Saturday 25th March 2017,
Televisual

10 Things You Should Know About ‘The Social Network’

If you want a shorter, more nuanced take on the film, check out my review, which states:

“The Social Network is poised to be this generation’s response to Wall Street, a timely, preachy zeitgeist story of excess and intrigue, built around a delicious antihero.The Social Network is your standard story about greed, sex and all that good stuff, but refreshingly told without any heroes or saviors. Arriving after the euphoria of the social networked aughties, it takes advantage of its license to be cynically, almost literally, dark.”

If that’s not your cup of tea, here’s a scannable list of reasons why you should go see The Social Network and what you’re in for.

1. It doesn’t matter if it’s true.

The first complaint with any biopic is whether or not it is true. But anyone who’s ever participated in these debates knows one thing: they’re never true. Or rather, they’re never completely factual. Even if the details are right — dates, figures — often the sentiment or emotional truth is fabricated.

The Social Network, however, is such a clear and lean story, so well-told, we should understand it’s probably not accurate (there are too many jokes, too much thematic clarity). Nevertheless, that shouldn’t matter because…

2. It’s a parable of the culture and the new media economy. And therefore is unrealistic and inhumane. But that’s okay.

Any great movie has to be about something other than its plot and characters. The Social Network‘s tone — dark, foreboding, cold — is meant as deliberate contradiction to the aughties’ sentiment on social networking — bright, optimistic, warm. What Wall Street did for the market of the eighties, Social Network does for the new media economy. The future is uncertain, but, as Tim Wu argues, periods of media change are always greeted with optimism, until they’re not.

The film assumes a transition from openness to control (open to closed web, see Wired‘s ‘Web is Dead‘ or my post), from free and ad-free to scaled and institutionalized, from the wild west of entrepreneurs to the land of media kings, of which Zuckerberg is on top. In the film, Zuckerberg states offhand how he gave away his first idea, turning down Microsoft; he then proceeds to demand centralized control over Facebook and its trickle-down expansion. It’s a decision that made him billions.

3. It doesn’t look or sound like the web: erudite and dark.

The Social Network might bristle some with its aesthetics. It feels produced by purists, old fogies, a classic moral tale of greed rather than a web 2.0 story. Some might call it stodgy.

I can empathize, but what would be jarring, turns out to be quite allegorical (see #2)

4. It is about people you hate.

If you’re like me, you will not like any of the characters. This can make the movie hard to sit through. No one is really comes off as a person you’d want to be friends with, which is, of course, the calculated irony of the whole film.

I imagine a few rich white guys who went to Harvard will think these characters are cool. Yalies will probably hate them, maybe for superficial reasons. Everyone else will definitely hate them. This is all part of the plan. Run with it.

5. It is funny.

I’ve called it dark twice, but it’s also Aaron Sorkin, so it’s funny, in the beyond-erudite way we’ve come to expect from Sorkin. Characters are far too witty for their own good (nothing I’ve seen from Zuckerberg suggests he can roll as fast and funny as his Eisenberg doppelganger).

So go expecting to chuckle at how terrible and cold everyone is, and then take pleasure in knowing how, even if you can dole out such zingers, at least you aren’t completely miserable.

6. It does address controversy about Facebook, not just its founders.

In my mind, Facebook has had to weather two main crises of identity: 1) it’s a site with 500 million users which began at the world’s most exclusive university and 2) it’s a site about a “closed” social network (you really are friends with your friends, who are real people, not bots) which wants you to open up your life. Elitism and privacy.

The Social Network addresses both and affirms the cynical view. Yes, it says, Facebook was deliberately crafted as an elitist enterprise into order to coax people to join; it was its trump card to Friendster, MySpace and all the dating sites. (My own experience verifies this to some extent. When Facebook came to UMich, most people were aware it started at Harvard, that all the “good schools” were on it). It also skewers Zuckerberg’s hypocrisy, claiming he founded Facebook on a principle of privacy, in order to contradict the bad press he got from his prank Facemash.

7. It isn’t nice to Mark Zuckerberg.

You’ll never see it on Zuckerberg’s “like” list. Zuckerberg comes off as petty and childish, wanting to be liked in the most immature way and painfully unaware of how to relate to people. In the end, the film avoids calling him an “asshole” explicitly, but provides scant evidence to the contrary. We feel sorry for him, but he really doesn’t get a pass.

8. It fails the Bechdel test, but that’s okay.

I wasn’t looking too hard for evidence showing it passes the Bechdel test, but it suffice it say if it passes, it barely does. Yet, this doesn’t mean the film avoids gender concerns — not unlike some feminist films which also fail. One could say the lack of female representation, of enough female characters who address one another, is exactly the point. Like the stories of so many corporations, it’s a boy’s tale, but the film is very self-aware about this, throwing in multiple instances of blatant misogyny, not all of which can be true.

9. It redeems Aaron Sorkin.

If, in your mind, Sorkin needed to be redeemed. Says one reviewer: “I think the script is some of the best work Sorkin has ever done and it’s definitely getting nominated at the end of the year.”

I, for one, always expect a solid script from Sorkin, who’s one of the few masters of dialogue in film and TV today. Still, after the just-okay Charlie Wilson’s War (which I liked) and Studio 60 (which I loved), some might have thought Sorkin had lost it. The answer to that would be no.

10. It’ll probably get nominated for an Oscar or two.

Who knows, maybe more? The idea of a “Facebook movie” is pretty ridiculous on the surface. It’s hokey, hence all the online spoofs. But The Social Network is so surprisingly thoughtful, it just might shock enough Academy members into bestowing it with praise.

Of course it is Oscar bait, but it’s Oscar bait that doesn’t smell like it — it’s something Clint Eastwood would’ve done, except an Eastwood version would be drenched with clearer emotions and narrative flourishes intended to stir audiences one way or the other (which I think is equally valuable). Instead, The Social Network is serious without being overbearing and panders enough to our baser instincts (crowdpleasing elements of sex and drugs; Justin Timberlake as a generally campy character; the gossipy desire to see an unforgiving portrait of a pop icon) to make you forget it’s gunning for Best Picture.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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