Monday, October 4, 2010

The Social Network

As The Social Network braves the unpredictable terrain of American theaters, I find myself in the position of having managed not to write anything in nearly two months. Since I started regularly writing again, this has been my longest hiatus, and it's been one that crept up on me like a wary predator. A number of factors have contributed to this drought (the late-summer multiplex doldrums, a re-watching of The Wire, the AL East pennant race, the day-job…), and even as I type this out I hear a voice in the back of my head whispering: "This isn't real yet."

When will I really be a writer? Will it be when I have a reader? In that case, what are my thoughts worth?

The online film critic suffering existential malaise is a hilarious irony, but the dilemma isn't unique to this occupation. The question of whether or not I will be noticed when I start knocking trees down in a forest is one that can apply to much of how we interact with each other these days. At work, I exchange instant messages with co-workers sitting a yard away. This past Saturday night I was at a party where a close friend said she hadn't heard about the event because she missed the Facebook invitation. When I post these words to my blog, are they still mine, or will they belong to the blogosphere? To what extent can I judge my own value by the number of click-throughs I get from Twitter?

I would like to say this is all a lot of juvenile pablum, but it's not, sadly. There are people out there who suggest that The Social Network, a fictionalized retelling of the creation of Facebook, can only be of middling importance. There are people for whom Facebook is merely a toy, a phase, a fad, a trend, something for the younger generation that they cannot understand, a computer game. Rather, Facebook is quickly destroying the foundations of human interaction — and even if we cannot blame Facebook for IMs, text messages or Twitter, we can blame Facebook for making this tripe look 'cool' and getting everyone wrapped up in living their lives online. We may mock or pity those addicted to Second Life, but how are their consciously contrived extensions of id or superego any different than the person who updates their Facebook page several times in a day?

"I used to write letters, I used to sign my name," sings Win Butler on Arcade Fire's new album, The Suburbs. "I used to sleep at night, before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain […] when the lights cut out, I was lost standing in the wilderness downtown." In his book, You Are Not a Gadget, computer scientist Jaron Lainer writes of how we are giving too much value to a hive mentality with no consideration to the loss of the self; what's true and meaningful is verified by wikipedia, which is created by an us, not an I. In a New Yorker profile, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's ultimate goal for the site is described as an eventuality in which "users will read articles, visit restaurants, and watch movies based on what their Facebook friends have recommended," and describes the possibility of turning on your television and receiving a message that 14 friends are watching Entourage. What Zuckerberg has thus far failed to communicate is the virtue of any of this. And by the way, how will the initial recommender know to read his article or visit his restaurant in the first place?

In advertisements for cell phones, humans are now depicted breaking up with girlfriends via text message (which they get to do thanks to cheap rates), ignoring their families, reclining to watch a movie on a public train because they think it's their living room, and finally turning into robots, all without a hint of irony. These scenarios, all of them, are filmed as evidence for why you should buy cell phones. In The Social Network, Napster co-founder and eventual president of Facebook Sean Parker claims, "We lived in fields, we lived in cities, and now we'll live on the internet," right before getting busted for doing a bunch of coke. He worries about the scandal "getting out."

The Social Network is a great movie, nearly perfect. It's funny and slick, brutal when it needs to be and light-hearted when it gets the chance. It's an expertly told story, thanks to the unlikely teamwork of writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher. It's beautiful and moving, and should work as entertainment for anybody inclined to sit down for it. But what makes it great is Sorkin's ability to write hateful and pitiful people with sympathy, which, coupled with Fincher's pervading sense of doom, allows the story to unfold as though it were a movie about the Manhattan Project. These children, these college kids about to change the world, have no idea the havoc they are to wreak. Or, if you aren't interested in that, it's just a great story.

It's all about money, power and sex, of course. Sorkin posits Facebook's inception as the result of a break-up. Zuckerberg unleashes a vengeful blog post that he will never live down; when he tries to apologize, he is told "the internet isn't written in pencil, Mark. It's written in ink." This sounds like a theme line (and it is), but Sorkin is too expert a dramatist to let anything like this hang in the air. He keeps the story pumping, and he'll let us make our own judgments. It's not about changing or not changing the world: it's about getting the girl to notice you, getting the coolest guys to want to be your friend, becoming cool and staying cool. The peak of the relationship between Zuckerberg and his former best friend Eduardo Saverin is shown as the night they get recognized as the creators of Facebook and end up getting blown in adjacent bathroom stalls. It's a high that Zuckerberg chases while Saverin stays down on earth. Zuck traffics in Cool and ends up addicted. Whether you end up feeling sympathy for Mark Zuckerberg will be left up to you. Sorkin and Fincher are merely going to show you how to get there.

