The Social Network or How Heroic Rich White Guys and Their Asian Groupies Colonized Youth Culture…
OK, snarkiness aside, I think The Social Network is a very well-made film. David Fincher is a top notch director, and Aaron Sorkin, if you can get past his machine gun style of dialog and plot devices, are quintessential storytellers of our age, churning ironic cool, short-attention span aesthetics and multilevel storytelling into high art (at least of the technical variety). The Social Network is very much a hybrid of television, film and Internet cultural sensibilities, the kind celebrated by Steven Johnson in Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter.
But beyond the slick and entertaining aspects of the film, various subtexts reinforce myths about the Internet and capitalism that end up being a feel-good story for our system at a time when it is in profound crisis. Ultimately it serves as yet another propaganda device for the reality bubble of the global knowledge economy and its exploitation of youth culture. Unlike Fincher’s Fight Club, this film is a very pro-capitalist, lacking the P2P ethos and grassroots character of the Internet’s popularity, which mostly thrives in the absence of commerce.
(Soon to be changed through enclosure, however, no thanks in part to this kind of propaganda. In fact, you may want to check out Tim Wu’s The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, and his excellent WSJ editorial about media monopolies: “In the Grip of the New Monopolists: Do away with Google? Break up Facebook? We can’t imagine life without them—and that’s the problem.”)
First, there is the genre trope of the loan genius–Zuckerberg and his freewheeling alter-ego Sean Parker (founder of Napster and brilliantly played by Justin Timberlake)– who, despite the film’s title, are depicted as anti-social jerks in search of blow jobs, fame and big bucks. There’s little cultural context in terms of the financing behind Internet start-ups, nor does it explain the popularity of social networks beyond being a tool to get laid. Though the film accurately points out that cool can’t be marketed, it fails to explain why a 26 year-old can be worth $25 billion. Really, this needs to enter into the film, somehow.
An uncritical view into how an astronomically valued company that makes little money can only feed into the larger ideology that enables banks and the government to print worthless money while we as a people are reduced to pawns of finance and capital. The film never asks what it is that is being monetized by the Facebook economy, a very significant and important ethical question. At this point–not that anyone cares–Foucault is rolling in his grave. I don’t know if he could have imagined such wholesale voluntarism to surveillance and privacy mining. (Disclaimer: I have a Facebook account, so I’m guilty as charged.)
There is a snippet and comment about how Napster took down the record industry, which passes with little debate. Was it a bit of code that did it? What about people’s pre-existing social habits, or the dinosaur-like behavior of traditional media companies? And there is the famous scene from the movie in which Zuckerberg refuses to give his attention to a stuffy establishment lawyer, which reinforces the rebel-without-a-cause image of Internet entrepreneurs and capitalism’s need to constantly reinvent itself all-the-while keeping the basic system of monetary control intact.
The film’s ultimate subtext is that social network entrepreneurs are the new rock stars. Think about it. Instead of playing in a garage band, you and your friends band together to code a tool that will eventually get signed by the arbitrators of the new culture industry in Silicon Valley. Even the way Facebook spread was like a touring band–it expanded its base by encircling and entering into markets one campus at a time (in particular those schools that are at the core of the information economy). Rather than it be traditional record companies, here it is the buttoned down venture capitalists who thrive on personality cults to drive their new wares and the stock market as its engine of commerce. That it is driven by a sex crazed youth culture makes it that much juicier. As Sorkin said, “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling…. What is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy’s sake, and can we not have the true be the enemy of the good?”
I admit I didn’t know much about Zuckerberg’s story before seeing the film, so upon checking out his Wikipedia page, I was surprised by the following quote: “For me and my colleagues, the most important thing is that we create an open information flow for people. Having media corporations owned by conglomerates is just not an attractive idea to me.” And, “The thing I really care about is the mission, making the world open.” The Wikipedia page paints Zuckerberg as a hacker. If this is really the case (it seems to be at least partially true), then this would have been a far more interesting subtext than the rock star one used in the film. Granted, there are hints of Zuckerberg’s hacker ethos, but no sense of history that puts hacking at the center of the story of the Internet’s growth, as opposed to venture capital. Either way, at the end of the day, the history of culture and capitalism is portrayed once again as something done by smart, rich white guys accompanied by their Asian groupies.
FYI, there is a great soundtrack from Trent Rezner, who, true to his DIY roots, offers several of the songs for free on his Website.