February 19, 2011

#120: The Social Network (9/10)

In the spring of 2004 I sat in a Purdue University computer lab and set up a Facebook account. I had no clue at the time I was getting in on somewhat of the ground floor of a site that would change how we interact on the internet for years to come. I had no idea about the who, how, or why this site was created. I remained willingly ignorant of those facts right up to the time I started The Social Network.  Sure I knew the name of Mark Zuckerberg, but I had no clue who he really was or what part he played in the creation of the site. Now I've watched The Social Network twice. I'm still not sure how much I really know about the facts behind the creation of Facebook, but damn, what a story.

There is so much to think about with The Social Network. I'm not going to pretend I can even scratch the surface with a short blog post. This is a film about the post bubble internet startup. It is about the transition from the way business used to be done to the way business is and will be done for years to come. It is about how the internet has closed the chasm between the person with the great idea and the finished product that generates revenue. In the internet age people like Mark Zuckerberg no longer have to rent out their talents to the privileged Wiklevosses of the world.

I've seen this movie twice now. I hardly ever revisit a film, especially so quickly.  The only film I saw two times in 2010 was Inglourious Bastards, one of my favorites that year.  The Social Network is similar to Bastards in that while watching the movie you can just sit back and enjoy a well crafted story. After it is over there is so much for you mind to ponder that the more you think about it the more intricate it seems.  As I first finished The Social Network I knew I really liked it strictly as a technical achievement. It was infinitely more entertaining than I ever thought a movie about Facebook could be. However, I am torn by this movie.  I've read both positive and negative reviews.  I agree with both.  This is a great film that is executed extremely well, but the ideas behind it are somewhat unsettling.

The creation of facebook was one of the biggest moments in the short history of the internet.  It would have been so easy for a film about that moment to elevate to such levels of grandeur that it didn't even seem real.  However, The Social Network doesn't go down that path. Everything seemed very natural and organic. It was easy to forget exactly how big of an impact these actions were going to have on society as I was watching, and I think that plays to its strengths.  Even as I write about it now it seems somewhat silly to apply so much importance to those early events that would lead to the eventual site we know and love.  And as I write this, as with almost any other time I am sitting at my home computer, I have a browser tab opened with facebook on it.  I would speculate I am not the only one who does this.

Facebook is insanely huge, and Zuckerberg has every right to be very pleased with with himself. I'd heard so much about how negatively he was portrayed in this movie, but I didn't feel that way.  Zuckerberg's actions were shown in a fairly positive light, and that is the problem.  He was a little too clever for his own good. Cleverness is an over-valued attribute these days, and the snarky Zuckerberg would rather be adept at sarcasm that be a likable person.  It is fitting that Facebook gives a platform for tons of smart-asses to share their unsolicited wit with an audience they would otherwise not have.

It is hard to remember what we wasted our time on before we had the internet.  I guess we would just sit around with friends. Now we have detached ourselves one level. Instead of physically sitting and talking with a group of friends we now sit at the computer and post messages on Facebook. When we do get together with people half the time is spent looking down at our smart phones, checking our Facebook.

The one thing I really liked about this film and something that really fascinates me is the idea of monetizing the internet.  I'm always amazing at hearing the stories about how somebody was able to create income from an idea. There is nothing tangible to Facebook. It is merely a container to store our data, along with a structured way to disseminate that data to our friends.  There are tons of great ideas that never get traction.  Luckily for Zuckerberg he did the "right" thing at the right time and it took off, making him a billionaire in just a few years.  Many of the moguls of the technology age have similar stories. They were in that right place at the right time and had the skill-set to capitalize on the situation.

I should wrap this up.  The Social Network is a film that tells a heavily fictionalized version of a fairly current story, with themes that have been around for ages. It is well written and well made.  Even though there isn't much "action" it kept me rapt the entire way.  While it is a self-contained piece of art, it also reaches out and creates a commentary on current society. I don't feel that was always handled in the best way. On the surface level it is a totally enjoyable film. On the deeper levels it is something that at least gives us something to chew on.  I believe somebody can watch The Social Network and love it, while never considering anything beyond the surface narrative.  I almost wish I had done that.

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