The Social Network (2010)

REDEFINING THE “SOCIAL”

Much has been written, by other critics, about the irony of the inventor of The Social Network being so unsocial.  But I believe the vaunted anti-sociabilty of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) goes a bit deeper than a guy who can neither make friends nor keep them.  The film can be read on two levels.  First the movie could be understood as a fictitious account of events that will never be recounted, due to non-disclosure agreements—-also an irony when Zukerberg’s Facebook discloses everything.  Here we have all our usual suspects, the elite villains, the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer), the underdog, Zuckerberg, the geek, of course, and the betrayed friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), and we are on familiar territory. Supporting characters, playing predictable roles are the rejecting girlfriend, the pig-headed and obtuse College president, Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski), and the devil who introduces the innocent to the finer pleasures of merchandising an idea, Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the founder of Napster. This reading is a Revenge of the Nerds plot.  But the Second, alternative reading, suggests that the writers, Aaron Sorkin and Ben Mezrich, might be aiming at a social commentary on 21st century ethics.

The entire film turns on a series of lawsuits against Zuckerberg, who was accused of stealing the ideas of others and then cutting them out of the proceeds.  The narrative is a series of flashbacks, told from the perspective of lawyers and propelled by their questions.  Zuckerberg, himself, could be occasionally roused to react with contempt to the complaints of the losers surrounding him.  Eventually he will pay off these nuisances to make them go away.  The issue that Sorkin explores in his film is a basic but 21st century question—who owns an idea?  An older generation would speak passionately about intellectual property rights.  An author owns her book.  A writer owns his words.  The song is the property of the composer.  A sculpture is the sole handiwork of the maker.  But, despite the myth of “owning” your own thoughts, the actual truth is far murkier.  An artist, for example, is not like a musician and does not own the work; the collector does.  An artist, unlike the composer, does not get royalties.  An artist, contrary to the advertiser, cannot own the image; the “actual” owner, such as the museum, retains the copyright.  Clearly, Zuckerberg, however fictitious his impatience with the legal proceedings, had a point: it is not the originator of the idea who “owns” the idea; it is the producer of the idea.   The publisher owns the book, not the writer.

The Wincklevoss twins speak indignantly and passionately for the old fashioned concepts of honor and integrity and ethics.  In their (elitist) minds, they have hired Zuckerberg to do their bidding.  Never mind, that they wanted him to work without a contract, never mind they were trying to get him to do the work they could not—-the twins are horrified and shocked that their “nerd” took their idea and transformed it into something else entirely.  It is not that the twins are Aryan, privileged, and sions of the powerful, and that Zuckerberg is portrayed as a homely Jewish dork—-that’s just window dressing—-it is that the twins are mired somewhere in a Tom Brown’s Schooldays idea of a “gentleman’s agreement.”  And poor earnest Eduardo, who is so, so supportive of his friend and who is so, so clearly out of his depth—-what can we say about him?  Have any of these people ever heard of the phrase, “get it in writing?”   Has no one ever trained these boys that you don’t do business with your friends?  Are there no lawyers at Harvard?  One can only assume that the parents of the twins and Edouardo told their sons that they were going to Harvard to “make contacts” with future associates.  What a lovely and quaint idea.

The problem with the naïfs of Harvard is that those days are past—-a time of old fashioned ideals, such as owning an idea.  The character of Sean Parker should have been better drawn, for he was an instigator (along with his partner, Shawn Fanning) of the 21st century notion that culture cannot be possessed. Napster was a music sharing program that distributed single songs, freed from albums or record producers, and spread the music among those who should “own” music—music lovers.  Of course the producers, the publishers, and the executives who live off the talents of others disagreed and brought Napster down.  But as the Parker character pointed out, he started something.  True Napster is still up and running today, operating legally, but that is not the significance of Napster.  Preceding Facebook by four years, Napster was a generational expression of an idea that there are some things that should not be “owned,” and if you  “owned” music then the consumer should not be ripped off or exploited by the greed of the producers.  The music business has been forced to adapt to this new terrain of sharing.  The Harvard students who gave their idea to the brightest computer nerd on campus should have remembered Napster and what it stood for—the free and unfettered dispersal of ideas.

