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Film and TV

The Social Network, Or Why I Quit Facebook

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Thu, Dec 23, 2010 at 12:17 PM

click to enlarge TheSocialNetwork.jpg

Facebook mastermind Mark Zuckerberg has been named by TIME Magazine as the 2010 Man of the Year. Countless awards bodies, polls (including the Village Voice/LA Weekly Film Poll) and film critics groups (including the LA Film Critics Association, of which I am a member) have named The Social Network, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin's founding-of-Facebook movie, the Film of the Year. I imagine all of the above has been the subject of much conversation on Facebook itself; I can't attest to that first hand because 2010 was The Year I Quit Facebook, and The Social Network had something to do with it.

Something, not everything. There were other factors. These technologies are supposed to make us feel closer to other people, but Facebook was starting to make me feel more alone. I would estimate that maybe five percent of my couple of thousand Facebook friends were people I had ever met in real life. Most of the rest were readers, and/or people with some relationship to the film industry. My "real" friends knew email and text were my preferred ways to stay in touch, so most of the activity on my Facebook account consisted of people I didn't know (filmmakers, publicists, film festival representatives, dudes with crushes) asking me to do things for them.

I don't blame these strangers―this kind of "networking" is what Facebook is for, and by having a public account I was offering myself up for it. I never worried much about Facebook's privacy concerns, because I understood that if I was feeding information into that system, I was de facto giving permission for that information to be disseminated. But increasingly, the noise of that system seemed to drown out the benefits. And then one day around Halloween, a bunch of highbrow cineastes on my friend list had their accounts hacked thanks to a bogus Lindsay Lohan sex tape meme, and I said, "Fuck this" and deactivated my account. Maybe some day I'll miss it. I haven't yet.

That was about a month after I first saw The Social Network, and while it's not my favorite film of the year (read my top ten list and assessment of the year in film here), I can't deny that it resonated. Not necessarily in a good way: for all that Sorkin's screenplay has been lauded, I can't get over the feeling that the writer fed elements of Mark Zuckerberg's story into the Sorkinator, a computer program that automatically transposes any story to Sorkinville, mutating the language into Sorkinese.

I'm not just talking about the mile-a-minute verbal pacing, which I appreciate. More than that, The Social Network suffers from its allegiance to the primary theme of most of Sorkin's work, from his breakout A Few Good Men to the much-maligned series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: a man's inability to reconcile his professional identity with his personal ideals, ideals which are almost always brought into focus by a woman encountered on or in relation to the job. The Social Network's screenplay grafts this theme on to a narrative where it doesn't belong, reducing the eventual Man of the Year into a boy who changed the world because he was sad about a girl.

"For the first hour and 55 minutes, Zuckerberg is an antihero," Sorkin has said. "And in the final five minutes, he's a tragic hero." What happens in The Social Network's final five minutes? After being dressed down for his bravado by one of his lawyers (who―thank you, Sorkinator―happens to be a pretty, pencil-skirted woman), Zuckerberg reaches out to the girl who epically dumped him in the film's first scene, by requesting her Facebook friendship―and then obsessively refreshing her profile, waiting for her to respond.

Responding to professional frustration by fixating on a woman from the past makes total sense in Sorkinville, where the reignited affection of an ex-girlfriend or long-time crush object is often the only thing that can restore a man's self worth and/or save him from himself. But this fully-fictionalized scene doesn't quite get at the kind of narcissism that Facebook both feeds on and compels. As much as it's an ideal tool for stalking exes (and their current girlfriends, and roommates, and co-workers...), Facebook isn't about projecting a fantasy on to others as much as it's about transmitting fantasy versions of ourselves. (This is why, when you're not actively engaged in propagating your own myth, spending time on Facebook can feel like being yelled at.) The final scene of The Social Network rings false because a guy in Zuckerberg's situation wouldn't be refreshing the girl's profile for the affirmation of the accepted friend request―he'd be refreshing his own.

At least, that's what I would have done. The Social Network made it possible for me to go through the thought process that allowed me to recognize the ways in which Facebook enabled the elements of my personality that I most despise. And so I quit.

One thing I do think The Social Network gets right about Facebook: I don't think I'm alone in that, while my professional life is a constant struggle to stay on top of everything that's currently happening and most of what's about to happen, my personal life is defined by a constant struggle to accept the fact that I can't possibly know what is going to happen. One interesting thing about translating Zuckerberg's story into Sorkinese, is that it explains Facebook as an attempt to apply the focus, organization and meritocracy of professional life to the chaos of the social sphere. Sorkin's Zuckerberg sees, and seizes, an opportunity to use his gift for wrangling code to attain some kind of control over his social and romantic destiny―and that aspect of the film nails the way a lot of us have become dependent on things like Facebook to fill the gap between work and life, to make one more like the other, in the hopes of trying to assert some kind of control over an unknowable future.

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