Movie Review: The Social Network

The Social Network (also known as “The Facebook Movie”) was one of the most critically acclaimed movies of 2010. It has friendship, betrayal, sex, intrigue, and most importantly, it’s timely.

All of those things are true. But…why does this make it a great movie?

(TLDR: it was fun, but if you didn’t happen to see it, you honestly didn’t miss anything.)

The movie is set up so that important scenes from the creation of Facebook are interleaved with depositions from two major lawsuits: one by cofounder Eduardo Saverin, and one by the founders of ConnectU. At the end of the day, Mark Zuckerberg did “screw over” both of them. But, the movie says, that’s not the full story.

For the most part, it seemed well-put-together and almost surprisingly plausible for what was freely admitted to be a dramatization of real-life events. Of course the details were probably quite exaggerated, and as with any such movie, all the events are crammed together (so that three big things happen in one night, even though in real life they were probably spread out over weeks or even months). But it’s not like anyone actually wants to watch weeks and weeks of someone coding—the snippets of this were mostly rather well done, actually. And I get the feeling that all of the events that weren’t purely social actually happened, at least in some form.

Lily says there was actually a lot more dirtiness that went on, having read the closer-to-the-truth The Facebook Effect (the movie was based on an early book, The Accidental Billionaires). That’s still different from the usual, where they have to invent controversy and mudslinging for what really was just business in real life.

The characters also seem to be portrayed pretty fairly (except perhaps Christy Lee and Sean Parker, who are both a bit crazy). I just felt a little uncomfortable watching a movie about things that happened less than five years ago. People who aren’t just still around, but who are still “mortal”. At the D: All Things Digital conference, Zuckerberg said “I just wished that nobody made a movie of me while I was still alive.” (CNet, via Wikipedia, of course.) I totally sympathize.

I’m going to talk more about the Zuckerberg-character below, but I’ll leave here by reiterating what I said at the beginning. Why do people think this such a great movie? Sure, I enjoyed it. Sure, the dialogue was pretty good, and there were some great one-liners. But it’s basically this decade’s Pirates of Silicon Valley, if perhaps not quite so exaggerated. I think I enjoyed Pirates more, actually. There wasn’t any big accomplishment here, no story that only Aaron Sorkin and these actors could have told. So, overall verdict: pretty good, but by no means a “must-see”.

The rest of this post is going to be about the Mark Zuckerberg in the movie, and then a bit of technology analysis at the end. If you want the dialogue absolutely unspoiled, stop here…but honestly, it’s leaving theaters by now. You’ve probably seen the movie already if you’re planning to see it at all. (I guess you could Netflix it or something.)

Mark. The movie sets up a crucial point at the very start: he’s an asshole. Then at the end, a possible absolution is offered: “You’re not an asshole. You just try so hard to be.”

The character who says that is a law student resident (terminology?) who plays the role of the audience, or at least the part of the audience that didn’t grow up connected to the Internet. (She’s the one who comments on Mark’s 20,000 hits in two hours, which is impressive but certainly plausible. She also falls a bit for his anti-charm.) But she’s also the part of the audience that just doesn’t get engineering-types. I’m wondering if this is the message we’re supposed to get from the movie: he’s not an asshole; he’s just trying to be.

Cause I didn’t get that at all. Mark has two personality traits: he’s a creator, and he wants to be included. I don’t even think he wants respect, or to be on top, the way the movie sets it up. He just wants to feel like he’s a part of something. And the creator side, the way he talks about how “we don’t know what it is yet, we need to let it grow” as if he didn’t have entire knowledge of (The)Facebook, as if it wasn’t just his output…I understand that completely. He puts all this effort into Facebook because it’s a creation, it’s something that he is completely focused on. What’s strange is not his dedication to the project to the exclusion of other things, but his attention span—many creators I know (engineering, literary, musical, whatever) tend to get bored of their half-finished work and move on to a new project. Almost always, the most fun part of any creation is near the beginning.

For the most part, these two parts of his personality explain his behavior for the entire movie. What about Erica? He genuinely likes her, genuinely wishes they could get back together. How does that go with his insulting her on his blog? They had just broken up and he was drunk. Not excusable, not by a long shot, but understandable. Not something you have to be Mark to do. So why wasn’t he a better boyfriend at the beginning? Why couldn’t he apologize?

Because, at least in the movie, those original two traits were pretty much all he had, besides being a CS prodigy. Social interaction skills somehow never made it onto his radar. And for someone like Mark, that’s not too implausible. It’s that “autistic end of the spectrum” phrase that I’ve used in conversations before. Mark just doesn’t get people. And if everyone was like him, it wouldn’t even be an issue. Moreover, if he tried, he could probably do it—even if it would just be “playing the social game”. He just doesn’t know the rules that sometimes you don’t say certain things, or you phrase them more nicely, or you do say things even if it’s not strictly necessary.

He’s not a bad guy. He just doesn’t make the effort, and doesn’t know how to make the effort, to be what others would consider a “good” guy. And he did screw Eduardo and the ConnectU group. Both of those were bad things to do. I don’t think that even sullied the character’s reputation completely, however, much less the real Zuckerberg’s.

(Condescending, sure. The “Do I have your full attention? / No,” exchange was condescension, but one that just comes out of Mark’s creator mind. He’s being kept away from his project for something that seems unfair. And everyone else cares about money, which is irrelevant. Mark is annoyed on principle.)

I get Mark. I’m not him, cause I understand social rules and the value of social rules a little better, but I can totally see how his mind works. Maybe this movie is for those who can’t. But though I don’t use the word, he is an asshole. The resident lawyer was wrong. And I’m wondering now if that’s how all of the world feels—that we sub-social creator-types are just behaving like assholes because we’re trying to play the social game. That may be true in a few instances, but it’s really not the case in general. We’re assholes because we don’t bother playing.

(Disclaimer: I am not an asshole. Or at least, not on purpose. Hmm…uh oh…!)

Okay, technology, just cause I had to throw this in there. I really liked how they actually found older laptops and everything, even including an older version of Mac OS X at one point. The technobabble was among the best I’ve heard, though it was clear sometimes that the writers threw in extra buzzwords just to prove they knew what they were talking about. (At one point there’s a line “I’ll have to edit this Perl script with Emacs”. This is after he’s just said “script” on its own, too. If you’re just posting progress, you don’t call attention to the language you’re programming in, nor the editor you’re using. Unless you’re an Emacs zealot trying to spread it, which he didn’t seem to be.)

The final scene could have carried that triumphantly to the end of the movie, except for the terminal window open on Mark’s computer. I started reading it, having already figured out the point of the final two minutes. “Okay, Apache config files. That’s good…he probably would be messing with those during the meeting. What’s next…wait. Is that…FAIL.”

That’s right. The Social Network ends with ping localhost.