“The Social Network” Review
Here is my review of The Social Network. I guess I should start by offering a spoiler alert.
I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. While I may not have been as impressed as the countless critics who have heaped mountains of praise upon it, I found it extremely entertaining and thought-provoking. Unlike many movies nowadays, The Social Network was not overly long (a brisk two hours), and though it could probably have been a tad shorter, I was never bored. The acting is excellent all around. The dialogue is slick and fun if occasionally a bit forced and contrived. I will say that the movie will undoubtedly be more enjoyable to those with some affiliation or knowledge of Harvard, but I would recommend it to all, especially to those 500 million of us who use Facebook.
It’s important to distinguish between the real Facebook and the fictional Facebook of The Social Network, just as it’s important to distinguish between the real and fictional Mark Zuckerbergs and the real and fictional Harvard Universities.
The real Facebook has its critics, mostly on issues of privacy. Nonetheless, I am a huge fan of the website. Its practical uses are numerous: keeping in touch with old friends, making new ones, sharing photos. For my purposes, Facebook has also served as an intellectual forum. My friends share thoughts and articles, others respond and raucous but intelligent debate often ensues (the debates are sometimes mindless and annoying, but overall a net positive). Indeed, it was because of these very Facebook wall posts and debates that Wiz approached Wotty and me to start this blog: he accurately noted that it was something that we already did on Facebook, so we might as well make it more organized and official. I share all my posts through my Facebook and Twitter accounts. So for those of you who enjoy PhD Octopus, you have Facebook–and Mark Zuckerberg–to thank.
As for the real Mark Zuckerberg, I can only offer limited comment. Though we overlapped at Harvard, I never met him, though in the interest of full disclosure, I did go on two dates with his sister Randi (I had a good time and I think she did, though nothing ever came of it). But since I never met him, I can only go by what I’ve heard and what I’ve read. I’ll admit that in most articles, especially this one from The New Yorker, he comes off very badly. The judgment of a 19 year old is not the same as that of a more mature adult, but it’s also true that many people don’t change all that much of the course of their lives.
One thing that the real Mark Zuckerberg and the fictional Mark Zuckerberg seem to have in common is that they aren’t all that concerned with money. For Harvard graduates there are plenty of tried, tested and true routes to financial reward, the most common being investment banking and consulting. But from what I’ve read, it seems that Zuckerberg did not invent Facebook for the money so much as for the power, and for the desire to leave his mark on the world. To me, that’s somehow more admirable, or at least less douchey.
Apart from this similarity, there appear to be obvious differences between the real and fictional Mark Zuckerbergs. Other critics who know more than I have documented the movie’s falsehoods more effectively than I will here, but suffice it to say that Zuckerberg never had any real interest in Final Clubs and had a serious girlfriend throughout most of the time depicted in the film. He did not invent Facebook to get back at one girl or win over another, or even to become more popular. He did so to fill a demand of Harvard social life–I remember people were annoyed they did not have access to other dorms’ interal university-run facebook sites–and because it was a great idea with potential for growth. Facemash, the first Harvard site Zuckerberg invented that was deemed sexist in The Social Network, in fact had pictures of both men and women.
This inaccuracy has led critics to point to the movie’s misogyny, and they raise a good point. If the story of Facebook is not a male story, it is a story whose principal characters are all men, and Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher would probably have been wiser to give women an even smaller role than to portray them in the offensive manner in which they did.
My own prejudices led me to sympathize with the fictional Zuckerberg. The character, portrayed brilliantly by Jesse Eisenberg, is at the center of a story that may not have gotten Facebook’s founding right, but certainly painted an accurate, if exaggerated portrait of Harvard undergraduate life.
I can attest to the spectacular lameness of AEPi parties. Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish fraternity, has a mixed reputation nationally, but an especially bad one at Harvard, where frats are considered the poor man’s Final Clubs. In some ways, this was literally true: the frats at Harvard, because they did not have fancy mansions right by campus, appealed to a less elite, or elitist, clientele. As a result, they were generally eager to attract members, and were basically inclusive rather than exclusive. I never joined one, but appreciated them for that.
The Final Clubs were another matter. If the wild party depicted early in The Social Network was a bit over the top, it’s also true that clubs were well known as places to get alcohol when bars were closed, along with cocaine and other drugs. A member always guarded the door, filled with undeserved power and authority, determining which students could enter, always preferring women to men (the more attractive the better) and generally distinguishing between the cool and the undesired, from the Club’s perspective of course.
The sexism and misogyny of the Clubs is real and has been written about extensively. It is both unacceptable and pathetic. Yale’s Skull and Bones is co-ed now, as are Princeton’s Eating Clubs. I have no doubt in a generation or less, the Final Clubs will finally admit women as well.
The shameless classism bothered me much more. After all, female Final Clubs did and do exist at Harvard (with much less power and money and their disposal), but their membership is, in my mind, just as unpleasant as the male variety: generally obnoxious and wealthy. This was not universally true, and some Club members were good people (some of my best friends were in Final Clubs!) but as a general rule it held. I had no desire to join one. Moreover, I could never afford to be in a club on my own, and I was not about to ask my middle-class parents for a few hundred dollars a semester so I could get drunk with a bunch of d-bags and prey on similarly unappealing women. And that’s if any Club would have deemed me cool enough to be a member, which is highly unlikely.
