When I first saw the trailer for The Social Network the first thing that struck me was how well constructed it was, and how much I love that A cappella version of Radiohead’s “Creep”. The second thing that struck me was a deep sense of irony. This felt like a somewhat odd story to tell given our “current economic crisis.” For The Social Network is, among other things, a tale of privilege, wealth, and to some degree, fiscal excess.
In an article in The New York Times, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook and subject of the film, compared The Social Network to Less Than Zero, the quintessential 1980s poor little rich kid movie. According to the article Facebook and Zuckerberg hoped audiences would largely ignore The Social Network, recognizing that:
“The Social Network” will be another failed attempt to bottle a generation, like “Less Than Zero”, and not culturally defining, as it aspires to be, in the way of “Wall Street” or “The Big Chill”.
The mention of Less Than Zero inspires an interesting comparison, though not necessarily in the vein that Zuckerberg or Facebook intended. In terms of artistic merits, Less Than Zero is far outmatched by The Social Network. David Fincher is a masterfully skilled director, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross created a haunting score and Jessie Eisenberg and his fellow cast members delivered believable and compelling performances. The film is good.
Putting aside the abilities of the artists involved in the creation of this film; many felt like the premise of the movie was just plain silly, and a plethora of parodies were unleashed on the Internet almost immediately after the trailer became available. As mentioned, the trailer is exceedingly well put together, so the question becomes: why was it so mock-worthy?
I contend that we laughed because the trailer indicated a deep sense of weight about what is essentially a fun and silly socializing tool. The reason we found it silly was in large part the reason I found the film so fascinating. In a sense, it doesn’t have anything to do with what most of us consider “real life” concerns.
THE CHARACTER OF A GENERATION
This brings us back to the comparison of The Social Network to Less Than Zero. We look at that latter film now and think how reflective it is of the excess of the 1980s. The truth is that for most people the ’80s included corporate buyouts, layoffs and recession. Less Than Zero did not represent the excess of the ’80s, as much as the idea of excess in the ’80s. Excess that, for the vast majority of people, would always remain a fantasy.
The Social Network seems to represent the same sense of disconnect that Less Than Zero did. How many of us can really relate to the trials (literal and figurative) of a Harvard boy who convinced equally privileged young entrepreneurs to invest millions of dollars into his made up company? For a “true” reflection of the times, one could look at Up In The Air for the view from the ground, or Wall Street 2 for a Birdseye view of the investment banking eagles who were busy pooing upon everyone on the ground. Upon reflection, however, it occurred to me that The Social Network has everything to do with our present cultural consciousness.
Not only is Facebook one of the biggest representatives of our current form of communication, but it also represents a new model for commerce in the online community. The idea is to create a service, offer it for free, and build demand to the point where advertisers are coming to you. It addresses a way to make money when almost everything can be gotten for “free.”
The portion of the film that deals with Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) and Napster, also addresses the collapse of traditional media platforms and the onset of the “everything is free” media model. Of course, the Internet follows a model similar to that of television and radio – the difference is that in the realm of the Internet, the quantity, quality and type of content is nearly unlimited.
The story of the creation of Facebook and the fates of its creators is indicative of a general mindset in the United States as well as certain characteristics of a generation. Characteristics which, in their most toxic form, helped to bring this nation to the crisis point we now find ourselves in.
This is not an article on how Facebook ruined the world. This is an article that looks at how the movie, The Social Network, and its fictional depiction of the myth of Facebook represents a mindset that, while in many ways positive, when taken to its extreme is undesirable at best and damaging at worst. The dominant aspects of that mindset are: entitlement, a focus on the superficial in lieu of the substantive, a disregard for the sanctity of relationships and the welfare of others, greed, and the willingness to invest real money into what is essentially a fantasy.
WE CAN HAVE IT ALL
Facebook came along at a time before the recession really hit; a time when “the sky is the limit” was still the prevailing feeling about Internet moneymaking potential. The world had already seen the collapse of the dot-com bubble, and yet there seemed to be the pervading belief (and reality in some cases) that millions of dollars were there to be made on the Internet if one just mined for them properly. And this began a second, smaller, Internet speculation bubble – one that would see MySpace (a company which is still losing money) sold for the astronomical sum of $580 million dollars based on imagined earnings potential. A potential that may have been realized, had the company been properly managed. Sadly, Facebook is in a privileged class when it comes to proper corporate management in the last several years.
