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David Fincher's "The Social Network"
Narcissism and Claustrophobia Among the Techno-Elites
by KIM NICOLINI

When I first saw the trailer for The Social Network, my first thought was, “Why the hell would I want to see a movie about Facebook?” But then I was asked to teach the film for a New Media class, so I suddenly became obligated to see it. The first thing I learned is that it is directed by David Fincher, who usually does pretty interesting things in film, but I was so lacking in interest in seeing the movie that I didn’t even take the time to note the director.

The second thing I learned after seeing the film is that The Social Network moves far beyond a simple biopic about Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. Certainly the film is one of the most horrifying and nauseating films I have seen in recent times, but the horror and disgust isn’t necessarily a result of the portrayal of Zuckerberg (who admittedly doesn’t come off as a very nice guy), but as a result of a whole culture that is nauseating to witness. Sure, “The Social Network” on the surface refers to the internet social networking platform Facebook, but what really fuels this movie is the social network of class, privilege and access in America which drives Zuckerberg to become the person he is and do the things he does. Zuckerberg isn’t nice and what he does (steal  someone else’s idea for his own profit) seems despicable, but it is no more despicable than the privileged elite culture which he is acting against. None of the social networks in this film are attractive, and because of that, the whole movie paints a claustrophobically awful portrait of the self-created techno elite versus the old money white Protestant patriarchy and the combined effect of being drenched in both these networks for two hours is really enough to make anyone vomit, unless perhaps you happen belong to one of those networks.

When I say the movie is nauseating, I mean that in the best of ways. It is nauseating because it is so effective in what it does. Packaged as a kind of hybrid fictional biopic, the film does a tremendous job of laying the groundwork for the socio-psychology behind what has made a platform like Facebook so successful. It is clear through the film that Zuckerberg created Facebook out of class resentment (a middle class Jew within the old wealth Protestant elite of Harvard) and that the social network that is the focus of the film is not the actual internet platform of Facebook. Rather, it is the whole socioeconomic network of the American class system, especially in terms of educational privilege and ranking and how those terms relate directly to economic status. With its emphasis on ranking, exclusivity, and an incessant drive to “belong” and quantify one’s status, the Fincher film shows in no uncertain and markedly unattractive terms the way that Facebook was established as a way of promoting a sense of exclusive belonging (a social hierarchal ranking via the internet) while also providing a quantifiable mechanism to measure where a person ranks within the system. (How many “friends” do you have? How much is what you have to say “liked”? What schools did you go to? Where are you employed? Etc.)

The film’s excessive immersion into the prestigious, privileged and elite environment  of Harvard University, along with the cocaine and cash heavy environment of Silicon Valley and the general milieu of well-dressed, well-funded, beautiful, young people who clamber to the Facebook platform like trust-fund flies to a fluorescent bulb delivers a repulsive portrait of the artificiality and social-ranking that underscores new media “identities” in which people become datasets entwined in an economic system based on rank and privilege.

The opening sequence sets the stage in generic, stylistic, and ideological terms. We follow Mark Zuckerberg (played with disturbingly realistic effect by Jesse Eisenberg) in a foot race across the Harvard campus and then land in a bar with his girlfriend Erica where Zuckerberg dishes out dialogue like he’s playing a caustic round of verbal Tetris. Every word out of his mouth is fueled by resentment and his obsession with rank and privilege. We learn that more than anything else, Mark desires to belong to a “Final Club” (a type of elite Harvard University “social club”), and we also learn that he is a computer techno geek and considers himself a genius who is intellectually superior to the world. The 2003 time stamp, along with the music, lighting and subtle technical details ground us in a specific moment in very recent history, and the table is set. We understand that we are watching a historical biopic about the founder of Facebook and that the film’s protagonist is an arrogant young man who is fueled by class resentment and an obsession with rank and privilege.

Fincher is no stranger to the historical biopic (see Zodiac), but what makes The Social Network so interesting and effective is that it is a movie that historicizes events in the very near past (2003), events that remain very connected to (and indeed dominate) the present. The proximity of the historic time and how the events the movie depicts play such a significant role in the current cultural landscape muddle our sense of where we are located in the film (are we in the “now” or in the “then”?) or even of defining what constitutes history itself. With its emphasis on internet technology and the kind of horrific labyrinth of human data that becomes Facebook, the movie is almost like a science-fiction narrative of the past which is also undeniably connected to the present. The Social Network is a strange hybrid of a film that fictionalizes a real historical event (the creation of Facebook), and its schizophrenic identity (is it a fiction or a history?) itself mirrors the world of scripted internet identities that the movie explores. Just as the movie itself cannot be entirely trusted as a mirror view of Zuckerberg, neither can any of the identities that are created on Zuckerberg’s Facebook platform. The movie is constructed from media technology as are internet identities. Both are schizophrenic hybrids.