With my own anti-Club bias, I found The Social Network‘s relatively favourable impression of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss upsetting. I never knew the cartoonish would-be villains in real life, but I have a hard time imagining that they were anything other than sensational douchebags.
Not only did they enjoy tremendous inherited wealth and privilege, and the undeserving prestige that comes from membership in the Porcellian (regarded as the most elite Final Club), but they also benefited from excessive athlete worship, ever-present at Harvard, if not as pervasive as at places like Duke, where Fuck Lists are made that venerate varsity athletes as demi-gods. I am reminded of Alexander Portnoy, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, who lamented the existence of WASP men, “engaging, good-natured, confident, clean, swift and powerful halfbacks for the college football teams called Northwestern and Texas Christian and UCLA,” guys who always got the girls ahead of the alienated Jewish intellectuals.
And so I couldn’t help but root for the fictional Zuckerberg, who put the WASPy athletic Winklevii in their place. There is a Jewish angle to the film, mocked by Nate Heller as “a Jewish underclass striving beneath the heel of a WASP-centric, socially draconian culture.” And yet I think the tale the movie tells, if not quite accurate as a portrayal of Harvard in 2003, is nonetheless important when looked at through a different lens.
There’s a sense in which “new money” is “Jew money.” The Jewish immigrant, first from German lands and later from eastern Europe, had an enormous and disproportionate impact on the American economy. And so the fictional Zuckerberg enters the Harvard universe as a dorky outsider, only to turn the WASP world upside down, to the point where he mockingly proclaims that he could buy a Final Club himself.
This Zuckerberg’s most astute observation may be when he remarks that the old-money Winklevii weren’t upset about not getting their website or their millions, but they were upset because for once in their lives, things didn’t go their way. The word “entitlement” comes to mind, and no scene better encapsulates this than their meeting with then Harvard president Larry Summers, who tells them to quit whining and come up with their own idea.
The real Larry Summer is some kind of genius. He is also a man without many social graces, and actor Douglas Urbanksi captures this perfectly. Though Summers has been criticized on this blog, and I’m no fan of him as an economist, I liked him as president of Harvard, as did the majority of the undergraduate population. I admired his opposition to the anti-Israel Divestment campaign, his drive to increase financial aid, his belief in over-hauling the Core Curriculum, his support for the hard sciences and and his skepticism towards area studies. I also loved the way he would down 4 slices of pizza in a sitting at off-the-record sessions with The Harvard Crimson, and I find it hilarious that he frequently falls asleep at meetings.
Beyond all this, however, the character of Summers–Harvard’s first Jewish president–fits in perfectly with Sorkin and Fincher’s anti-WASP narrative. As reviewer David Denby of the The New Yorker describes the movie’s Summers-Winkelvoss encounter:
one can feel, in this seemingly unimportant scene, history falling into place, a shift from one kind of capitalism to another. Fincher and Sorkin wickedly imply that Summers is Zuckerberg thirty years older and many pounds heavier. He has the same kind of brightest-guy-in-the-room arrogance, and little sympathy entitled young men talking about ethics when they’ve been left behind by a faster innovator.
It would be nice to think of Zuckerberg as a sort of Jewish Horatio Alger type in 2003. Truth gets in the way of course: the real Zuckerberg comes from an upper-middle-class Jewish family; his sister went to Horace Mann and he went to Exeter. When I was at Harvard, many Jews were on the inside of Final Clubs looking out. The same is true today. Jews are over-represented (based on their proportion of the population) and extremely comfortable at America’s elite institutions.
Nonetheless, the story in the movie works, though Sorkin takes some license to make it work especially smoothly: Divya Narendra, the Winklevoss’ South-Asian sidekick, is portrayed as something of a nebbishy outsider himself: the real Narendra is athletic and handsome (I met him in the summer of 2002, before any of this went down). At the very beginning of the movie, Zuckerberg makes fun of a fictional ex-girlfriend “Erica Albright,” noting that her last name used to be Albrecht, as her family too sought entry into a more elite, more gentile realm.
Zuckerberg’s opening conversation with Albright may be the most realistic scene in the movie, not for the too sharp yet entertaining dialogue, but for the disdain that so many Harvard students hold towards less selective universities and the people who attend them. I noticed this when I was there, I notice it even more today. I’m an elitist, and I think a certain amount of elitism is ok and even good, but Harvard probably goes to far, telling its students over and over that they are “the best and the brightest” from day one. It often turns smart people into worse human beings. Though economist Greg Mankiw disagrees, Matt Yglesias notes, “most Harvard undergraduates are pretty unlikeable.” I think an important reason for this is because Harvard becomes the most important part of their identity. This effect can be resisted, but only with difficulty. The best treatment is repeated and constant exposure to less elitist individuals, though it can take several years to cure. This, more than anything, is what Sorkin and Fincher got right about The Social Network.