Monday, October 18, 2010

The Social Network: A Review and Some Thoughts

A friend and I took part of our Sunday to see the new film The Social Network, directed by David Fincher, written by Alan Sorkin and starring Jesse Eisenberg. It was two hours well-spent (partly because the film was entertaining and partly because we can now become part of the on-going conversations about the film, as it has become something of a social phenomenon itself). For anyone who has read anything about Facebook's contentious beginnings, the actual storyline doesn't contain any really new or shocking information, but the organization of the story--alternating between flashbacks at Harvard and a legal deposition in which the Zuckerberg character settles accounts with Harvard students who claim a stake in his company--allows the viewer to simultaneously get both the backstory and the contemporary controversy, which lends additional significance to both time periods.  I felt that the acting was all strong, but Jesse Eisenberg deserves commendation for his ability to present a character that is both entirely annoying and socially inept and yet also completely sympathetic and likeable. An impressive feat. (I knew he'd do great things when I saw him in Adventureland!). Andrew Garfield plays Eduardo Saverin (Zuckerberg's original business partner and his best friend), and he is pretty much the most adorable person ever. He just looks so perfectly and tragically heartbroken when Zuckerberg does him in that you just want to kiss him for his sweet naivete. Or at least I did.

For me, perhaps the most fascinating element of the film is the fact that Sorkin makes no claims of the screenplay's objective veracity in terms of his character depictions, but he does claim to have done extensive research to ensure that the story itself is as close to accurate as it could be. Interestingly, as I learned when I heard Justin Timberlake interviewed on NPR this week, Sorkin actually went so far as to forbid the actors from contacting their real-life counterparts to get additional information or perspective beyond what the screenplay offered them. Sorkin's decree sort of begs the question of whether or not one can get a story just right without getting the people just right, and it also asks whether a person is a reliable source of information on himself or whether he is, as Sorkin seems to think, the least reliable source of information on himself. Sorkin's approach certainly enters the film into the increasingly popular genre of "creative nonfiction" -- one of my absolute favorites right now due in large part to its use of narrative techniques to tell real-life stories. (I just read Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind, and he claims that the human brain is hardwired to remember information presented in story-form, which means that this type of writing has incredible potential for those of us who are educators.)

The other reason I loved the film may seem silly in comparison, but here goes: I loved that Zuckerberg wore hoodies and flip flops to meetings with high-powered attorneys and high-level executives. Recently I've been thinking a lot about the claim that we, as educators, make to our students about behaving in "professional" or "academic" ways; we tell them that they must dress a certain way to be taken seriously, that they must speak and write in a certain way to get ahead. We give this advice because we know that they have a better chance of finding success if they work within the established systems; we know that fighting the system is very hard work. While that advice is likely true 99% of the time, I love the idea that some people say, "Screw the system!" instead of "Work the system." Nothing brings me greater joy than small revolutions (even one-man revolutions will do), and so I loved Mark Zuckerberg for refusing to ditch that hoodie. The fact that he's a billionaire now gives each kid out there the hope that the way he speaks or the way he wears his jeans or the way he does his hair is actually just as ok as any other way, even if the world tries to convince him otherwise. Norms are only norms because we all agree on them--they aren't "natural" or "normal;" they're just pervasive, and Zuckerberg's attire implicitly points that out. I dig it.

I also love the fact that there's at least one CEO out there in the land of capitalism who believes in a higher standard than just making money. Art is not dead yet! The film doesn't completely explain Zuckerberg's reasons for rejecting advertisers as sources of income for Facebook (he just claims that Facebook will lose its "cool" factor if he allows advertising dollars to enter the picture), but in an interview I read with him, he states that he believes in Facebook as an idea, as an art, and he doesn't want to sell it to the highest bidder so that it can be destroyed or revised in ways that are beyond his control (also the reason he hasn't yet taken the company public). 

Below are links to Facebook-related articles and essays that I love, if you have an interest in checking them out...

The Boundaries of a Breakup

Brave New World of Digital Intimacy

The Face of Facebook