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4 Feb 2011

The Social Network and the 'getting it' gap

filed under: journal  :: modern life  :: movies

I finally got to see the movie The Social Network about three weeks ago, on a transatlantic flight. (It's kind of hard for me to catch first-run movies in the original language in theatres.) Since then, I've been quite obsessed about it. I've been checking out all the reviews, analyses, and interviews of the principals that I can find.

The movie itself is really well done, as mainstream movies go. There's nary a dull moment, the acting is generally terrific, the music quite fitting. I have mixed feelings about that snap-crackle-pop dialog style that is the trademark of an Aaron Sorkin script, but it did fit the feel of the subject matter.

(warning: spoilers abound below.)

But, even before I started looking into the background of the 'real' story behind the movie, some things just didn't feel right. This is a big flaming ball of fairly sensationalist fiction, not a documentary or even a "docudrama", which (I believe) tries to depict the subject matter fairly faithfully. Nothing wrong with that of course, except when people start to think it's factual, which they will do inevitably. The fiction goes way beyond factual discrepancies. And I think it's because fundamentally, the writer does not understand or respect his subject matter in the least.

There's that mysterious girlfriend, Erica Albright, who is presented as the main reason why Mark Zuckerberg started on the path that eventually lead to creating Facebook. Actually she's depicted as way more than that; she is Zuckerberg's raison d'etre, his muse, his Beatrice - unattainable, desirable, etc. Of course, it seems that she may not have even existed at all. Even if she did, possibly under another name, the timeline is all wrong, since the real Mark Zuckerberg had the same girlfriend he's still with around the time he came up with Facemash.

The Asian Girls and Misogyny thing

I'm female and Asian, so it was hard to miss this part...please bear with me. Try Googling "The Social Network" + "misogyny", and you'll find plenty written about this. Women are quite tangential to this tale of male geekdom, and aside from that too-good-to-be-true Erica and her more down-to-earth counterpart, the female lawyer at fictional Zuckerberg's deposition, all the females in this movie are either sorority-girl-bimbos with their claws out for a Harvard Man, or kind of geek-groupies. Most of the geek-groupies are Asian, and one of them later becomes the psycho girlfriend of Zuckerberg's "wronged" friend, Eduardo Savarin.

I have known plenty of male geeks for almost all my adult life, being a sort of female geek myself. So I know they can be misogynistic, and crude, and all of that. And, though I never went to the type of university that has wild frat parties, I'm sure they exist. It's just ironic that all the Asian girls in the movie are bimbos or psychos, the only two sane (and more than cardboard character) females are rather similar looking white girls (played by Rooney Mara and Rashida Jones) - and the real life girlfriend of the real life Zuckerberg, the one he's been going out it throughout the entire time period this movie takes place in, is a nice, seemingly normal Chinese American girl who's studying to become a pediatrician.

Back off the tangent

Anyway, that part did raise my hackles slightly. But my hackles were raised more by other factors of this movie.

Basically, it reflects the prejudices of the creators - the writer Aaron Sorkin in particular. Sorkin has stated in interviews that he not only does not 'get' the internets, he dislikes and distrusts it.

I am far closer in age to Sorkin than I am to Zuckerberg and co. But I've been online for years, and I believe I 'get' the internet. I don't think this is a generational thing; there are plenty of middle-aged grumpy old men and women (like me) who 'get it'. I'm not much of a Facebook user, but I've seen firsthand how social interaction can occur over the internets, and how it affects people, including me. And I really enjoy living in an era when every twinge of curiosity can be satisfied in mere seconds, a few clicks of my touchpad, rather than having to slog through the snow to get to the library. My nomadic existence would be simply impossible without the internet. I could not earn a the living I do, the way I do, without the internet.

But Aaron Sorkin, and probably David Fincher, do not 'get it'.

So, what happens if you are writing about a world, and the people that dominate and shape it to a large extent, that you have no respect or even liking for - but which is really topical right now? You do what Sorkin and Fincher did here - turn it into a cautionary tale, a sort of Greek tragedy, with Big Themes that people who don't 'get it' like them can easily relate to. Money. Greed. Lust. Revenge. Jerks you stab you in the back and say "it's just business". Wall Street meets Harvard geeks in hoodies.

The fundamental problem is that the people who do not understand the hardcore geeks of this world cannot fathom why they'd spend hours and days and weeks and months wrestling with, totally immersed in, computer code of all things, for no tangible (monetary or eh, getting laid) rewards. I'm sure Mr. Sorkin can understand why a writer might plug away at his craft for eons with no reward, just for the love of it, just because it's fascinating. But code? Figuring out how to make a stupid web site that enthralls people? That's not creative. How could it be?