But it's simultaneously a tremendous, microcosmic examination of what Facebook has become to so many people. And if I experienced some fleeting disappointment following the movie that it wasn't a more vicious, unilateral attack, this quickly subsided because what I was hoping for was propaganda and what I got was a fable. Mark Zuckerberg is a nerd at best and an asshole at worst; the other characters discuss him like you would a book in English class, arguing about his true nature. What's explicitly clear from the opening scene on is that this kid is socially inept and wants not to be, even as he feels he shouldn't have to work so hard for it. In the process of trying to get cool, he ends up inadvertently reducing everybody in the world to his level. (That they're actually reducing themselves is a whole other matter; we can't really even blame the guy.) Cool is a number, image is a webpage, fashion is a 140-character status and Zuckerberg is our all-knowing, all-seeing God.

The judgments are left to us, as will be the case in any movie with the balls to put its story first and let the audience do some thinking for itself. But the evidence is all there. What are we to make of the fact that Facebook was born from a premium on exclusivity and now everybody and their mother gets to make a page? What of the comparison to Napster, as Sean Parker gets on board behind the site? He brags of how he changed the world, and Saverin corrects him: Napster lost and went broke. But, Parker counters, he changed the music industry forever. This man wants to do to social interaction what he did to he music industry. He wants to live life digitally so that it can be quantified rather than qualified. If five of my friends are watching one thing on TV and six are watching the other, I already have all the information I need to make a decision.

Barring an unlikely revolution, we're gonna be stuck like this for a while, and it makes me wonder what my own or anybody else's individual thoughts are really worth any more. When I put these words on the internet, I'll just be a raindrop in the thought-cloud: the blogosphere loves The Social Network. But don't take my (our) word for it. Get out there and make your own thoughts.


  1. So, since I exist at least in part to argue with you, I have to take issue with your exclusively bleak picture of what the internet is bringing us to. Specifically, this assertion:

    "If five of my friends are watching one thing on TV and six are watching the other, I already have all the information I need to make a decision."

    Counter point 1: The internet didn't invent herd behavior. Back when the only way you knew what someone was watching was by what you gossiped about in person over the water cooler, people still wanted to be on the same page as their peers. BBC radio premiered, thousands of regional accents throughout England died. When the printing press was born, consistent spelling and grammar soon followed. Technology enables sameness by enabling connection, humans and their hard-wired human impulses do the rest.

    Counter point 2: If anything, the growth of the internet has fractured herd thinking rather then strengthened it. Just like the printing press marked the end of Latin as the international language of scholars, the internet marked the end of water cooler hegemony. Rather than being stuck with only your small town for a social group, anyone with an internet connection can create a community of like-minded minorities devoted to any subject you can dream of. Rather than changing yourself to suit the crowd, you have an infinite ability to find the crowd that suits you. While in some ways this is sad for the people at the center, who used to have high-quality face-to-face interactions with their peers, for the people at the margins, formerly shut out completely, it has the capacity to be literally life-saving. One look at Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project can tell you that. So, while it's easier for some people to trade in high-quality interactions for low-quality interactions without thinking that decision through, others have a kind of social access they've never possessed before. People without privilege gaining access seems more important than people with privilege choosing not to use it.

    Counter point 3: As the web gets more social, as people's boundaries between electronic self and flesh-and-blood self become more permeable, so do the boundaries between the friends we make online and the life we lead in flesh. Which is a fancy way of saying that people now are much more comfortable meeting in person friends they've made through the web. So, building a social community online is not necessarily building something empty of valuable human connection. It can just be another way of laying the foundations for a high-value friendship.

