Director David Fincher’s movie is not necessarily historically accurate, but its lessons about privacy and power still ring true nearly 10 years later.
In 2010, Facebook was having a pretty good year. It was good because the site was still seeing massive user growth and it had seen its valuation balloon to $23 billion. Facebook was also facing backlash over violating users’ privacy, but it was nothing like the public lashings the company faces now. Not all on the up-and-up, but not all bad either.
Then, on October 1, The Social Network came out. It was an at times blistering, two-hour version of Facebook’s origin story, and all the double-crossing and lawsuits that followed. Critics and audiences loved it (the movie went on to win three Oscars), it pretty much launched Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ careers as film composers, and it painted a less-than-flattering picture of cofounder Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg). It was, as the haunting billboards at the time suggested, a portrayal of the dark side of the founding of your mom’s new favorite social media site.
Was it true? Eh … maybe? At the time, Zuckerberg called it fictional (and later “hurtful”) and the company’s PR team ran some countermeasures in the lead-up to its release without ever really attacking the film itself. It was based on actual news and court cases, so it wasn’t as if director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin created the thing from whole cloth. But there were, clearly, dramatic flourishes, the least of which is the fact that no one actually speaks the way Sorkin writes. Instead, The Social Network was, as so many of these films are, an amalgamation of truths, fiction woven together from fact.
Now, nearly a decade later and 15 years into the life of Facebook, I think I’ve realized something: The Social Network was right. Not necessarily historically accurate—only the people who were in the room know those truths—but about its messages: privacy matters (whether you’re taking photos from a sorority web site or giving access to user data), connection comes with consequences, the tech boom gave an enormous amount of power to people who’d never touched it before.
But more than any of those overarching themes, when reminded of The Social Network, I always think of Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), the woman (fictional) Zuckerberg called a “bitch” on his LiveJournal and then confronted in a restaurant a few months after their breakup. “The internet’s not written in pencil, Mark,” she says when reminded of the slight. “It’s written in ink.” In 2010, that seemed like a whip-smart Sorkin-ism. Today, amid the Cambridge Analytica and fake news dustups—and the fact that Facebook gets even Trump appointees in trouble—it feels eerily prescient. The “move fast and break things” mantra might’ve felt fun back in Facebook’s early days, but as the company gained more power, the problems became bigger—and not all of them could be solved with more code. Facebook couldn’t just erase what it couldn’t repair. Their mistakes were logged.https://www.youtube.com/embed/lB95KLmpLR4?autoplay=0&mute=0&controls=1&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fapp.getpocket.com&playsinline=1&showinfo=0&rel=0&iv_load_policy=3&modestbranding=1&enablejsapi=1&widgetid=1
The Social Network is something of a decoder ring for popular opinion about Facebook at any given time. Watch it in 2010 and it might feel much darker than anything associated with the company needed to be. Watch it today, it almost seems like the company got off light. In an essay for The Verge just two years ago, Kaitlyn Tiffany pointed to Zuckerberg’s political ambitions and platitudes about connection (and lack of culpability for the ramifications of it) and concluded that “watching The Social Network in 2017 is also weird, disorienting, gag-inducing, and full of unintentional laughs … it feels like a relic, a naïve movie with quaint, softball critiques of Mark Zuckerberg and his creation.”
Late last year, Jim Rutenberg, writing for The New York Times, straight-up declared, “The Facebook Movie Told Us What We Needed to Know About Mark Zuckerberg.” Discussing Facebook’s potential role in Russian election tampering in the US and chaos in Myanmar, Rutenberg said, “The film’s portrayal of the budding tech magnate as someone more interested in growing his creation than in who might be hurt by it has stood the test of time. … Watching the origin story unfold from stadium seating eight years ago, I thought I was seeing a series of hard lessons learned as a callow 19-year-old came of age. Streaming it in 2018, I saw something else: the beginning of a pattern that has become all too familiar.”
Put simply, the movie is a Rosetta Stone. If you want to translate how you or anyone else is feeling about Facebook, turn on The Social Network and chronicle the reactions.
Like many great works of fiction, Fincher and Sorkin’s movie didn’t, or at least hasn’t, aged poorly. It might seem a little naïve now, but the lessons, the takeaways, are the same.
Like many great works of fiction, Fincher and Sorkin’s movie didn’t, or at least hasn’t, aged poorly. It might seem a little naive now, but the lessons, the takeaways, are the same. It says a lot about the state of the world then; it says a lot about the state of the world now. Some of this is due to the fact that the filmmakers constructed The Social Network as a modern creation myth, the Hero’s Journey 2.0, and those stories are timeless. In that regard, it will always be a good film—a Citizen Kane for a different kind of media mogul. (Film nerds, I’ll see you in the comments below.) More than that, those stories “need a devil,” as a lawyer played by Rashida Jones points out to Zuckerberg himself in a bit of fourth-wall-breaking. In this movie, whether or not you agree Facebook’s CEO is that villain depends largely on how you feel about Facebook’s CEO, bitch.
This, of course, points to another fact about Facebook: It will always be conflated with Mark Zuckerberg. As the site’s public, um, face, public opinion about him will often reflect on public opinion about the company, and vice versa. As Facebook’s issues have grown in recent years, Zuck is the one who bears the brunt. He’s the one who has to make a good impression before Congress, the one who gets written into Saturday Night Live sketches, the one investors want to remove as chairman in troubled times. Yet, folks don’t know much about Zuckerberg personally, not really. “Like Facebook itself,” Scott Brown wrote in a piece about The Social Network for WIRED, “the unreadable public Zuck is a fascinatingly content-free platform, a cipher that avid minds can’t help but fill with their own interests and obsessions.” Sorkin and Fincher built on that, giving the CEO a persona but also leaving him open to interpretation.
Prior to its release in 2010, The Social Network was introduced to the world in a now-iconic trailer that featured an unnaturally eerie cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” by the Belgian women’s choir Scala and Kolacny Brothers. It supercut scenes and voiceover from the film with the movie’s catchphrase, “You don’t get to 500 millionfriends without making a few enemies.” (500MillionFriends.com is currently for sale, BTW, and Facebook now has so many more users than that.) At the time, it was a sharp observation about the relationships sacrificed in the making of a relationship-building website. The key in 2019, however, to understand the power it created for its founder is in the lyrics: “I don’t care if it hurts, I want to have control.”
All Rights Reserved for Angela Watercutter