The story of the founding of Facebook is told through deposition testimony in two lawsuits brought against Mark Zuckerberg. In one he is being sued by his former Harvard roommate and friend, Eduardo Savarin.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The United States’ myth of opportunity holds that those who work hard may achieve, and that history is a progressive, forward movement in which the country betters itself through such hard work. Yet such optimism has consistently been tempered by a sense that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” inadequately define a satisfied life. Thus, the myth of individual success also frequently becomes a story about loss and failure. For example, based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the owner of a nationwide chain of “yellow journalism” newspapers, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) portrays Charles Foster Kane as having achieved material success at the cost of a life of dissatisfaction. Forcibly exiled from his childhood home, he remains consistently angry and alone as an adult. Even that champion of historical progress, John Ford, late in life enunciated the myth’s failure in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” grandly announces the newspaper editor. The successful lawyer, governor, senator and ambassador to Britain, played by James Stewart, is ashen-faced, however, when he realizes that the material progress he has cultivated on behalf of his country has masked the fact that Vera Miles, the love of his life whom he married, has never loved him. The myth maker Ford eulogizes instead the primitive John Wayne who has died penniless and alone in order to make way for that dream of “progress.”
This same disillusionment also runs through U.S. literature. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) is the story of Jay Gatsby, who believed in the myth of achieving material success and thereby the promise of a better future only to learn the futility of his quest and his loss of a more Edenic past. Thus, the novel concludes:
The Social Network deals with that myth of material success and an historical shift in values in which that myth has come to be accepted as fact. It is a bleak portrayal of a male, adolescent-dominated world in which connections, not relationships, are all. The director, David Fincher, has worked with different screenwriters on all of his movies, and his movies prior to The Social Network — such as Se7en (1995), The Game (1997), Fight Club (1999), Zodiac (2007) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) — have in common that nearly all have at their center a young man lost and wandering through a series of episodes in which he seeks to define a place for himself. For each of these characters the search is obsessively personal, and in each the character is mistakenly confident that his skills will enable him to triumph. For example, the newly married Brad Pitt as Detective David Mills in Se7en taunts killer Kevin Spacey only to become Spacey’s seventh victim. Michael Douglas, a wealthy financier in The Game, remains certain that he can outsmart those who run the Game only to “succeed” by the grace of those who control the game. Fincher’s characters are lost and angry, adolescents in the bodies of grown men. Even Panic Room (2002), whose main character is played by Jodie Foster, focuses on her illusion that she can acquire security through her ex-husband’s money. Aaron Sorkin, the creator of the TV series West Wing and the screenwriter of The Social Network, places Fincher’s central character in an historical context. As such, he elevates the individual failure of Fincher’s character to a cultural failure.
The Social Network bases its story on Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), who, while an undergraduate student at Harvard University, developed Facebook. Through deposition testimony in two lawsuits brought against Mark — by Eduardo Savarin (Andrew Garfield) and by the Winkelvoss twins, Cameron and Tyler (both played by Armie Hammer) — the movie recounts how what is today a worldwide phenomenon began in Mark’s dorm room. Like other Fincher characters, Mark is no less brainy, no less confident that he can outsmart those around him, and yet he fails in the end to find any personal satisfaction in his seeming success. The Social Network is especially bleak in that Mark’s personal failure gain him financial rewards in a world in which Facebook is everywhere, including Bosnia where, as a young associate at the law firm defending Mark remarks in disbelief, there are not even any roads.
Mark’s obsessive creation of Facebook results in a worldwide network of “friending,” an exchange of electronic data by persons who are physically and emotionally at a distance from one another. As such, this kind of friending offers a parallel to Mark, who becomes increasingly isolated from those physically surrounding him. Mark Zuckerberg’s contemporary success in business, measured in billions of dollars, results in his personal failure to achieve anything of value. Ironically, it was never about the money for Mark; as a high school student, for example, he uploaded for free his idea of an application for an MP3 player, notwithstanding an offer from Microsoft. Later, in his quest for success, he is oblivious to and uncaring about the consequences to others of his commercial success. As a result, by the end of the film, his success has cost him personal growth, his friendship with his one friend, and the loss of an idealized love of his life. While inventing an online “social network,” Mark is consistently visually framed as a young man alone, whether in his law firm’s large conference room on the night that a settlement will be reached in the two lawsuits or in the loft-like space of the Facebook office on the night Facebook achieves one million members and its entire staff is out celebrating.
The Social Network deals with male adolescents, such as Mark, who should be in transition to manhood but never progress beyond their adolescence. Taught that individual achievement of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is all, they lack any genuine empathy with others and hence any sense of social obligation or responsibility for its own sake. While Harvard University has long been co-ed, the movie portrays the college as an historic relic: the exclusive domain of its male students. It equates the exclusivity of its “final clubs,” fraternity-like clubs, with the busloads of women brought in by those clubs to Animal House-like parties. Mark’s failed quest was to become a member of a final club at Harvard, which, in Mark’s view, would lead to a “better life,” the contours of which, though, were unknown to him. Likewise, both in Facebook’s early stage when housed in a rented, suburban home in Palo Alto and later when ensconced in its high tech office space, adolescent males run the organization plugged into their computers with women as sexually available and often intoxicated or drugged objects. Women exist solely for the pleasure of these male adolescents who feel nothing beyond themselves and who thereby are inevitably alone in the midst of their noisy, crowded clubs.