Zuckerberg, who in person is a lot more sturdy and buffed up than Eisenberg, took the position that it is impossible to own an idea and that the idea ultimately belonged to the one who could execute it.  Not only could he make Facebook possible, he also had the vision for the networking system.   The Wincklevoss twins were thinking small and exclusively—Harvard only—-while Zuckerberg began to see the possibilities of social networking among thousands of “friends,” who didn’t necessarily have to know one another.  It is Parker who truly opened his eyes, because Napster had fought with musicians and record companies in the olden days before music makers began to see that sharing their music could help their careers.  For many bands, ten years later, the music recorded is just the beginning of money-making possibilities, which include merchandise and tours.  The music becomes a loss leader, an inducement to come to a concert.   Musicians now have more control over their creations.  Imagine what it would have meant to the Beatles if they could have retained their own songbook so that they could have controlled their creative efforts.  Facebook became, in Zuckerberg’s hands, a creative idea about a new way of social communication on a global scale.  It is Parker who showed Zuckerberg that an Ivy League college is not the proper breeding ground for social revolutions.

Only when Zuckerberg arrived in California and soaked up the possibilities in the home of computer culture does he begin to see the possibilities of thinking outside the box of ownership and control.  When, far too late, Eduardo flies to San Francisco, it is clear that he has been passed by, all while trying to operate in the old-fashioned way, raising money in New York City.  There is something to be said for protecting your investment, not letting it out of your sight.  Eduardo took his eye off the ball. The Wincklevoss twins communicated with Zuckerberg through phone and e-mail, without trying to forge a relationship.  Neither of the parties suing Zuckerberg ever understood what Facebook was really about—making and maintaining social contact.  To their dismay, it is they who are left out in the cold and rain; it is they who were not social.

The Social Network is about two worlds, the Old and the New.  The Old World is represented by the Wincklevoss twins and their lawyers, full of outraged honor, but wanting a piece of the action that evolved out of a conversation.  The New World is Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook where anyone can be a star.  In the Old World, there are Gatekeepers who control culture, deciding what culture is, who is allowed to represent culture, determining for whom to open the gate.  Once corralled, the artist loses control, revokes his rights, gives her products over to merchandisers.  In the New World, there is technology that has empowered anyone and everyone to make culture, to participate, to take an active role, and above all, maintain control over one’s own work.  The word is “control,” not “ownership.”  The name of the game now is getting your work out and letting it find its audience.

The Gatekeepers thunder that nothing that has not been legitimated by them has not truly entered into the privileged sanctuary of the Accepted or the Anointed.  But just as anyone can present her face on Facebook, an author can get published by many publishing services, a singer can put his song on YouTube, and a journalist can start her own newspaper and call it The Daily Beast.  Culture has been changed into a game we can all play.  We are all cultural producers now.  What has been lost to society is the exclusivity aspect of the game, the sheer tactic of keeping the many out for the (financial) enhancement of the few.  What has been gained is an explosion of art making.  Some ideas are good and take on a life of their own, like Napster and Facebook. Other ideas await their audience, like van Gogh.  True, much that has been spewed upon and into the Internet has died from neglect, mostly on the part of the maker.  But today, talent can assert itself and new ideas can come on the market place unimpeded.  The Controllers are trying to figure out how to reassert control.

A new ethic is emerging, one based upon sharing, not restricting, access to knowledge.  A website with a password is a website passed by.  A new integrity has been formed, one based upon allowing talent and creativity to express itself; an ethic of not trying to create a “culture” based upon those who are “in” and those who are “out.”  The new honor repudiates the idea of social control through rejection and discrimination and refuses to accept the evaluation of the Opinion Makers.  It is simply wrong to prevent someone from contributing to their own culture.  The lawsuits against Zuckerberg were based upon a contradiction in terms, “intellectual property.”  If anything cannot be property, it is the intellect.   The Generation of the New World simply does not accept the old rules of ownership, nor do they play by the old rules of property.  The new rule is—put it out there, maybe somebody will buy it.  For some, like poor Eduardo, the “fundamental things apply,” but time is going by.  Dogs may bark, but the caravan passes on.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

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