It is not just the manipulation of genre that allows the film to mirror its subject matter, but its actual technical construction also simulates the information-driven world of the film.  The fast-paced frenetic feel of the dialogue in the opening sequence continues throughout the movie, where all the dialogue is delivered in rapidly moving, quick fire exchanges that mimic the kinds of communication that are rampant in the information age where Facebook comments, text messaging, and email become substitutes for real human dialogue. The movie’s oddly abrupt, truncated, and rapidly shifting banter is particularly head-spinning in the various “courtroom” scenes where Zuckerberg is testifying at a deposition in regards to his stealing intellectual property. The evidence that is presented – mostly in a string of emails – and how it is delivered (in constantly interrupted bursts) becomes evidence of the way that virtual communication has changed the nature of dialogue and language itself.  The delivery of dialogue in this film simulates the language of virtual communication, a language that has been reduced to frenetic, abbreviated sound bites. One of the reasons the movie is so nauseating to experience is because the dialogue comes at us so fast and shifts so rapidly with its clipped phrases, constant interruptions and diarrhea of ideas (not those of the film but those of the characters, especially Zuckerberg). It’s like we are spending two hours being bombarded by a kind of stream-of-consciousness emoticon delivery system, and that experience is intentionally crafted through the film’s screenplay and editing to mirror interactions in the virtual environment of the new media generation (a generation that favors the abbreviated exchange of texting over the human interaction of talking, and which favors slick computer icons over actual living flesh faces).

It is not just the screenplay that simulates the techno-historical environment of the movie, but the overall technology of the filmmaking delivers a certain effect that relates it to recent history. The way the film is produced is one of the primary ways that it allows us to see the recent past as history and makes The Social Network one of the first historic "period" films about the 21st century. How the movie is made and functions technically defines its relationship to the historical time it depicts. Simple lighting and static camerawork frame the overall atmosphere of the film as an artifact. Also, the film’s meticulous attention to the nuances of technology development firmly ground the film in the past. Cell phones, computer monitors, keyboards, lines of green code scrawling across a black screen – all the slight nuances of technological history are present in the film and make us realize that this story is located in the past, but their close resemblance to the technology of the present also facilitates a sense of uneasiness about how rapidly “history” changes in the information age. Just look at the vast quantities of “E-Waste” that pollute the globe to testify to this fact. Everything we see in the film we recognize from the “now,” except it is all slightly dated and marked as from the “then.” We learned in Zodiac that Fincher is fastidious about recreating information delivery systems.  In Zodiac it was typewriters, newspapers, postal mail, telefaxes, and pay phones. In The Social Network, it’s laptops, cellphones and computer monitors.  As I watched the movie, I found myself obsessed with studying the technology and noting the differences and similarities between technology then and technology now. To further throw the film back into the walloping distance of seven years ago in history, Fincher also consciously chose “slightly dated” digital film technology to shoot the film:

Viper technology was a few years old by the time we started this project . . . I was comfortable with it and liked the bandwidth and the pictures I got . . . It’s light and small, and I could walk away from the set at the end of each day with a wallet full of CF cards, take them to the editorial department, download them, and go back and use them again. I call it a righteous workflow.

–David Fincher in American Cinematographer, October 2010

The way the film is digitalized in Fincher’s “righteous workflow” method mirrors the massive flow of information that Zuckerberg and Facebook are bartering with. Further, the Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails fame) soundtrack further puts a stamp of history on the movie, since Trent Reznor and NIN are also a kind of historical techno band.

Yes, as in Zodiac, The Social Network is an exercise in techno-fetishism, but that fetishism does not come without political commentary especially in relation to how class, rank and privilege breed a socio-political economy that allowed something like Facebook to become so successful in the first place. It is clear from the onset that Zuckerberg is fueled by resentment over not having access to the privileged class of the Final Clubs at Harvard. A member of the Jewish “fraternity,” his world of faux luaus and bad disco dance parties plays in stark contrast to the limousine, drug and money fueled parties for the rich and privileged on campus. That privileged class – white, Protestant, and full of money and entitlement – is represented in the film by the comical twins the Winklevosses (or as Zuckerberg refers to them in one of the more humorous moments of the film – the “Winklevae”) from whom Zuckerberg allegedly stole the concept for Facebook. Zuckerberg is obsessed with ranking because he knows that class and ethnicity in America, especially within the elite old money patriarchy of the Ivy League (which largely represents the exclusionary economic foundation of America), will never allow him a place in its ranks.  So Zuckerberg hacks his way into the very class that denies him access, and he creates his own “privileged domain” over which he presides like the victor assassin who took ownership of the kingdom. 