    So, that's not to say that Facebook doesn't enable conformity, or create distance in relationships by flattening them, or cause insomnia. But I would say that the conformity it enables is much less significant than the way it lightens the burden of uniqueness. Conformity is not knew, but the niches the internet lets flourish make it less oppressive. These tools are still new, humans are still figuring out where they fit in our lives, what they make better and what they make worse. But I think you are being unduly bleak in your assessment, and I don't think it's just because I am addicted to twitter.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Cassandra. You're right that I have a bleak outlook, but I gotta call 'em like I see 'em, you know? To borrow another point from Lainer, it's not the internet that I fear so much as they way people use it. Knives are a great tool, but they can do a lot of harm if we use them the wrong way.

    1 - The internet didn't invent herd behavior, of course. But it's making it widespread in new and terrifying way. I'm more concerned with what the herd behavior is, rather than that everybody is doing it. If everybody were giving each other hugs, I wouldn't have a problem. But we're not, we're giving each other Pokes and retweets. We're yelling into our phones on the train and driving while texting; we're attached to our *phones* (and now our tablets). We're less and less aware of the living, breathing people immediately around us than we ever have been.

    2 - I have to take exception to your citation of the "It Gets Better" project. In his column, Savage wrote that we have new ways of reaching these kids, and we do - but we need a singular mind with a syndicated newspaper column to call us into action. This is not herd behavior - this is leadership in action. But, he's using the internet as his tool and if Savage can save one life, then thank god for the internet. I mean that.

    3 - What I'm hearing here is that the stigma surrounding personal ads is dying because everyone has a personal ad on their Facebook page. Whatever. We may be more "comfortable" to meet people we first encountered on the internet, but [a] it's making us less comfortable meeting people in person who are actual strangers and [b] the people we're meeting that we met on the internet are not, in fact, the people we met on the internet - they're the product that they themselves are advertising, with great potential for fallacy.

    I'm not saying people are inherently dishonest or untrustworthy. I see CATFISH as a fantasy with a mostly-happy ending about how the worst thing that can happen as a result of Facebook relationship-ing is that we end up with a different, more exciting relationship than we originally thought.

    But Facebook's commodification of the self is inherently fucked. We check boxes and fill in fields and get a little swell of false pride for every Like we earn. It's not dishonest, but it's not honesty either. To bring it back to THE SOCIAL NETWORK, I'd like to cite Sorkin's (possibly fictional) positing of Zuckerberg as coming up with the relationship status as an easy way of finding out if a girl is single. This is trenchant. "People don't wear signs advertising whether or not they're single," Zuckerberg is about to say as the lightbulb goes off. Well, now we do.

  3. As someone who refuses to fill out her online dating profile with any kind of self description, I can't pretend that I don't feel and stress out about the self-commodification. It's there, it is fucked, especially when people don't recognize that they are doing it. On that score, you are right. But that some people use it that way does not mean everyone uses it that way, and it does not mean it will be used that way forever. And there are ways you can use that aspect of the internet to explore new parts of you personality-- example: my understanding of feminism is deeper and my advocacy of it is bolder because I've been able to develop it in safe spaces before having to expose it to potentially hostile environments.

    Your knife analogy is appropriate-- people have a tool, right now the majority are being used by it, not the other way around, and that is scary. But I think the tide is changing on that, and I think you're wrong to dismiss Dan Savage as an outlier. Dan Savage has the platform he does because he built it and he built it using the internet. So did John Green. Both started in print, both have been approved by gatekeepers, yes. But the quality and size of the communities they've built has everything to do with the internet and relatively little to do with their gatekeeper approved positions in print media. And my point isn't everyone is going to be Dan Savage, but that people like Dan Savage now have the ability to lead like-minded herds that they lacked before. And they have that ability because of the niche-fostering nature of the internet- a quality your argument fails to account for.

    So, I think your assessment of the current moment is pretty accurate. Most people use the internet, and especially facebook, exactly the way Mark Zuckerberg wants them to. But I think the tide is turning. I think the positive powers of the internet are only beginning to be tapped into, so I am hopeful about just how it will ultimately shape us. And I am constantly amazed at the amount of delightful, intelligent discourse I can find using it. Again, it may not be the mass culture I'm engaging with, but I think it has the potential to be an influential fragment.

    Only time will tell, though, and in the meantime, it gets scary out there.