It’s hard not to feel jealous of my parents when they were my age. Maybe they were more bored without the internet. Maybe they were happier though. Maybe they don’t feel the same unease, fear, and rage as I do when I roll out of bed in the morning and – before I even brush my teeth – open my phone. But years before I knew what these feelings were David Fincher looked into our collective future and saw a vision of a quiet, insidious apocalypse. A sky tinged not with distant fires but the blue glare of billions of screens.
In 2003, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) breaks up with Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). Spurred on by his own anger, his math-jock Harvard roommates and more than a few beers, Zuckerberg creates a website, Facemash, so that everyone on campus can rank the female students according to looks. From this hideously sexist act opportunity is born. Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer) enlist Zuckerberg to create a Harvard dating site for them. Instead, Zuckerberg approaches his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) so that they can expand Facemash into Thefacebook and eventually into Facebook. Bigger fish come circling and soon Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) has whisked Zuckerberg off to Silicon Valley leaving the Winklevoss twins, Saverin and, eventually, the world in the lurch.
Contrary to popular belief, The Social Network has not aged like fine wine. It hasn’t aged poorly either but the weight of the credit “Written by Aaron Sorkin” hangs around the film’s neck like a millstone. The writer, showrunner and director has always had a talent for arresting drama but that comes with a sincere love for grandstanding, heavy-handedness and snappy one liners. The Social Network lacks much of the former two and has the latter in spades, which is probably why it won Sorkin the Adapted Screenplay Oscar. Its problems lie not in Sorkin’s screenplay – adapted from Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires – or in Justin Timberlake’s curdled performance as Sean Parker but in the lack of foresight the film’s story has.
Facebook may not be the most relevant or even the most powerful online force on the planet anymore but it’s easy to see it as the epicenter of the quake that caused the tsunami. It’s a tool often used by members of the older generations to stay in contact with each other and with their children. If that was all it was then it’s hard to see how it could have influenced elections, contributed to the rise of the alt-right and added to the avalanche of fake news. Facebook’s never-ending news feed is a hellscape of cute cat videos, engagements, jihadist beheadings, birthdays, outright lies and ads for fast fashion retailers. It doesn’t take a genius to see how, even in 2010, this would echo like the peal of a funeral bell into our future. It’s here where Fincher and Sorkin’s approaches to the material differ.
With a lot of Fincher’s work, be it in TV or film, it can often feel like we have stepped just outside our own reality into a more hellish world. Even when they’re based off a non-fiction book like The Social Network is it’s easy to feel like we’ve been transported to a world where everything is somehow off. It may look like we’re watching our world reflected back at us but the mirror we’re looking in has been warped and distorted. As Zuckerberg storms home through the snow after his break-up the camera pans up revealing the Harvard skyline backlit by the light pollution of the college’s surrounding suburbs. The burnt orange hue of the horizon makes it seem like distant fires are burning, waiting to be channeled by one man’s fury.
It’s not just the shots we put our own retrospective reading on that are effective. The way Fincher shows off the ancient fraternity houses’ hazing rituals speaks to a toxic, insidious culture just waiting to jump online. Coaches bus in the best-looking female students that are then shown playing strip poker or kissing each other in a Jacuzzi for the enjoyment of the baseball cap-wearing frat boys. This is intercut with Zuckerberg’s creation of Facemash showing two kinds of socially acceptable misogyny; one comes through wealth and privilege the other through careless genius. Both will soon come together in ways many refused to see. Although it’s easy to see the social media apocalypse coming in the way Fincher frames, shoots and blocks a lot of The Social Network the same can’t be said of Sorkin’s script.
Everyone fondly remembers lines like “I’m sorry my Prada’s at the cleaners, along with my hoodie and my ‘fuck you’ flip-flops, you pretentious douchebag!” or “A guy who makes a nice chair doesn’t owe money to everyone who has ever built a chair.” Very few remember Justin Timberlake as Napster founder, party boy and possible sex pest Parker shouting “Uh, bong hit!” soon after Zuckerberg’s move to California results in an explosive row with Saverin. Alongside this is the exchange with college student Amy (Dakota Johnson) that ends with “You just slept on Sean Parker.” There’s more but they deserve to be rediscovered and derisively laughed at on their own. It’s not that these lines are terrible it’s the fact that Timberlake, talent that he is in other respects, was not equipped to handle them. Parker comes across as the protagonist of a comedy from the early 2000s dropped into a highbrow thriller. He’s a Van Wilder in a film that needs a Tyler Durden.
The debates about the truth of The Social Network have been had. We know Sean Parker was never the real monster behind the Facebook saga. Neither were Zuckerberg, Saverin, or the Winklevoss twins. The real monster was Facebook and yes, it’s easy to say that it takes a man to create a monster but controlling Facebook after its creation was never really a possibility. The depiction of Zuckerberg as a vengeful kid might have been true in those first few days and weeks after the break-up but reality points to a man obsessed by the potential of what he created. Much like Dr Frankenstein, he was heedless of the consequences. The difference between the mad scientist and the world’s youngest self-made billionaire is that Frankenstein realised his mistake and hunted the monster to the ends of the earth.
The internet beats out every other human invention except maybe our mastery of fire or electricity. Why then does it feel like our greatest tool is already our greatest monster? It’s because we don’t control it. In the same way that a stray spark ignites a wildfire or a snapped cable short-circuits a power grid the internet and by-proxy, Facebook contributes to violence, mental illness and hatred. All it takes for riots to break out is one post from a news agency eager to fan the flames into viral clicks. We have seen it in this, our plague year of 2020, and we have seen it before in 2014 when the killing of Eric Garner by police sent shockwaves around the world. We will see it again.
Maybe we were more naïve in 2010; Aaron Sorkin certainly was considering he had spent most of this young century writing about American politics and news media. It was certainly easier to be optimistic at the beginning of the 2010s. Although Facebook had been online in some form since 2003, it’s potential as an advertising machine and viral video platform would not be fully realised for a few years yet. Gamergate was still four years away. School shooters had yet to start posting delusional manifestos on social media. Ten years on even as Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ Oscar-winning score threatens the breakdown of everything Sorkin’s script never truly grasps the world changing scope of Facebook.
Zuckerberg, Saverin, Parker and the Winklevoss twins are exactly the kind of entitled men that would use Facebook to stalk their exes, post revenge porn and cyberbully people. At least the characters in the film are, I’m not looking to get sued. The Social Network is a film about toxic male culture made more toxic by wealth, privilege and the anonymity of the internet but it fails to look into the future and see what kind of monsters Facebook and other social networks would spawn.
The Social Network is a great film about how male privilege damages individuals, global communities and the men themselves. Nevertheless, looking back on its enormous success it’s clear that the film never went far enough in examining the uncontrollable power Facebook would unleash. Sorkin focusses on character rather than on the future nightmares that were looming in 2010, which is fine when you’re making a film about people but The Social Network, like it or not, is about more than just people.
The Social Network, much like the people it depicts, contains multitudes. It’s a film by a director at his most confident but it’s weighed down by a script that has neither the foresight or depth future generations could look back on as an unheeded warning. Justin Timberlake doesn’t help matters. It gets harder to watch these young men bark snappy one liners at each other with each passing year. The Social Network is a film I enjoy, believe it or not, but that enjoyment wanes as actual social networks do more and more damage to the fabric of our society, our cultures and our democracies. The Social Network feels more like throwaway entertainment than a valuable cultural relic. This feels somewhat appropriate, considering Facebook will eventually be confined to the data bin of history. All empires fall but rarely do they take the world with them.