Designing Facebook primarily as a “social network” for Ivy League colleges, Zuckerberg’s motivation, as portrayed in the film, isn’t necessarily money but vengeance against the social system that denied him access and humiliated him.  He creates an internet platform where the very people who denied him ranking are reduced to quantifiable datasets. Zuckerberg sets up a whole new privileged domain in which he orchestrates the controls and defines the variables within its class hierarchy. He uses the system of rank and privilege against itself as the very people who ridiculed him or rendered him invisible clamber to be a part of his exclusive domain. That is Zuckerberg’s big payoff. And it is no more attractive than the discriminatory elite who Zuckerberg both covets and loathes.

Nevertheless, money may have not been Zuckerberg’s motivation, but he sure made a shitload of it by buying into a new elite economic class – the self-created techno-elite, the ones who use intellect, opportunism and ideas to carve out a position of economic power within the world of information technology. Justin Timberlake’s amazingly repulsive and icky performance as Napster co-founder Sean Parker completely embodies the economic opportunism of the post-dot.com era. Seeing capitalism as a big smorgasbord at his disposal, rather than sitting around and feeling victimized by its powerful economic presence, Parker bites right into the beast and swallows down every piece he can get while leaving someone else to pay the bill. Uneducated and self-created, Parker is the antithesis of the old money, educated, and established Winklevosses. Parker’s entire identity is like it just jumped into existence five minutes ago. It’s like he punched all the components of what a powerfully successful entrepreneur would look like (in comic book fashion) and out came this odious abomination wearing a hoodie and a Prada suit. He’s like a simulacrum of a human being, so superficially created out of the world of money, power, greed, and desire that he’d probably disappear if you found out how to remove his battery. The artificial composition of Parker’s identity is heightened to hallucinatory horrific effect in a San Francisco club scene when he proposes his plots and schemes for Facebook to become a billion dollar venture while the pulsing and distorted sounds of over-amplified techno music mesh with his voice and make him sound like the Devil himself asking Zuckerberg to sell his soul to the maw of venture capital, which Zuckerberg eventually does. I have to say, for the record, that Justin Timberlake’s performance is an incredible thing. He embodies his role with such force that I nearly punched the movie screen just to knock him out of my vision because I couldn’t stand looking at what he represents.

In other words, none of these worlds are very pretty – the world of old money Protestant patriarchy, the world of the resentful outcast with his malicious techno revenge plans, or the world of venture capital and information technology. It’s all ugly, and all sides are equally nauseating. The elite frat club party featuring girls in Victoria Secret underwear dry fucking each other for the frat boys’ amusement is just as repulsive as the party at Sean and Mark’s Silicon Valley home with the cocaine-sniffing, bong-smoking, underage techno groupies. It’s all gross. Needless to say, the use of women as just another plaything to quantify privilege and ranking also doesn’t provide a very pretty picture of these scenes.

Between the “Winklevae,” Sean Parker, and Mark Zuckerberg, we have Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Mark’s best friend and the sole financial investor in Zuckerberg’s initial Facebook venture. According to the scenario presented in the film, without Saverin’s money, there would be no Facebook. With his noble commitment to his friend Mark (despite the fact that Mark is constantly wiping his feet on Saverin’s seemingly innocent and dedicated backside), this wealthy Brazilian looks out at us with dedicated stoicism as he writes Mark another check for another few thousand dollars in his commitment to keep his and his friend’s enterprise afloat. Chief Financial Officer of Facebook, Eduardo pushes Mark to sell advertising space to keep the venture economically viable. Yet on principle, Mark refuses to whore out his project (though he doesn’t mind whoring it to enormous venture capitalists and giving Sean Parker a piece of the Facebook ass). Eventually Eduardo sues Zuckerberg for betraying (a.k.a. robbing) him, and the movie manipulates us to sympathize with the rich Brazilian.

