Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Social Network

It's official, I am an older person. According to The New York Times there are two different audience reactions to the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in the film "The Social Network". Older people are upset by how Mark Zuckerberg behaves towards those around him, especially his best (only?) friend. Younger people are impressed by his genius. In particular they are apparently impressed by results regardless of methods used to get there. I fit in the first camp.

I think it is difficult to display genius in a film. But "The Social Network" goes some way to show how this works. It shows people talking about new ideas they have had, people using other people's ideas and choosing between different ideas (often for irrelevant reasons). This seems like a more realistic idea of how life works than the myth of the self contained genius whose ideas are entirely their own, whose decisions are always logical and execution of those ideas entirely their own effort. Genius is seldom in a vacuum and rarely perfect.

The film is less good at showing the hard work around writing software or raising capital or getting advertisers. But it does show how social convensions like honesty, friendship, honour, politeness, etc can be sacrificed to achieve results. Though in my mind this doesn't equate to genius. But that is perhaps my bourgeois, middle age mind-set.

As entertaining story telling goes, "The Social Network" does very well. Don't expect to find well rounded characters or character development here. Everyone, from Mark Zuckerberg, to the lawyers, girlfriends and dancing girls, is cut out of very thin cardboard and held stiff by stereotyping. It is amazing that they stay upright. For instance Mark himself is an ubergeek and therefore an order of magnitude more insecure, arrogant and lacking in social skills than the ordinary everyday geeks around him, and there is only the faintest suggestion that the events affect him. There are no sex scenes, no nudity (OK most of the females do spend time in their underwear), no guns or car chases. The film is carried entirely by the script and style of story telling, which kept me entertained in the cinema and the ideas it throws out there kept me thinking about it afterwards.

Did Mark have an overall plan from start to finish or was he opportunistic, swayed by the people around him, and by a need to get his own back? Did any of those who sued him really have a case or was it more a case of sour grapes and wanting to suck at the tit of guy who suddenly got rich?

Do sudden riches make otherwise nice people vindictive? Was Karl right? Is it really still all about the ownership of the means of production? (The current obsession with intellectual property being yet another way of establishing that ownership). Are ideas property? Is software property even?

How do you put a value on a company like Facebook? From a business point of view it is channel to get advertising to 500 million potential viewers. When did you last click on a Facebook advert or even read one?

One of the things that struck me about the film was how unusual it was for law suit averse Americans to make an unflattering film about a living, rich, fellow American. Then my mind started to wander. Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg doesn't find it unflattering, or doesn't care. Conspiracy theories bubble to the surface. Perhaps the film is a cunning self deprecating marketing ploy by Facebook. Or may be I have been nibbling those funny tasting afghans again.

Ultimately "The Social Network" is a film that both entertained me and made me think.

Ian's rating 4/5 Anne's rating 2.5/5


  1. Antony K10:59 am

    Interesting review Ian...

    I found Mark's character totally obnoxious at the beginning but he grew on me. By the time he answered the lawyer's question "Do you think I deserve your full attention?" I was quite sympathetic to him! I guess working in technology, sharing and knowing many people who share some of his anti-social personality traits made me able to identify with him maybe more than the average person.

    My theory about the generation divide is younger people have grown up watching "reality" media and Facebook/Twitter - where people live their lives in public, warts and all. They are more likely to be able like people despite their obvious flaws - or even because of them!

    The model of genius being unfettered by feelings towards others and also combined with sometime brutal honesty is interesting. It's very Ayn Rand/Objectivist. Although it may not be a necessary trait, so many tech moguls have similar trails it's hard to say that it's not an integral part of their success.

    Although you could say he is not the ideal role model for young people getting into IT. Atleast it is better than the slew of "hacker" movies that were around in my teenage years.


  2. The Social Network is just too long....... I was engrossed to begin with but found it tedious by the end.