There are some who believe that the first Internet bubble burst led to the far more damaging housing bubble and credit crisis. According to Yale Economy Professor, Robert Shiller, who accurately predicted the dot-com and housing busts, the sub-prime crisis is due to, “the irrational exuberance that drove the economy’s two most recent bubbles–in stocks in the 1990s and in housing between 2000 and 2007.” That “irrational exuberance” is defined here (by a laymen wading her way through this mess) as the “fairyland method of financial investment,” - in other words, the willingness to invest, loan or spend money on a venture that has no practical guarantee of a return.
In the case of sub-prime mortgages, there was pretty much a guarantee of failure, in fact, the investment houses bet on it [check out the wonderful documentary Inside Job for more on that story]. Now, the Dot-com bust was likely due to misplaced confidence and greed, and the housing and credit crisis due to evil. Yet, everyone involved was to some degree culpable in the sense that they (and we) were willing to indulge in unnecessary excess, to the detriment of the collective whole. The willingness to invest in a dream is a beautiful thing; the willingness to haphazardly invest in a dream which has no solid foundation in reality is a dangerous thing.
Just like other Internet ventures before it, millions of dollars were invested in Facebook, which at the time was just un-manifested potential. As both Zuckerberg and Sean Parker said in the film “we don’t even know what it is yet.” Yes, venture capitalists invest in “un-manifested potential” all the time – in a sense, that is the very nature of their business. But the Internet boom represents an ever-increasing rise and decline of services.
Facebook did become profitable in 2009, which was ahead of the projected schedule, yet it could have just as easily gone the way of MySpace had we as an increasingly fickle consumer base found a different service that we preferred; or if it had suffered the same reckless mismanagement that so many other companies did. Of course none of this is really so new – speculation has gone on for a very long time, as have bubbles and bursts. This is just the current ideation.
THE EXCEPTION TO THE RULE
If the Internet were the Wild West, then Internet ventures would be akin to gold-mining and Mark Zuckerberg would represent the exception to the gold-mining rule. The guys that actually found gold. Like Less Than Zero, The Social Network represents the exception, rather than the rule.
Yet it is the exception that most people choose to believe in, that most of us want to believe in. The exception is as seductive as it is elusive, and when there is a failure to temper the dream with a healthy dose of realism, it can be dangerous.
In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps Gordon Gekko talks about how we all “drank the same Kool-Aid.” For most of us, that “Kool-Aid” was the idea that “no matter what we do, things will only get better.” Many made financial decisions based on the message in that Kool-Aid, and decided to worry about the repercussions of those decisions, as Scarlett O’Hara would say, “tomorrow.” Well, tomorrow is today.
WE SHOULD HAVE IT ALL
“Entitlement” is a word we hear used a great deal. Corporate entitlement, personal entitlement, who is entitled to what and why. Much is made of what we may or may not be owed, with little thought to where it came from, or what we owe in return. There is a certain sense of entitlement inherent in the belief that everything should always get better, and that it necessarily will.
There is also a deep sense of entitlement inherent in the characters depicted in The Social Network.That sense of entitlement is perhaps most effectively expressed when Zuckerberg attests that the Winklevoss twins are upset because, “for the first time in their lives things did not work out how they were supposed to for them.” How many of us have felt that things as they are right now “are not like they are supposed to be?” If we really look, we will see that our idea of “supposed to be” was likely based on a fantasy.
Entitlement is an undercurrent that runs through every aspect of the The Social Network. Mark Zuckerberg felt entitled to co-opt the germ of the idea for Facebook, and effectively outmaneuver the originators of the idea. The Winklevoss twins felt entitled to 65 million dollars for coming up with the vague idea for what was essentially nothing more than a Harvard exclusive dating site. Eduardo Saverin felt entitled to maintain a massive stake in Facebook, despite that fact that he had (according to the film) a diametrically opposed vision for its future.
Sean Parker felt entitled to stake a claim in a company he had no part in the inception of, and to oust one of its co-founders. With the creation of Napster, Parker also helped to propel the now mass assumption that we are all entitled to free media – that we are entitled to simply take what others worked their whole lives to build and create. Parker looked at “bringing down the record companies” as something that gave him bragging rights, that set him apart, and made him special with no sense of consequence for what he did. No sense of care for, or even awareness of, the lives and livelihoods that his actions affected.
Change can, and must, happen. Change can be positive, even if it comes in the form of a temporary dismantlement of what was previously established. What is disturbing in The Social Network is the flagrant disregard for the real-life people impacted by the changes these characters were affecting.
500 MILLION “FRIENDS”
The irony is that a site that’s entire purpose is the development and maintenance of relationships was founded by those with such profoundly limited relationship skills. Zuckerberg was not necessarily wrong to move forward with his project sans what he considered “dead weight,” but there were a multitude of ways he could have handled the development of Facebook that may have avoided two costly lawsuits – and most certainly would have saved his relationship with the man he had once considered his best friend (Saverin).
