Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Social Network

Self-exposure and self-promotion are by now no longer the domain of celebrities. Twitter, in fact, comes close to providing for its users a realization of Andy Warhol's prediction that "in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes."

The various internet social networks have provided otherwise faceless people who might feel too exposed or vulnerable in a public forum with a means to speak their minds. The beneficiary of considerable hype, Facebook now has more than half a billion users. Unlike Twitter, which is more of an online celebrity bulletin board, Facebook enables its users to create their own "wall" on which they can post birthdays, hometowns, bios, photos, and their current locations. It has provoked concerns over privacy and questions about exactly who has access to all the personal information that users seem all too willing to give up. It has also brought up issues about the privacy of all internet use. Many people are so deluded about that word "privacy" that they behave as if social networks like Facebook allow them the freedom of expression that only their neighborhood bar used to provide. One could always deny having said certain things in a bar, or just attribute them to intoxication (like Mel Gibson), but you can never take back what you have once posted on the internet. For better or worse, it is out there forever.

Some people in public service who harbor racist, sexist, or homophobic views mistakenly believe that Facebook is the place to express such views and wind up on the six o'clock news when they are "outed" by one of their alleged friends. Others express personal opinions of their bosses and find themselves fired for it.

The new film, The Social Network, based on the book The Accidental Millionaires by Ben Mezrich, calls into question every available definition - including the legal one - of the term "intellectual property." Its hero, Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is an unattractive, nerdy computer genius who creates a social networking program that he calls "Facemash," which is little more than a college prank. It gets him into some trouble at Harvard, where he is studying - you guessed it - computer science. His interest in a particular co-ed is frustrated by the embarrassment she endures at the hands of Facemash. He meets Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss who try to enlist his help in the creation of "HarvardConnection." Zuckerberg takes the idea and runs with it, creating a social network by himself (with the help of Eduardo Saverin and two others). In a matter of days, The Facebook attracts thousands of users.

The film explores how The Facebook became Facebook, thanks to Sean Parker (played with scary smoothness by Justin Timberlake), and to what lengths Zuckerberg decided to go to realize a dream - which, the film suggests, was simply an elaborate means of getting a girl. The film is told in flashbacks from legal hearings in which Zuckerberg is being sued by former friends. Zuckerberg remains cocksure of the importance of his vision until the very end of the film when he realizes what he has done to some of his friends- the ones who supported him emotionally and financially from the beginning, until he maneuvered them out of their shares in Facebook. Zuckerberg emerges in the film looking like something of a fool as well as a canny, if uncaring, businessman. A title at the end of the film mentioning that Zuckerberg is the youngest billionaire in the world is supposed to be rueful.

The film takes a fascinatingly dim view of Zuckerberg and the people who helped him to create Facebook. It doesn't say anything at all about what Facebook does for its subscribers or what it means to them or to human discourse in general. Zuckerberg emerges as a remarkably single-minded character, determined to establish his idea, which was not entirely original, as the overwhelmingly dominant one. The rise of Facebook has been swift, making me wonder how soon it will peak in popularity and profitability. Claims for the site, not to mention the internet itself, are extremely optimistic.(1) A common scene in public places nowadays is people sitting next to one another, completely absorbed in conversations with others on their cellphones or laptops. Human discourse is becoming a matter of connections between people out of physical reach, "facing" one another only through the intervention of webcams or videophones. Nobody but Zuckerberg knows what his next move will be. But based on his past actions towards former friends, I wonder if it might not be so welcome to his subscribers.

David Fincher has been around longer than his filmography would suggest. He started out in music videos before turning to feature films in 1992, His second film, Seven,(1995) is an extraordinarily effective thriller. Fight Club (1999) would seem, for now, to be his masterpiece, combining an interesting visual sense with - god help us - genuine ideas. He made Zodiac (2007) a fascinating period film (I don't recall the 70s being so ugly). He hit it big with the Benjamin Button film, which is grossly overrated. The Social Network is well made, thought-provoking entertainment.

(1) A recent book, The Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov, suggests that social networking poses dangers to users in countries where freedom of speech is not considered a right. What the secret police know about the people who use Twitter and Facebook might surprise many of its most avid users.

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