As a past and current web geek type person, who has also added 'writer' to my resumé, I can understand the fascination of both. I can understand wanting to create something that attracts thousands, millions of people. During the past two weeks I had a chance to meet a lot of fans of my food blogs in person, and was astonished at how genuinely happy they were to see me. How did I manage to affect them this way? Through my humble little blogs, of all things. I can only imagine how much more engrossing and all-consuming it is to have created a behemoth like Facebook.

It is a bit sad, and annoying, to see a subject matter that you feel you are a part of (not Facebook in particular in my case but the whole Online World thing), dissed in such a skillful yet utterly misinformed way.

The world going forward may become even more fragmented, between the people who 'get it' and people who just don't or won't. It does seem as though younger people for the most part tend to 'get it', but there are still going to be lots of people who do not. Is being able to conduct substantial parts of your life online a good or bad thing? I don't really know. Is it a whole new, uncertain, and even scary (to some) world? Probably. Yep. Definitely.

Leftover stuff to wrap things up

I've barely addressed the two lawsuits that form the backbone of the story. To me they are not that interesting. The twins come off as privileged dilettantes, and Eduardo as an almost-as-privileged, slightly more naïve dilettante. The point is, they didn't, or couldn't, build it. (Eduardo could have gone further along on the ride, but he wasn't smart enough to keep up.) Mark Zuckerberg (with help) could and did, and they come off ultimately as loser crybabies. (ETA: Of course, their portrayal onscreen is probably as far from the reality as Mark Zuckerberg's seems to be.)

Getting to real-life people, I have lost some respect for Aaron Sorkin. (For what it's worth I liked West Wing well enough, but absolutely loved Sports Night.) Not because of his treatment of the story, which I disagree with but can understand (I think), but for his namby-pambying afterwards. He at first claimed the movie was close to the truth, then backed away from that statement. He addressed the misogyny part in a half-assed way too, and has ignored the Asian women issue entirely so far. He should probably keep it that way really. And his little 'well done, boy' bit at the Golden Globes (during his acceptance speech), directed at the real Mark Zuckerberg for donating to charity, was quite condescending. He's a great example of the adage, if you don't fully understand what you're talking about. STFU.

And as for the direction by David Fincher - I give all credit to him for the the look and feel and acting direction and so on, all of which I loved. (I was really pleasantly surprised by Justin Timberlake. I hope he'll be in many more movies.) I absolutely hated that Benjamin Button atrocity, so this has made me look forward to his future projects again. I have a suspicion that the script writer (and the original book of course, which is largely made up in substantial ways apparently) is the one mainly responsible for the inaccuracies, but maybe I'm giving Fincher too much of a break. At least he hasn't been opening his mouth and putting his feet in it as much as Sorkin has.

While I've lost respect for the writer, I've had the opposite reaction regarding his main subject. I know a lot of people think that the Mark Zuckerberg, and other characters, onscreen are close to the real life versions of them. It's a shame. Despite the often not flattering portrayal in the movie, and even though I'm not much of a Facebook user or fan, I did gain a whole new respect for what Zuckerberg and the people who stuck to him have managed to achieve so far.

(Further reading: Lawrence Lessig wrote that this is a movie made by people about a subculture they don't understand in the least. (And then goes on to grandstand about net neutrality, but anyway.))

Phew. Glad to get that off of my chest. Now I can stop obsessing about it.

Comments on this post:

I also saw The Social Network

I also saw The Social Network on a flight-- probably the only recent movie I've seen in a long time, too. :P I agree about the misogyny and was a little disgusted by it, but I didn't get the implicit hatred of the Internet that you saw in Aaron Sorkin's writing/David Fincher's directing. But it's perhaps because of my own dislike of Facebook and my growing dependence on being online that colors my judgment. I realize that's horrendously ironic for me to say, seeing as I am an active user of Facebook and write in a few blogs myself, but I do think I "get it"-- I do understand how the Internet and social media have changed how I interact with people-- but there are definitely parts of it I don't like, and Facebook, to me, feels like a necessary evil. So, maybe it was easy for me to vilify Zuckerberg as an Asperger's kid who doesn't know how to communicate or empathize with people, who only knows how to do so through a medium that mitigates any superficiality in relationships, because that it is how I feel about the medium itself.

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