Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Creating 'The Social Network,' Creating Us

Art is a tool we use to invest meaning in our lives, and the best art comes from the most familiar yet least expected places, and the least expected meanings we recognize there.

Today’s announcement of the nominees for this year’s Academy Awards includes “The Social Network,” with seven including Best Picture. Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay follows some of the construction of the book he adapted, “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich. The information was taken from interviews and court proceedings, which is why the movie uses the construct of depositions to tell the story, during which the characters retell their versions of what happened. Before seeing it, one wonders how anybody could make an engaging film about the creation of Facebook.

But to keep the movie from playing out like a trial, Sorkin instead bookends it with a device much like Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud” - the key to understanding the main character, Mark Zuckerberg, is in the scene which opens the movie.

Mark and his date Erica Albright are discussing Final Clubs - Harvard’s tradition-bound exclusive societies which tap students to join and seemingly propel them onto lifelong success. Mark tells her that he must do something to get the attention of the clubs, because they are “exclusive and fun and lead to a better life.” Erica chastises him for being obsessed with the clubs, but their relationship breaks down when she asks Mark what is the easiest club to get into. Mark assumes that she is asking which one he would have the best chance of joining, and we see immediately that Mark, for all his genius, has no self-image or self-esteem.

The scene is a primer in characterization, in rich dialogue, and in mimicking life. Erica and Mark discuss three or four subjects at once, with Mark’s opening question - “How do you distinguish yourself?” - establishing the keynote for the movie that follows. We realize immediately with Mark’s seemingly-rote question, “Would you like to talk about something else?” that he has no social skills.

Erica assures him she isn’t “speaking in code,” to which he tells her there is a difference “between being obsessed and being motivated.” But we know that Mark is both. Erica attempts to reassure him, then in a half-joking, half-earnest voice, tells him he should be “the best you you can be.” This phrase, of course, rings hollow with him, as she intended it. But its triteness masks its relevance, for it’s the sort of thing you would hear in an elementary self-esteem lesson instead of a college bar. But it reminds us once again of who we are dealing with - a socially stunted yet brilliant person on the cusp of a life-changing event.

Erica leaves Mark, with him questioning “Is this real?” Real life is much harder than the Internet, which is where Mark retreats in anger and begins blogging about the evening, calling her names, saying that her bra size is much smaller, and creating a website that allows voters to pick the hottest between two women. We realize just how gifted Mark is, and once again, how unable he is to connect with another person. Eventually, his exploits lead him on to the other characters who will be there at the creation of Facebook, and the eventual carnage of those friendships.

Mezrich’s book states plainly why Facebook emerged from other social networking sites to become an astounding success:

“…it was going to mimic what went on at college every day - the thing that drove the college social experience, drove people to go out to the clubs and bars and even the classrooms and dining halls. To meet people, socialize, converse, sure - but the catalyst of it all, the burning engine behind those social networks, was as simple and basic as humanity itself.”

Later in the movie, flush with success at Harvard, Mark encounters Erica again in a club. We sense he wants to apologize, and he asks if she’s aware of Facebook. She will have none of it, still remembering his blog entries, not caring what he does “in a dark room.” He is anti-social, she says, and no amount of success will make him anything less. “Good luck with your video game,” she says, dismissing him as he leaves her with the friends she did not wish to be rude to by leaving. Immediately after this meeting, Mark decides it’s time to expand Facebook.

Just this week, Pope Benedict XVI issued a statement, “Truth, proclamation and authenticity of life in the digital age,” which lauded social networking sites as a way to connect but warned of the danger of substituting such contact for real life encounters.

"Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others, provided that attention is paid to avoiding dangers such as enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence, or excessive exposure to the virtual world," he said. "In the search for sharing, for 'friends', there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself."

Earlier, I wrote about how Facebook gives us a window not only into how we encounter people in the here and now, but also in the hereafter. But Sorkin’s script introduces a few interesting points about social networking - that in creating a different world for ourselves in the virtual, we risk bringing our own individual contradictions with us. We cannot expect honesty in a world we create when we are dishonest in the world we did not choose. No matter what our visions are about ourselves, reality intrudes, even in the world that is unreal.

As Facebook expands in “The Social Network,“ the movie explores various other, older concepts of how people interact- for example the Winklevoss twins’ hesitancy to sue Zuckerberg because of the concept of the Harvard gentleman. But Mark needs a new muse, and Sorkin introduces the character of a young, female lawyer called in for jury selection consultation, perhaps to take up Erica’s missing space in the narrative.

She speaks to Mark during off times in the depositions, with him finally telling her “I’m not a bad guy.” She tells him he’s not, but “you’re trying hard to be.” As the movie ends, we see Mark has been checking Facebook throughout the picture and he’s finally found the profile page of Erica Albright. He continues to refresh the page, hoping to find out what she’s up to, even after he’s cast aside the idea of sending her a friend request that he knows she’ll refuse. He is a billionaire, alone in a room in a tall building, master of an unreal empire where he alone is its sole monarch and, seemingly, its only subject.

In the background, the Beatles’ “Baby You’re a Rich Man” plays, asking the question:

How does it feel to be
One of the beautiful people?
Now that you know who you are
What do you want to be?

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