Poking Back, Part 2: Cheering Zuckerberg In Seattle; Like Watching ‘Terminator’ in a Room Full of Robots
by Mike Barthel
As a Seattle resident who doesn’t work in the tech sector, it can be easy to forget that you’re constantly surrounded by computer nerds. Then you go see The Social Network in a theater downtown, and midway through, someone cheers. For Mark Zuckerberg. For the guy the movie was making every effort to portray as a gigantic dildo. And not just once: mutiple people cheered, multiple times! They cheered when Zuckerberg told off a lawyer. They cheered when Zuckerberg told off an ad exec. They cheered when Zuckerberg capitalized his monetization or whatever the fuck happened. Few things are worse than realizing you’re in a room full of people you hate, and that’s one reason I walked out of the film.
But there are other. For instance: I realized I was paying eleven dollars to watch a deposition, and I also realized that the dramatic climax of the movie centered on stock options. (Very valuable stock options, but still!) But mostly I walked out because I realized that I wanted it to be about class. Because it almost was, right?
Zuckerberg gets to Harvard and is driven to create Facebook as a way of breaking into the northeastern elite that dominates the university’s social scene, but when he discovers that success doesn’t give you that kind of status, he decides to screw the elite over instead. The movie seemed to want to depict the difficulty ambitious non-elites (whether by dint of class, race, ethnicity, or otherwise) can face in resolving the values of independence, individuality, and achievement that motivate them with the realities of the (still largely hereditary) American ladder of class and power they aspire to ascend. We’re culturally trained to want to do it on our own. But wouldn’t it be nice to take a shortcut? Wouldn’t we grab that shortcut if offered it? And if we come into that system from the outside — if we force our way into it-do we really want to belong to a club that would rather not have us as a member?
There’s no reason The Social Network couldn’t have told this sort of story. But it really didn’t tell any kind of story at all. If the filmmakers had made a Gossip Girl-ish movie about social life at Harvard (which The Social Network very much is, at first), that would be great. Or if they had made a movie about the Internet’s effect on modern courtship rituals, which is where the movie ends up, that’s also great. And if they wanted to make a movie about how online entrepreneurs changed the culture of American capitalism, that’s fine, too, I suppose. Even better, if they wanted to tell the story they seemed interested in at first, about class and status and ambition in the early part of the decade, that would be superb, because that’s a story that needs to be told. Instead, though, Fincher and Sorkin wanted to tell a story about Mark Zuckerberg, and that’s a problem. He may be a fine guy in reality, but in the film he’s almost entirely lacking in affect or inner emotional life, which does not exactly make him a compelling fictional character. The filmmakers compensate for this by filling the background with lots of unrealistically half-naked girls whenever possible, but no matter how much you show ugly dudes gawking at female flesh while music pounds, like it’s the midway point in a Behind the Music episode or something, it’s not going to make an Internet company seem cool.
Unless, of course, you’re the kind of person that already thinks an Internet company is cool, in which case you probably saw the movie a lot differently than did the general population. And I don’t think that divide is a generational one, as has been argued. For one, if certain members of the audience are getting the message of generational warfare, the film isn’t really sending it; aside from being, if anything, an idealized version of how young people behave (those parties!), there just aren’t any Olds in it besides Larry Summers (as the voice of reason, which, !!!) and the lawyers, all there more to keep order than to hold anyone back or serve as counter-examples. For another, that would fall into the stereotype trap Matthew Wollin pointed out, which would paint all Olds as technophobes and Youngs as being defined solely by their online media use, neither of which is particularly true. The generational divide is a nice angle to sell more tickets, but it seems far-fetched to me. Though who knows! At any rate, I agree most with Nick Denton’s assessment: that the movie’s really about one person’s struggle to make it and the price he has to pay to achieve his dream, which have existed for a long time. It’s basically a sports movie for tech nerds. The difference is less generational than dispositional.