Along with a sense of entitlement, the film depicts a longing for a sense of excellence, as defined by external accolades and markers of “success.” The opening of the film depicts a Zuckerberg more focused on entry into an exclusive club than the actual relationship at hand. Of course, that tendency to focus on “proving himself” to some unseen audience plays throughout the film. The desire to impress is inherent in the structure of Facebook. How many of us know someone, or one’s, who somehow feel that the number of “friends” they have on Facebook is an acceptable barometer of their worth and value?
The film not-so-subtly points out the irony that the character of Mark Zuckerberg has 500 million virtual friends, but the man himself has few to none in reality. I say “character” because there is no way to know the status of the actual Mark Zuckerberg’s relationships. It is impossible to say if any of the characterizations of the real-life people involved in the founding of Facebook are “real” or “true.” Most likely there is a bit of truth and a lot of conjecture. In any event, Zuckerberg acts as an archetype in the film in many ways – an archetype who highlights a general tendency to focus on the superficial rather than the substantive; a tenancy reflected in the focus on what we believe should be an achievable lifestyle, rather than what is real for us at the time.
“I WISH I WAS SPECIAL”
For many, our basic life needs being met is no longer good enough. Some people dream of extravagance, some of being famous for fame’s sake, other dream of Harvard-style clubs because “they’re exclusive, and fun, and lead to a better life.”
The angst of the song “Creep” in the trailer represents this notion perfectly, lamenting: “I want a perfect body, I want a perfect soul.” The song is saying those words with irony, but for a couple of generations, the assumption has been that some outrageous idea of what is essentially impossible (like having both a perfect body and soul) is not only possible, but to be expected.
WHAT DO WE WANT? WHAT DO WE NEED?
In many ways, we are in a maturation process as a nation, mired in a time when we must look at our desires and see what is realistically achievable as goals within those desires. We must redefine and solidify our values. In some ways, The Social Network tells the story of a time just before we were collectively forced to confront our dangerously irresponsible relationship with money, and in a sense represents a corrupted and out of touch value system. Not in the blatant way that Wall Street 2 does, but rather in the film’s thematic undertones, character depictions, and in the almost comical nature of the source material.
Because Facebook is a really strange service when you think about it: it doesn’t really fill a need, just a very recent social desire. It speaks to the idea presented in the film of “inventing a job” rather than finding one – a silly notion, perhaps, but millions of investment dollars later, that notion starts to seem as serious as a heart attack. More money was invested in Facebook and MySpace than was discussed as an appropriate investment in alternative energy companies in Wall Street 2. It’s true that this is fiction vs. reality, but the frightening part is that the reality is far more bizarre. Over a span of five years, well over a billion dollars was invested in 2 websites where friends can post pictures of their Saturday night vs. what was a huge venture capital investment of 1.9 billion invested in 180 different clean energy companies in 2010.
Clearly that is a grossly oversimplified snapshot. Still, it is somewhat safe to say that social networking is cleaning up. Green technology has not yet necessarily shown a large return on investment, then again, neither have most Internet ventures. The question is, where is our focus as a culture? What is it that we value and why? Short term pleasure infusion, or long term, sustainable results. In business, something has value if we collectively agree that it does. Do we care about other people, or do we care what other people think of us?
One “real” point that Wall Street 2 brought up is how few Americans are actually making anything at their job – creating products, inventing and engineering, what have you. We have an economy based on ephemeral “goods and services.” We have seen a total collapse of our ability to compete in industries where we were once the global leaders. Things are so rapidly changing and so often perplexing; one cannot tell if we are witnessing the digital version of the industrial revolution or (if you’ll forgive the foray into hyperbole) the total collapse of life as we imagined we knew it. If we are in a revolution, then it needs to be tempered with reason, and more than just the Harvard kids need to get up to speed and onboard.
In terms of Facebook, what was once a desire is now felt as a “need,” and it does not seem like the website or the company is going anywhere…at least for the moment. Whether Facebook is around for another ten months, or the next ten years, the success of Facebook and the lives depicted in The Social Network are, again, the exception; the fantasy that many imagine as a likely reality. Whereas, conversely, the attitudes, values and characteristics of the people depicted in the film are in many ways, the rule.
The Social Network may not be a generation-defining film, but it certainly does accurately reflect several defining aspects of our generation.
Be sure to read our review of The Social Network and we encourage you to leave a comment below.
Sources: The New York Times and Princeton University Press