By Jason Lipshin
As someone who studies the Internet and network culture, The Social Network is a film that makes me absolutely livid. This is not, by any means, because the film is lacking in quality– the narrative is relatively well told and features a pretty fantastic performance from Jesse Eisenberg. No, what bothers me about The Social Network is the story that they chose to tell – or perhaps more precisely, what story David Fincher chose to tell at the expense of others. Because, in essence, I don’t think that the movie was really about Facebook at all.
Strangely, it would seem that I’m relatively alone in my distaste – in fact, critics have seemed to have reached a pretty much unanimous consensus that the film deserves to be heaped with critical praise. Pete Hammond is comparing the film to All The President’s Men (1976), J. Hoberman is busy calling the film “Olympian” and drawing parallels with Citizen Kane (1941), and Peter Travers is declaring it not just the film of the year, but the film of the decade. The film has a whopping 97% positive rating on Rottentomatoes.com. In practically every review there is at least one paragraph devoted to praising the film’s topicality, and some variation on the phrase, “it speaks to our generation.”
As someone who is actually part of this so-called Facebook generation, I feel like there is something both condescending and chillingly uncritical in all of these reviews: these journalists assume that just because the film is loosely about the germination of a social networking site it somehow automatically defines the experience of that mysterious class of individuals we’ve become accustomed to calling “digital natives.” But the truth is the film is not about Facebook. The film is about Mark Zuckerberg and his punk genius, meteoric rise to fame.
So rather than dealing with the controversy surrounding Facebook’s privacy settings, its shady relationship to advertising revenue, and the questionable remapping of play, labor, and publicness that is consequently redefining the lives of millions of people around the world, we instead have the wrong “courtroom drama” depicted on screen – the petty squabbles of a bunch of already well-off, twenty something males trying to claim authorship over a website. And interspersed within this framing device of the deposition hearing, we essentially have another American dream parable well-disguised by hacker appeal, complete with hot chicks as groupies, and Animal House-esque gay old times all along the way.
But it would be incorrect to say that I’m pissed just because we have another biopic featuring the rags-to-riches story of a curmudgeonly, though lovable inventor. What I’m really miffed about is that retelling this story comes at the cost of a wonderful opportunity to explore what it means to actually live in global and local social networks. While the experience of Facebook certainly is a good deal about narcissism (and perhaps on this level, the film is appropriate), it is also about the digital state of ourselves and identities as an assemblage of connections – and in many ways, how impossible it is nowadays to conceive of our online selves as merely isolated individuals.
And yet it would seem that even sixty years after Walter Benjamin, and after almost twenty years of wading waste deep in a digital remix culture that in many ways breaks down our traditional notions of intellectual property, Hollywood is still more infatuated with the white, male, Ivy League-educated genius that invented Facebook and not the 500 million users who inhabit it. Quite frankly, that scares me.