With Friends like These

By McCarter, Jeremy | Newsweek, September 27, 2010 | Go to article overview

With Friends like These


McCarter, Jeremy, Newsweek


Byline: Jeremy McCarter

The dark heart of 'The Social Network' isn't just Mark Zuckerberg. How the Facebook movie lays bare the hollowness haunting us all.

Fifty years before Mark Zuckerberg arrived at Harvard--back when facebooks were actually books, back when poking a friend had a whole different set of connotations--Thornton Wilder came to campus to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures. He devoted one of them to "the loneliness that accompanies independence and the uneasiness that accompanies freedom." Raising such difficult subjects made him uncomfortable, he recalled later, but he felt better knowing that all of his listeners were American. It meant that "these experiences are not foreign to anyone here."

What Wilder called "the American loneliness" ran rampant long before he talked about it in 1952. And to judge from the stories our culture has produced in the last few months, all our Skype calls and Gchat sessions haven't stopped it from running just as rampant now. The latest and most vivid example comes courtesy of The Social Network, and its nickname is Zuck.

David Fincher's film arrives in a cloud of gossip about its scandalous goings-on. Based on The Accidental Billionaires, Ben Mezrich's libidinal account of Facebook's founding in a Harvard dorm, it delivers the advertised sex and drugs amid its coding binges. On the big question--whether Zuckerberg stole the idea for the world's most popular Web site from the Olympic rowing twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and their partner, Divya Narendra--the film stays agnostic, letting you decide for yourself whether he's a 10-figure American success story or a devious, thieving cheat.

Beneath the tawdry fun, though, there's a surprising undertow. The halting dorm-room conversations, the lawsuits, the recriminations: they all look like up-to-date expressions of the loneliness and unease that Wilder described. The film turns out to have less in common with other campus caper flicks than with Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's masterful new novel about an imploding family. Nobody comes right out and says that Zuckerberg and his associates (I almost said friends) don't know how to live, as someone says of the Berglunds early in Franzen's book, but the trouble appears to be the same. And the reason why both the book and the film resonate--why they stick with you afterward--is that plenty of the rest of us have that trouble too. By suggesting that a modern kind of loneliness led an obnoxious hacker (business card: "I'm CEO, Bitch!") to start Facebook, the film helps pinpoint our own loneliness--the feelings of aimlessness and isolation that make us do things like sign up for Facebook.

Here we have to make a distinction. The "Zuckerberg" to whom I refer is not Mark Zuckerberg, the proud son of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., the one with the well-documented longtime girlfriend and mania for flip-flops. "Zuckerberg" is a character in a movie: a groupie-screwing, friend-betraying jerk who still manages to win some sympathy in spite of himself. This Zuckerberg plainly shares some traits with his off-screen counterpart (cf. the hoodie). On the other hand, it's fair to think that Movie Mark is better spoken than Actual Mark, having been polished to a shine by the precision tools of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. For the moment, the resemblance or lack thereof doesn't matter: the Zuckerberg under discussion is the one created by Fincher and Sorkin, not the real live boy billionaire.

It was Sorkin who, in last week's New Yorker, offered the capsule premise for the film: "It's a group of, in one way or another, socially dysfunctional people who created the world's great social-networking site." You don't have to wait long to see what he means. On the night the story begins, we watch Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), drunk and angry that he's just been dumped, call his ex a bitch in a blog post, hack into Harvard's servers, and create a site that lets visitors rate the looks of their female classmates.

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