There’s a quote from a poem by Henry Van Dyke that I think sums up Facebook’s appeal: “…the heart’s immortal thirst to be completely known and all forgiven.” Dave Eggers quoted this line at the start of his best-selling memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Published in 2000, a few years before blogs and Facebook pages made autobiographies obsolete, Eggers book anticipated our collective need to shine a spotlight on our souls. Eggers was desperate for his every thought to be completely known (and all forgiven) in the 90s, for God’s sake. He knew the future was about splaying your life for others to read; no detail too personal, no person denied the right to judge. Facebook just digitised the process.
At Harvard University in 2003 there was a social landmine named Mark Zuckerberg; if he perceived he was being stepped on, he’d explode. After a bad date with a fellow undergrad, Zuckerberg invented the precursor to Facebook as a form of revenge. The forerunner of Facebook was called Facemash; it invited Harvard boys to rate girls based on their “hotness”. Like most asinine jokes in college, it caught on like wildfire. By the end of one night, Facemash had 22,000 hits. With an entrepreneur’s lack of shame and eagerness for hard work, Zuckerberg set about developing the system, ostensibly, as a means of building a better MySpace; in reality, of course, he built an empire (like all emperors) as a way to impress girls.
The Social Network doesn’t exactly side with Zuckerberg. One wise character says to him: “You’re not an asshole Mark, you’re just trying too hard to be one.” In keeping with that sentiment, the movie is more like Zuckerberg’s Magic Mirror than his best friend. It isn’t there to say he’s a great American, or even a decent human being, but it is there to help us understand him. Jesse Eisenberg has eyes like ice-picks when he’s on-screen, and there’s never a moment where we see Zuckerberg crack…other than when his (ex) best friend lists his sins in front of Facebook’s employees. Instead, throughout, we’re conscious of Mark’s bloodcurdling pride, and the way, like a lot of smart people, “being an asshole” is, for him, like being seen in his underwear. He knows his IQ should protect him from revealing himself, but somehow, persistently, his need to flaunt outstrips his need to hide.
When Zuckerberg meets his real first crush (Napster-founder Sean Parker), there’s such a sense of, “This who I want to be!” emanating from Jesse Eisenberg, he might as well be a fan making goo-goo eyes at a star. For all his intellectual posturing, Zuckerberg is someone who nakedly wants to be cool. In a canny, self-aware move on the part of the film-makers, Sean Parker is played by global music sensation (and babe-magnet) Justin Timberlake. When the two young actors meet, it’s like seeing Facemash played out with guys. Timberlake radiates ease and natural charisma, but he also, right from the beginning, strikes you as a snake-oil salesman. He’s the guy who orders a round of drinks for everyone, then asks you to foot the bill.
Girls – though much obsessed over – aren’t a major component of Zuckerberg’s life. Even the girl who prompted Mark to create Facebook isn’t given much screen-time. And this isn’t the wrong thing to do, because, let’s be fair, Mark only knew her as a bench mark he had to pass. The Social Network is about how a nerd created a digital fraternity because a real frat house at Harvard wouldn’t let him join. It’s about the universal need – among all nerds – for a fantasy world they can retreat into/control. Thirty years ago it was Dungeons & Dragons, today it’s the internet. The irony of Zuckerberg’s story is that the fantasy world he created is now used by 500 million people worldwide, while Mark is still alone.
Facebook is not, really, a revolution in human contact. All the gaps and boundaries that separate people in the real world are still there. But now, instead of what we’ve had for millennia, i.e. people hoping, striving, sacrificing for a connection…now you just make a Friend Request, and the other person accepts you for who you are, or not. It’s very orderly, it requires an absolute minimum of effort, and it’s soulless. No-one will ever be “completely known and all forgiven” by opening a Facebook account (though millions will try). What The Social Network pinpoints is the unceasing, ubiquitous desire to connect; how pitiful and how human it is, and how much greater are the difficulties…now we’re only connected on-line.