“The Social Network” is a fascinating, witty, intelligent film about the creation of facebook.com, the Internet phenomenon that transformed the way humans communicate with each other. Almost spontaneously, this social network spread around the globe in a matter of months. As one character says early in the film, “In Bosnia they don’t have roads, but they do have Facebook.”
Mark Zuckerberg is the brilliant but socially backward Harvard student who wrote the computer code and invented facebook.com, originally as a way for students to communicate privately with each other by computer. To be a part of thefacebook.com (later the “the” was dropped), one had to have a harvard.edu email address. Talk about exclusivity! Soon they expanded the network to Princeton, Yale, and Stanford, and eventually to other universities, always using word of mouth and exclusivity to create an Internet sensation devoid of marketing. In a textbook example of herd instinct, students jumped ship from myspace.com to join the exclusive world of Facebook.
“The Social Network” tells this story through the medium of two high-profile trials challenging Zuckerberg’s ownership of the idea of Facebook. Harvard students Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence) claim to have hired Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) to create a social network called Harvard Connect, which would have created a dating service exclusively for Harvard students. Instead, they claim, Zuckerberg expanded the idea and developed it himself, with financial support from his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). Eventually Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) enters the picture as well, giving advice on how to expand the network without losing the freshness that appealed to college students. Parker’s participation drives a wedge between Zuckerberg and Saverin.
These two trials become the framework for telling the story of how Facebook was invented. The dialogue is intelligent, witty, and fast-paced. The film opens with Zuckerberg having a conversation with his girlfriend, Boston University student Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). They scroll through the conversation, changing subjects and returning to previous subjects with the speed of an “Enter” button. Their conversation mimics the dizzying whirl of an IM chat, when both correspondents are typing at once, one starting a new topic while the other is still commenting on the previous topic until their responses become rich with unintended double meanings. This storytelling technique is extremely effective for instantly pulling the audience into the world of the characters onscreen.
Ironically, the inventor of the world’s largest social network is portrayed as socially inept. Zuckerberg is totally obsessed with his invention, but he has no sense of loyalty or discretion. When he’s angry, he acts out his revenge, often with intellectually complex but emotionally childish pranks. He doesn’t seem to understand why others feel hurt or betrayed by his actions. At one point, when venture capitalists have just invested a half million dollars in his cash-poor company, Zuckerberg is filmed through a window, standing on the outside, looking into the house where everyone else is celebrating together. That one moment speaks volumes about the character.
The film presents a fascinating look at the problem of protecting intellectual property rights in a world where products are as intangible as the air and computer programming makes theft easy. One has to have the ability to develop a product, create demand for it, and protect it from rip-off artists almost at once. Sean Parker, for example, invented Napster as a way for Internet users to “share” music with strangers simply by entering each other’s computers remotely and “nabbing” the music. It wasn’t all wine and roses, however. Users opened themselves up to id and Internet theft in the process, and eventually the music industry retaliated with hefty lawsuits for copyright violations. Ordered to pay millions in damages, Parker eventually declared bankruptcy. But, as he boasts in the film, he completely changed the way people buy music today.
The role of marketing also figures prominently in the film. It isn’t enough to have a bright idea; to be successful, one needs a developer/engineer who can execute the idea and enough money to build it and promote it. The Winklevoss twins may have thought up the exclusive Harvard dating site, but they return to rowing (their passion) while Zuckerberg “eats, sleeps and drinks” Facebook. Just as important is Saverin’s contribution of money, without which Zuckerberg could not have paid for the Internet servers to support the site and the interns to program the codes. Sean Parker also makes a valuable contribution, giving Zuckerberg the vision and the business contacts to expand globally and corner the market.
This part of the film brings to mind another great film, “The Magic Box” (1952), about the invention of the moving picture camera by William Friese-Greene (Robert Donat) in the late 19th century. Friese-Greene’s patent predates Edison’s, but he is hardly remembered today. Friese-Greene died a frustrated and little known pauper, while Edison enjoyed financial and popular success as the pioneer of cinematography. What made the difference? Financial and intellectual capital. Edison had the money and the know-how to develop his kinetoscope, produce it, and market it successfully. Friese-Greene did not. Within a generation, everyone was going to the movies, just as now everyone is on Facebook. That’s the virtue, and the risk, of capitalism.
“The Social Network” is one of the most interesting and enjoyable films of the year. Jesse Eisenberg portrays Zuckerberg’s intellectual brilliance and social awkwardness with a natural ease. His smart-mouthed and caustic responses to the attorneys during the hearings are laugh-out-loud funny. Justin Timberlake is perfectly snarky, sleazy, and suave as Sean Parker. And handsome Andrew Garfield is believably heartbroken as the best friend and CFO who is dropped when a more glamorous BFF comes along. This film is a must-see for anyone who uses Facebook, or for anyone who has ever said, “I could have invented that.”
Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and has served as the entertainment editor of Liberty Magazine since 2005. She is the founder and producer of Anthem Film Festival, which will premiere at Freedom Fest in Las Vegas next summer.