So what does this say about those tech nerds? Reports from less tech-centric cities are that the audience generally laughed at Zuckerberg, but during the screening I attended here in Seattle, the laughs came mostly at the expense of other characters. (And never at the Jewish jokes, but that’s another subject entirely; remind me to tell you about watching A Serious Man in Portland sometime.) For Zuck, they had mainly cheers. Which is why I had to walk out. It felt like watching Terminator in a room full of robots: you could understand why they were rooting for the wrong side, but it still made it hard to enjoy the movie on its own terms. Sorkin says that Zuckerberg “spends the first hour and 55 minutes being the antihero, the final 5 minutes of the movie being a tragic hero,” but the cheers preceded that. They were cheering the antihero.
Why would they do that? Well, for the same reason that Trainspotting kinda makes you want to do drugs: as adamant as a movie tries to be about a particular activity’s negative effects, the fact that it’s the focus of a well-made Hollywood film can’t help but glamorize it. It’s like entrepreneur porn. Still, the fact that a room at least half-full of IT professionals seemed to take this negative portrayal as triumphant is certainly worrisome. Movie-Zuck is a kind of moral void, an apolitical objectivist-libertarian type who’s incapable of human connection. What could be seen as selfless devotion to his vision is really just more selfishness: Facebook is nice, but it hardly seems worth ruining people’s lives over. Zuckerberg isn’t pursuing it because he knows the end product will be worth fighting for; he’s pursuing it because he wants to be able to do whatever he wants without anyone telling him he can’t. It’s like Lady Gaga says: follow your dreams! But what if your dreams are stupid? If the point isn’t the product but the process, then you’re only making yourself feel better, not trying to serve the common good. Which is fine, of course, but be honest about it.
But the most worrisome thing, I think, is how easily both Zuckerberg’s story and Facebook itself allow class to be swept under the rug. At the beginning of the movie, class is front and center as Zuckerberg tells his BU girlfriend that if he gets into a social club, “I’ll be taking you to the parties and you’ll be meeting people that you wouldn’t normally get to meet.” They are already different; he is higher-up than her, and he knows it. But by the ending (which I was told about later — it sounds sad, though hardly worth staying for), they’re ostensible equals as he tries to friend her on the website he himself created. As the movie frames it, she holds the power here, and Facebook has enabled them to transcend their class markers. But not really, of course. He still has billions of dollars and she doesn’t. Moreover, she’s really just like the billion dollars: not something he cares about (as is said many times throughout the movie) but something he wants to acquire as an outward symbol of his rightness. Women are in this film, but they certainly aren’t people in this film.
The way Zuckerberg attains his power also lets him elude class. Instead of joining the power structure by learning and performing their rituals, he does an end-run around it and gets rich his way, and he seems enormously pleased with this. But like many entrepreneur-types, it seems like he thinks this makes him something other than rich, something other than an “elite” in the modern sense, with its connotation of unearned privilege. But the intentional fallacy applies to wealth as much as to literature. The audience cheered when Zuck nails the lawyer because poor Mark had been put-upon before, and so now is entitled to take it out on those leeches who seek to profit off of his hard work; the audience feels bad at the end because he, too, can cry. But if he’s entitled, then that’s still entitlement. As his girlfriend says, the problem isn’t that he’s a nerd, it’s that he’s an asshole. Mark is a guy who’s only ever taken the shortcut, who resents the fact that he needs to follow the rules. We’ve built up an interesting consensus as a society that doing whatever you want, expressing your authentic self, is the highest good to which one can aspire, and it’s not surprising that actual-Zuckerberg’s Facebook profile lists, among his interests, “revolutions.” Good luck with that!
If there’s a message here, I think it’s that there a venture capitalist is still a capitalist, and there’s really no such thing as a cool businessman. If Mark Zuckerberg is your god, then he’s at least a questionable one, and the same thing goes for Steve Jobs or Page and Brin or whoever else you want to throw onto the altar. Framing business as rebellion is just another way of avoiding responsibility, of absolving yourself of any ambiguity you might feel about getting rich. Money is money. We keep coming up with new ways to hide that, and we don’t much like to talk about it. But it’s always going to be there, and if you’re going to be a part of that structure, we’d all do a lot better to be honest about it. Plus, it’s an interesting subject for art and popular entertainment! Much better than computer programming, anyway.
Mike Barthel has written about pop music for a bunch of places, mostly Idolator and Flagpole, and is currently doing so for the Portland Mercury and Color magazine. He continues to have a Tumblr and be a grad student in Seattle.
Photo by dido from Flickr.