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The anti-Social Network

February 17, 2011

This was going to be a fairly conventional review of The Social Network by David Fincher but it got rather out of control. Think of it more as notes toward a reading. Perhaps a garbled, inarticulate response is quite appropriate to a film which heralds the end of whatever it is that I want to hold on to. Perhaps my incoherence is a protest. Anyway, I hope it’s interesting and you can always ask me what I actually think about the film in the comments.

My first reaction on hearing that someone had made a film about the inventor of Facebook mirrored those of many people. It sounded rather dull and I could not see what interest it could possibly hold. I had failed to see that this was perfect subject-matter for a post-modern epic.

I will crudely define epic as a genre which deals with the birth of nations and the actions of heroes, set in a remote and mythical past. The Social Network is the epic we deserve. D.W. Griffith set Birth of a Nation in the era of the American Civil War but our amnesiac culture can barely think back to a time before Facebook. We wonder how people survived in the olden days before mobile telephones. Life before the internet is to us what the era of the Trojan War was to Athenians of the fourth century BCE. The founding of Facebook is an origin myth for our culture which changes so fast that each generation can be considered a different culture to the one before. Scrap that, each micro-generation. Zuckerberg is heroic in the sense that he has done that which we all aspire to: he made a tremendous amount of money from one simple idea. The gods rewarded him not for having the strength or courage of Achilles, but for knowing a lot about computer code. (Remember the ‘code party’, the equivalent of the Greek games.) Finally he does not fight Hector bloodily in the field with arms but in an office with the law. How else should an American show their manliness? (The Winklevoss twins can’t win because they still show some attachment to the old world of action.) We all know that today Helen’s would be the face that launched a thousand legal suits. Menelaus and Paris would face each other across a courtroom. Or, as in the film, settling out of court, removing even that level of reality.

Achilles, a Bronze-Age Zuckerberg?

These are our heroes and they are less human than the semi-divine heroes of Homer. Any of us (or any of us who are still human) would, I think rather spend an hour with Odysseus or Priam than any time with semi-zombie Zuckerberg. His presence seems to repel even the attempt at authenticity but he is the father of us all, the great begetter of what Zadie Smith wittily called ‘people 2.0’. People 2.0 have given up on subjectivity and interiority. Swap your complicated, contradictory personality for one which fits neatly into the demarcated spaces of Zuckerberg’s design. You don’t need a sense of humour any more, just download a hilarious ‘app’. If it can’t be boxed, chopped up, marketed to, then you don’t need it. Keep your ineffables out of this brave new world. In the film Zuckerberg stays awake for days programming. He finally finishes, logs onto Facebook and his head falls forward like someone under hypnosis.

The Social Network might be read as a love story. Having been dumped in the first scene Zuckerberg invents a website in order to impress and get back his girlfriend. Of course he doesn’t seem to spend much time thinking about her but he’s 2.0, a girlfriend is just a name to put in a box on his profile. At the end of the film there is no dramatic dash to the airport, no interruption of a wedding. The person 2.0 doesn’t need to do that, he just sits and refreshes his laptop screen waiting for his friend request to be accepted. Quite a cliffhanger.

Women’s absence is important. The social network of the title is the old boys’ network. We see Harvard, a Mount Olympus run by a principal who believes women are intellectually inferior and where rich boys bus in prostitutes for their parties. The internet is not revolutionising social power-relations but reinforcing them. The spoilt sons of old media owners run the new media. Olympus might have been patriarchal but Hera at least had a voice. Women can be rated, lied to, compared, ignored but only now because we all can. A vindictive, misogynist appropriation of interactivity becomes misanthropic. Welcome to the post-modern equality where we’re all virtual objects.

So a world of people 2.0, cold, emotionless, lacking social bonds (how many friends are there in the film? Go on count them. We all count friends now), logged in and sucked out. This used to be science fiction. Now it’s history.

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