But I have to ask why? Why should we sympathize with Eduardo? Because he tries to sell advertising instead of going for venture capital? Because he’s used by Zuckerberg? Because he gets into an exclusive Final Club and is the target of Zuckerberg’s resentment?  Because he’s feminized and pussy-whipped? Because he gets a $600 million settlement? Or because he’s not white? I think this last question points to the heart of the issue with Eduardo. In America, class and race aren’t supposed to mix. If you’re brown, you’re automatically deemed “worthy of sympathy and pity” or at least marked as “other” and not being part of the old money club. But the movie quietly undoes that skewed perception. It is the fact that Eduardo is also a part of an established old money patriarchy (the Brazilian kind) that he can fund Zuckerberg’s venture, that he gets into an exclusive Final Club, and that he endorses the “old school” means of supporting the Facebook venture rather than diving into the new economy represented by Sean Parker. It is also why Eduardo can afford the lawyers to win his lawsuit. So let’s not kid ourselves. Eduardo is also a part of the big money pie that is being dished out in this movie.

Of course, complicating Eduardo’s identity is one of the many ways that the film brilliantly deconstructs the whole concept of identity and ranking. Zuckerberg’s platform is all about manipulating identity through information media. He manipulates his own identity and all those around him. Beginning with hacking into sorority websites and manipulating dorm girls’ photos for his own perverse sense of vengeance and entertainment, then finishing by creating a “social network” that has pretty much taken over the world and reduced humans into malleable datasets, Zuckerberg’s enterprise and how Fincher’s film portrays it shows us how tenuous and flawed identities are in the first place, especially when they exist and are defined by ranking systems. The real horror of the movie isn’t necessarily Zuckerberg, but the fact that we live in a culture where the desire to be favorably ranked and accepted and to feel included in the “group” has allowed for people to become composites of information that is readily available for anyone’s use and manipulation. Not only do the people within the “social network” become datasets, but their communications themselves have become as fragmented as a series of code flickering across a computer monitor.

Interestingly, some of the technical construction of the movie also emphasizes the artificial nature of media constructed identities. For example, Fincher was not allowed to film on any Harvard property, so a large part of what we see in the film as Harvard is actually a reconstruction on a Hollywood set. This is interesting because Fincher’s “real life” encounter with Harvard barred him from access just like Zuckerberg was denied access to the inner Harvard elite. So Fincher, like Zuckerberg, created his own platform to access Harvard, only he did it through a movie set. Additionally, the Winklevoss twins aren’t actually twins at all. They are two different actors who were digitally manipulated to look like twins, again underscoring how identity can be manipulated through media to suit individual needs.

Part of what makes us uncomfortable with Zuckerberg’s enterprise and his manipulation of people like data-breeding livestock is our own recognition of the “herd environment” that has become the cultural norm through internet social networking and how virtual herding establishes a social ranking system within the herd. Get everyone penned up in one place, brand them, and quantify their value. It’s more than a little frightening. At the same time, while Zuckerberg becomes the mastermind behind storing other people’s identities, he himself is portrayed as a kind of Zero Identity. His sole identity is derived by his accumulated sense of vengeance, manipulation, and power over others’ sense of their own identity and ranking.

It’s a cannibal-on-cannibal world in this movie, and it is nauseating, horrifying and ugly to watch.   But it is masterfully ugly. Through the Fincher film, we understand that a vicious social network has been in place long before Mark Zuckerberg or Facebook came into the picture. We see how Mark Zuckerberg (at least Zuckerberg as he is portrayed in the film) adopted the mechanisms of that network and manipulated the psychosocial compulsion for people to establish social hierarchies to feel like they belong and have value, and he created an internet platform that establishes its own kind of obsessive hierarchal ranking system which substitutes quantifiable datasets and jpeg icons for actual human beings.  What comes across in this movie is that Zuckerberg created the illusion that you can access that network, be part of the club and be anyone you want on Facebook. Just plug in a photo of your choice, type in some facts (real or imagined), gather some friends, and suddenly you can be the person you’ve always wanted to be.  You can feel like you belong somewhere. In the meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg and a hell of a lot of capitalists are making a shitload of money off your desire to be part of the network and to be “liked” and accepted. Have you checked out the sidebar on Facebook lately and counted the advertisements?

I have to tell you that after seeing this movie, I sure in the hell didn’t want to feel like I belong in the world of The Social Network. I felt kind of dirty, paranoid and horrified that I actually partake in such poison. It was everything I could do to stop myself from deleting my entire internet identity and going back to the “good old days” when I wrote on a typewriter and licked the envelopes of my paper correspondence.  Then again, if I did that, how would I ever get anyone to read this movie review?

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn, Avanti-Popolo, and the Berkeley Poetry Review. Someday she’ll finish her memoir book about her teenage life on the streets in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com.