Wednesday, November 3, 2010

THE SOCIAL NETWORK

The Social Network is an exceptionally dark film that offers up a veritable smorgasbord of every negative impact that digitised socialising has been accused of causing, from selfishness and delusion, to cyber bullying and social alienation. Justin Timberlake plays slimy Sean Parker, disgraced Napster founder, and Zombieland’s Jesse Eisenberg returns to ├╝ber-nerd territory as the intensely geeky Mark Zuckerberg, inventor of social networking site Facebook. It is a film that addresses a huge array of concerns, many of which are not resolved, reflective of the fact that the Facebook story is not over – the site and its culture are still growing and evolving. A dank but forgettable score by Trent Reznor faintly permeates the film.

Mark Zuckerberg and Harvard college roommate Eduardo Saverin brought Facebook to life in 2003, in their dormitory, in a whirlwind of drunken ambition. Their cares were few: the site’s success (counted in ‘hits’) and finding girls who will sleep with them because of it. They disregarded much: issues of property theft, friendship betrayals, hacking, Internet privacy, cheating, misleading contracts and lawsuits. The film never quite explains whether Zuckerberg is guilty of cruelty or is simply too young and socially immature to make wise decisions or consider impacts on others. Rather, the focus is on the consequences of Zuckerberg’s unsociable behaviour, egotism and illustrates his coldness to a level approaching Camus’ ‘The Outsider’.

It is easy to imagine some women will find this film offensive. The phrases ‘meeting girls’ and ‘getting laid’ are used synonymously. Females are portrayed as either ‘crazy’ techno-addicts or as the fleshy rewards that come with success and prestige, to be plied with drugs and alcohol, slept with and then ignored when leisure time is over. I am told this is true-to-life, not a directorial device, despite its effectiveness in casting the ethics of Facebook-use into uncertainty. Only one beautiful, articulate female is present and she shines as a beacon for healthy relationships and moral behaviour amongst the superficiality that orbited the birth of Facebook.

When Facebook first emerged in 2003, it easily fit on a shelf that contained all other social networking sites. It facilitated all manner of narcissism and gratuity. To have Facebook or Myspace or Friendster was akin to watching reality TV or reading tell-all tabloid magazines: it was a guilty pleasure. But Facebook became something else, something transcending cool or uncool. Its simple blue-and-white design resembles that of Google and Apple, whose projected ethos’ combine democracy, philanthropy and equity.

Facebook seems to have absorbed some of that ethos over the last few years. It has hosted some of the most soul-lifting feats of fundraising, petitions and campaigns for all manner of worthy causes. All users have the same page layout. Separated Families can keep in touch. There is the semblance of user privacy. It’s convenient. Its perceived virtues are easy to list. The Social Network is a film that comes at a time when Facebook membership is (as ever) at an all-time high, but more than that, its social assimilation is peaking. ‘Facebook’ is a verb now! Like the telephone, TV or microwave, it is useful and for many, indispensable. In this climate, it is easy to assume that like the image of Google or Apple, Facebook is a manifestation of some kind of sincere desire to interact with people, to make life easier, to help human beings meet each other, all for free, for the good of the world. We needed this film, now, to remind us of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The Social Network is a reminder to never take social networking too seriously. The film’s small central cast perform a warning: no matter how pliable a social networking site may appear, it can never do justice to the person it represents. No amount of money, hits, site members or company shares could improve the lot of Mark Zuckerberg, who is styled here as the 21-year-old billionaire with only one friend.

The rhythm of this film aims for a late redemptive arc. Unfortunately, the exposition so perfectly portrays its characters as selfish and unfeeling, that any gesture towards explaining that behaviour is unconvincing. One feels that the line ‘you’re not a bad person’ was the result of some stipulation that Zuckerberg contractually required the filmmakers to include. Perhaps this portrait of a seriously handy website born out of a socially rancid collegiate clique was meant as a warning against the evils of ‘online life’, but I doubt it. Rather, it proves that any project or occupation requiring total immersion and specialisation will probably cause extreme alienation. In creating Facebook, Zuckerberg formed his own world of hits, programming terminology and legal contempt, which outsiders couldn’t penetrate. The same applies to the world of Facebook: it has its own rules and dialects. Its formalities and etiquettes are as stringent as those of Victorian courting or royal audiences. If we let it, it will soak into the way we talk, write and interact so that it becomes yet another barrier which stands between two people understanding, appreciating and caring for one another.

I won’t be deleting my Facebook account, but watching this, I was tempted. 7/10

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