The Social Network was released in 2010. Since that time we have seen the continuing increase in the influence, real or imagined, of social media.
Social media has been hailed as a medium for democracy and the connecting of people, and attacked as a distortion of communication and communities. The movie itself is seen as a masterwork, pinpointing the very human dramas alleged to surround the creation of Facebook.
Dancing back and forth between the events themselves and depositions taken in lawsuits against Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), the structure of The Social Network has an inherent tragic element. We know that Zuckerberg has fallen out with those closest to him, such as his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), and early allies Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer through CGI wizardry).
This is foreshadowed by the events that open the film – Zuckerberg’s painful breakup with his girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), and his knee-jerk online tirade against her. There is no question that Zuckerberg is smart. It is also clear that he is not socially adept.
The story is a deft piece of writing by one of the wordiest writers in the business, Aaron Sorkin, the man behind A Few Good Men (1992), and The West Wing (1999–2006), and who has also done the script for an upcoming film about the real giant of the computer age, Steve Jobs.
Sorkin is rightly respected for his ability to pack a lot of words into screenplay, and admired for an ability to write soliloquies into cinema. Movies tend not to be friendly towards talking, at least not since the Golden Age of the 1930s and 1940s, when scriptwriters, like most literate folk, were keenly aware of their literary heritage.
The depositions raise questions about Zuckerberg’s creator status, with the wealthy Winklevosses arguing that he stole their idea for a social network aimed at the young, while Saverin argues that he was forced out by the arrival of the manic, hyper-cool Napster founder, Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake).
Throughout is emphasised the idea that Facebook is “cool”, that it takes the gossip culture of college and puts it online, thus making the decidedly “uncool” Zuckerberg very cool indeed.
The power of The Social Network comes from its very humanness. This is not a film for the social media generation or the (claimed) power of social media. It skewers the noble claims that drive the public relations spin of the likes of Twitter and Facebook, presenting instead the view that they have more in common with the more basic, if not base, popularity power plays among teenagers and young adults.
Social media is inherently superficial and reactive. This is not to say that it doesn’t play a part in civil society. We have seen clearly in recent times that it does. It is an effective way to get a short, sharp, simple message out to as many people as possible. However, the commitment is much more ephemeral than, say, a conventional friendship.
It is easy to “like” a post or re-tweet a hashtag. It is precisely that ease that makes it popular. It is notable that social media activism often does not translate into real world activism and that it creates an insulated conversation where one only hears from one’s own side. This problem is described in Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble (2011). Pariser admits that he leans to the left, but he is of the old school that prefers to know what the other side thinks. And he prefers to learn from them directly, not via their critics.
Marshall McLuhan, the Scholastic philosopher and founding father of media theory, famously remarked: “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” The internet is built on hypertext, whereby words and images on a webpage become links to another webpage, inviting us to click them and constantly shift our attention from one page to another, without necessarily having digested them first. This encourages the cherry-picking of key points that reinforce the views we already hold. It does not encourage deep reading or reflection.
McLuhan proposed that electronic communications would lead to the development of a “Global Village” where we would all become more connected. But, as the term suggests, it also means that the worst aspects of village life – insularity, gossip, mindless hysteria – are played out on a wider stage. The internet age thus magnifies our humanity, removing the civil safeguards that have built up over the ages.
The Social Network shows that humanity is still as it was when the Greeks wrote their tragedies – driven for greatness, but very fallible indeed.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).