It is the film’s women, however, who highlight the stunted growth and failings of these adolescent males. No scene better illustrates this than the opening, pre-credit scene in a coffee house where Mark engages in a rapid, nearly incomprehensible dialogue with his date, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). Talking nonstop about the number of Chinese geniuses and whether he can ever stand out at Harvard, a school filled with perfect score, 1600-SAT-achieving students such as himself, Mark ends up chasing away Erica. He is too solipsistic to understand her anger at his condescension and too self-absorbed in his own supposed worth to offer anything but a half-hearted attempt at apologizing to a woman who is a student at what Mark views as a lesser school. He knows only the rejection he feels. Exiting the coffee house, running through Cambridge and the Harvard campus and retreating to his dorm room, with “hauntingly quiet” music playing under the movie credits, Mark wreaks his revenge. Through his blog he attacks Erica’s bra size (which he attributes to help from Victoria’s Secret) and her family’s Anglicizing of its name from Albrecht to Albright. He also creates his Facemash site. He copies images of Harvard’s female students and then degrades those students, a project which is made visually parallel through intercutting to the scenes of women shown partying at one of Harvard’s final clubs.
An adolescent male unable to communicate other than through the currency of his ego, Mark is attuned only to the physical attributes of women, remarking that Erica has a “nice face” even as he continues to attack her through his blog. Sexuality for Mark means a blow job in a bathroom stall of a local club. Ironically, at that same club Mark by chance again meets Erica. She refuses to leave her friends with whom she is having dinner in order to speak alone with Mark and then she dismisses his new Facebook site as a “video game.” Her response to him makes it clear that Facebook will do nothing to achieve Mark’s goals, to the extent he even understands what those goals are. Just as Erica’s rejection in the opening scene led to Mark’s blog postings and Facemash site, Mark now decides to expand the Facebook site to other universities, Yale and Columbia, and insists that one of his roommates make certain that there is a write-up about Facebook in the Boston University student newspaper, the college which Erica attends. Mark’s supposed relationships are founded on his need to be acknowledged as better than anyone else, including sadly the woman whom he had dated and is still in his own mind courting.
Tellingly, Mark idolizes Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the founder of Napster. In the film, Sean is introduced to us as a successful celebrity sleeping with a blond Stanford student; he symbolically learns about Mark by shouting that there is a snake in that Stanford student’s bed. Indeed, when meeting Mark, Eduardo, and Eduardo’s girlfriend, Christy (Brenda Song), at a hip NYC restaurant, Sean is at ease with the attractive women hostesses. Later at a Palo Alto nightclub he is accompanied by two women, whose familiarity he attributes to their modeling for Victoria’s Secret, an ironic reference to Mark’s putdown of Erica’s bra size. Yet Sean also represents a warning to Mark. Sean tells Mark how the founder of Victoria’s Secret committed suicide after selling out his interest in the company too early and hence for too little to the adults of this world represented by The Limited. However, during their conversation Mark focuses on how Sean invented Napster during high school to win over a girl who was then dating a lacrosse player. While Mark sarcastically queries Sean whether the Victoria’s Secret story is a “parable,” ironically Mark fails to recognize that the “parable” for Mark lies in Sean’s answer to whether Sean ever thinks about his high school crush. “What girl?” Sean dismissively replies. The difference between Sean and Mark is that Mark has not forgotten Erica. The Mephistophelean-like seduction of this scene — where the overly loud noise nearly drowns out the characters’ dialogue in the same way as in the opening scene between Mark and Erica — results in the corruption of a creative imagination into a business success story.
The movie offers the audience some empathy for Mark through Marilyn Delpy (Rashida Jones), the second year associate in the law firm defending Mark in the two lawsuits. Largely silent, she observes all of the depositions and listens to all of the testimony of the players in the Facebook story. Indeed, Sorkin has commented that she is a stand-in for the audience. The only young person in the room besides Mark, the Winkelvosses and Eduardo, she is genuinely amazed at the 22,000 hits to Mark’s Facemash site and can laugh at the chicken story in which Eduardo is accused of animal cruelty. The conscience of the movie, her face shows the horror she feels on hearing how Mark duped his only — and trusting — friend Eduardo into signing documents which diluted Eduardo’s shares in Facebook to virtually nothing. While Marilyn declines in the movie’s last scene Mark’s offer to get something to eat, she seemingly offers him the partial comfort of qualifying Erica’s comment in the movie’s first scene that Mark will be disliked not because he is a nerd but simply because he is an asshole. In her view, Mark is instead “just trying so hard to be an asshole.” Clearly in that context, the principle asshole is Sean Parker. He is the entrepreneur who inspires Mark to print up “I’m CEO, Bitch” business cards, which make explicit the misogyny of these adolescent males. Thus, Mark tells Marilyn that he was “drunk and angry and stupid,” even as he begins refreshing on his computer his request to “friend” Erica.
Yet the movie remains disquieting and unsettling even as we come to understand Mark. While qualifying Erica’s comment, Marilyn, too, leaves Mark alone — in the large law firm conference room. And Mark’s conduct is legally punished only by a large fine comparable to a “speeding ticket,” to quote Marilyn’s comment, so that he becomes the world’s youngest billionaire. The lawyers will have their steak dinner following the day-long depositions which have been about events that have been the story of this movie, will return that evening to explain to Mark why he must settle, and will then draft settlement papers and reach terms which will provide no sense of justice to cure the wrongs that have been committed throughout the film. Cash will exchange hands, but friendships have been lost and the possibility, howsoever remote, of an adult relationship between Mark and Erica is foreclosed.