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Facebook: the heart in a heartless world

David Fincher’s brilliant The Social Network teases out what is driving the FB juggernaut: our need for narrative.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

The great insight of David Fincher’s brilliant The Social Network is that social inadequacy was the main driver of the Facebook juggernaut.

The film kicks off in 2003 with the nerdy, OCDish Harvard student and future Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) meeting Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) for a date. After Zuckerburg fails to impress with his rat-a-tat-tat of facts and feelings – think The Simpsons‘ comic book guy mashed with Stephen Fry – Erica torpedoes him with one of the film’s many memorable lines: ‘You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.’

Grazed, Zuckerberg dashes back to his dorm and does something that will give birth to Facebook. First, he blogs about Erica on LiveJournal (remember that?), telling anyone who surfs by what a bitch she is and how small her tits are: ‘She’s a 34B – as in Barely anything there.’ (When he later tries to apologise, Erica serves up another good line: ‘The internet is not written in pencil, Mark, it’s written in ink.’)

And second, he sets up a website called Facemash, allowing the student body to rate who’s the prettiest out of two female students whose photos are randomly generated and placed next to each other. It’s so popular it causes the Harvard server to crash. ‘You got twenty-two hundred hits?’ someone asks Mark. ‘Thousand’, he replies, ‘twenty-two thousand’. Those kind of figures were impressive seven years ago, long before Facebook had 500million members, which means – as almost the same number of commentators have told us ad nauseum – that if it were a country it would be the third largest, smaller than China and India but bigger than the US.

Facemash, via a couple of posh, handsome, Harvard twin brothers asking Zuckerberg to help them build a social-networking site for students, becomes Facebook – or TheFacebook, as it was originally known, before the founder of Napster, Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), made his enormous contribution to the project. ‘Drop the “the”‘, he tells Mark. ‘Makes it cleaner.’ Initially a Harvard-based info-sharing site, Facebook, in Fincher’s telling, is born directly from a student’s need to hook up with people in some fashion, when so many of the traditional ways of doing so – meeting in bars, conversing face-to-face, joining clubs – are increasingly closed off to him. In this way, Fincher subtly yet profoundly captures what remains the lifeblood of the extraordinary Facebook phenomenon: not social inadequacy per se, but certainly social discombobulation.

Written by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame and directed by Fincher of Seven fame, The Social Network focuses on the lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg in the mid- and late 2000s. With Facebook a household name and worth an estimated $25 billion (Zuckerberg is the youngest billionaire ever), he was sued both by those posh twins, who claimed that he stole the idea from them after they asked him to construct a social-networking site, and by his best friend and the original funder of the Facebook project, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who is ruthlessly ousted by Zuckerberg as he gets closer to Parker the Napster maestro.

Orienting the film around the two lawsuits provides structure and depth. Through the first lawsuit – brought by the twins – Fincher explores the corrosion of the old capitalism and its replacement by the flimsier, less rules-based, almost accidental capitalism of the dotcom era’s kind-of entrepreneurs. The twins, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (magically and seamlessly played by the same actor: Armie Hammer), are old-school. Blonde-haired and blue-eyed, they’re old money, describe themselves as ‘Harvard gentlemen’, are alarmed at the original Facebook’s un-classy design, and cannot abide Zuckerberg, a short, socially stuttering, unsporty Jew who somehow makes a billion dollars. (As the book on which the film is based puts it, Zuckerberg is an ‘accidental billionaire’.)

But Fincher and Sorkin are too clever to make this a simple clash between principled if ruthless old capitalists and zany, toke-smoking new capitalists. The twins are just as keen as Zuckerberg to milk money from the web (something their more stuff-oriented father and his acquaintances cannot understand). And Zuckerberg’s emerging business empire is depicted as clueless and out-of-control, built on the shifting sands of ‘confidence’ and ‘cool’ rather than anything substantial.

The second lawsuit, brought by Zuckerberg’s best friend Eduardo, is the emo bit of the movie. It raises questions about what being a friend means these days, now that the f-word has become entirely bound up with (warped by?) the friending experience on Facebook. ‘I was your one friend, and you did this to me?’, says Eduardo. Pre-FB, it might have been acceptable for someone to have just one good, true friend; now you’re supposed to have 687, at least of the poking, LOLing, virtual variety. It is striking that ‘friending’ has replaced ‘befriending’ as the main mate-making verb in the twenty-first century, speaking to the passive nature of collecting online friends over the active cultivation of friendships. We’ve come a long way from when CS Lewis said that ‘the very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends… There would be nothing for the Friendship to be about, and Friendship must be about something.’ Today, in the FB era, many people ‘just want friends’, as many as clickably possible. Zuckerberg ends up with thousands of friends, but loses his only Friend.

The Social Network taps into what has made Facebook so popular: the desire to carve out an identity, a life narrative, at a time when it seems increasingly hard to do that through real social relationships in the real world. ‘People lived on farms and then in cities and now they will live on the internet’, says Parker. He says it’s no longer enough just to go to a party – you must ‘go to a party with a digital camera and share the photos on Facebook’. Everything – from their job title to their interests, their relationship status to their religious beliefs, their social antics to their childrearing experiences – gets recorded and logged by the FB generation, as a kind of makeshift but also permanent personal narrative, which tells everyone who they are and what they believe.

This is what is really significant about Facebook starting off as a university phenomenon before spreading to the rest of society. At uni, people’s cultivation of a personal identity is necessarily a bit forced. Lacking the social cachet that goes with having a certain kind of job, living in a certain kind of neighbourhood, and moving in certain kinds of adult social circles, students instead physically sign up for societies or join clearly demarcated and often caricatured social networks (the Rugby Drinkers, the Political Club) to demonstrate who they think they are. Today, in the absence of the old solidarities and the old informal networks of community and shared interests – that is, at a time of great alienation – that experience of needing fairly self-consciously to magic up an identity is repeated across society. So a fundamentally student site now has half a billion members.

Facebook is better understood, not as a country, but as a refugee camp for people who feel today’s lack of identity-forging social experience. The scene in which Zuckerberg tries to befriend – or rather ‘friend’ – Erica on FB after their disastrous date and his pathetic apology, where he keeps hitting the F5 refresh button to see if she has accepted, is as painful a study of alienation as you are likely to see in the cinema this year. An intelligent, funny and humane exploration of society’s new networks – if I were on Facebook, I’d definitely ‘Like’ this film.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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