckerberg.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Hokahey. I did enjoy comparing the Mark in the movie to the one I've learned of in The New Yorker profile and elsewhere. Facebook does have its manipulative, evil side, but in many ways the human Zuckerberg is not as bad as the character in The Social Network.

Simon,

Aaron Sorkin mentioned that he's trying to do justice to the Winkelvii's perspective, and from what I hear, the twins both approve of their portrayal in the movie. That's part of the nice ambiguity of the film--one can either identify with them, or find them to be humorous foils. I tended toward the latter interpretation.

Thanks, Jason,

I didn't entirely know what to say about the film's emphasis on attention either, but it still strikes me as a very important issue.

As for your point about Facebook and its ideas about privacy, I agree that there's a fundamental hypocrisy at work there. We know that Facebook finds ways to deliberately confuse the user so that he or she shares more private details than s/he may be inclined to do. That slight air of menace never hurt a movie. I liked the way The Social Network can feed off of and augment our understanding of Facebook. I've always had strong mixed feelings about the network, and I've often gotten on and off as a result.

Hokahey said...

What's the appeal of Facebook? It makes everybody feel like they are the star of their own electronic magazine, the center of attention in their pool of "friends." This is very well said! It certainly does that - elevating mundane comments about what one is doing at a given moment to news headlines.

So why does The Social Network work so well? In part because it appeals to the audience's greed, its feeling of being socially excluded, and its pleasure in watching a fast-talking young fellow connive and trick his way into becoming the tech Caesar and the youngest billionaire on the planet. Yes, well said. This is what the movie is about and what should be compelling about it. I wish, for me, the film had delivered on that more powerfully.

ZUCK: people just submitted it
ZUCK: i don’t know why
ZUCK: they “trust me”
ZUCK: dumb fucks


Wow! This is chilling. Having read David Cullen's Columbine which portrays Eric Harris as a psychotic sociopath, these comments and other aspects of Zuckerberg make me think of Harris. Fortunately, Zuckerberg vented by creating Facebook, not killing people.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Hokahey,

I've spent much of this morning brooding on how this post is not all that well written, so I'm glad that you found some decent spots. Funny that the Zuckerberg quote would remind you of a psychopath. I included the quote for its rude punch, but Zuckerberg did go on to express professional regret over those e-mails later. He does have the fun job of trying to live down or rise above the electronic detritus of his youth, and The Social Network is no help. I still wonder--how much do the smart people of Facebook still think we are suckers for sharing info on the site?

ruth said...

Nice in-depth writeup, Doc. I'm one of the last few people on earth who don't use (don't like) Facebook but I'm intrigued by this movie. I have yet to watch the movie but you seem to have made some astute observation about Zuckerberg. Even without knowing much about him, he doesn't strike me as someone who could keep real friends, hence the need for him to create pseudo ones.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, ruth,

You are stronger than I am, staying off of Facebook, and I applaud your resolve. I learned today that aside from Facebook's tendency to deliberately make it difficult to stop the network from sharing your personal info with others, Facebook also will subtly manipulate buttons and commands to suit its agenda. A friend of mine was playing a game having to do with monsters on Facebook with his son. Every so often, when you do well at the game, Facebook will ask if you want to share the victory with all of your friends. Then it places a Yes and No button on the screen to answer, with the Yes button larger (thus giving away the Facebook agenda). Every now and again, as he played the game, he noticed that Facebook would switch the two buttons, thus making it all the more likely that you will release the info to all of your friends.

Meanwhile, you don't say no to friend requests anymore. You hit a button that says "Not now." How many other sneaky little changes will we see in the system?

Stella said...

I love how everyone insists that the film portrays Zuckerberg as a flawed anti-hero and then has no problem pigeonholing the real Zuckerberg as a class-A villain.

"he doesn't strike me as the kind..."? What arrogant presumptions. Those are the IMs of your typical 19-year-old college a$$hole. All is really necessary is a two-second google search to see that the real Zuckerberg is a lot more typical, laidback, and naive than his conniving onscreen character. He's had a girlfriend for 7 years (oops, Sorkin), he's donated money, he lives in a small house, he spends nearly al of his time at the company. The conflict between him and Saverin was much more complicated and boring as well. It is consistently pointed out that most people want to forget about when they themselves were 19, yet this movie is going to define his character for the rest of his life.

BTW the Facebook controversies are silly. You put in as much information as you want to, and the privacy controls are simple as hell.

FilmDr said...

Stella,

I appreciate the way you balance out my portrait of Zuckerberg with some other good points about the guy, but I still wonder about your last claim about the Facebook controversies being "silly." You don't think that some of Zuckerberg's billions were made on the premise that he has and will continue to share the network's users' private information with other corporations for profit? You don't think that the Facebook organization consistently tweaks their website, finding ways to "nudge" us into serving their agenda, which includes sharing information that we may not intended to share? (One minor example: nowadays, you press a button saying "Not now" instead of "Ignore" when you don't want to friend someone.)

A CIO friend of mine says that he finds himself surprised by how often he's hard to check the default settings in his Facebook account because they keep changing the settings in this way. Do you suppose all of these changes serve our interests?

Chris David Richards said...

Very interesting points. I saw it last night, I'm thinking about going to see it again.

Film Conqueror said...

The first time I watched this movie, I was disappointed because it had been built up so much in the media that I was expecting perfection. It was a little cold-blooded for me, but I did find Zuckerberg fascinating (and a little sad). You made some thought-provoking points..thank you!

The Kid In The Front Row said...

I think number 3 is possibly the best explanation I've heard yet as to what Facebook is!