Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Social Network

I graduated from college in '02, so I missed facebook by about a year and a half.
Not the current incarnation of facebook, with all the games and quizzes and family photo albums. The original facebook. You know, for kids.
Watching the Social Network made me simultaneously wish I was three or four years younger, and also totally relieved I wasn't three or four years younger. It also made me want to go straight home and delete my facebook account.

The Social Network opens with a conversation between Harvard freshman Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend. While discussing his goals and ambitions for the upcoming year, Zuckerberg calously offends his girlfriend in just about every possible way, but is still confused and deeply hurt when she announces she wants to end the relationship.

He reacts in a classically immature way, by rushing straight back to his dorm room to get drunk and post some malicious gossip about her on his blog. In the same night, he whips up and posts a website that lets users rate the hotness of the female undergrads. Fasmash, as he calls it, is so popular that it crashes the Harvard network within a few hours.

In the first ten minutes, we've learned two very important things about Zuckerberg. He's a frighteningly talented programmer, and he's also incredibly vindictive and petty. Throughout the rest of the film, Zuckerberg's actions are surrounded by a haze of ambiguous motivation. Is he acting the part of a shrewd entrepreneur, or reacting as a jealous, insecure kid shaking his fist in the air and shouting "I'll show you!" ?

The raging success of Facemash gets the attention of a trio of young entrepreneurs on campus, Divya Narenda, and Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. They pitch Zuckerberg and idea for an exclusive website that would basically help Harvard guys find girls that want to hook up with Harvard guys. Yes, these are the big ideas of 20 year old guys. Zuckerberg immediately runs to his best friend Eduardo Saverin with an idea of his own. Zuckerberg's idea borrows a bit from the Winkelvoss's HarvardConnection, but it also incorporates a bit of Myspace, and essentially just expands the already existing Facebook sites run individually by many of Harvard's school houses.

Did Zuckerberg end up backing out of the Winkelvoss's project simply because of immaturity and a lack of foresight? Or did he intentionally screw them over because they were exactly the kind of guys his girlfriend jokingly suggested she preferred to Zuckerberg himself? Either way, with Saverin's help and initial investment of 1k, Zuckerberg's site, The facebook, is up and running in a few short months. From that point, things move at a freakish pace, with the facebook expanding from Harvard to a handful of schools, to nationwide in a few short months.
Zuckerberg and Saverin succeed in getting the attention of Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, who meets with them to discuss business, or so they think.

There is immediate tension between Saverin and Parker, with Parker coming off as a greasy, opportunistic weasel, but also the guy with the corporate connections Saverin wishes he had. It's Parker's involvement that really gets the site from a project to a viable business, but it's also the wedge that finally splits Saverin and Zuckerberg. This was my only real problem with The Social Network as a whole. The film alternates between scenes of the founding of facebook, and the eventual avalanche of lawsuits by nearly everyone involved or remotely connected. We know that Saverin is suing his best friend for hundreds of millions of dollars. But when it comes down to the pivotal scene, where Saverin is cut out of the business, Zuckerberg is conspicuously off stage. What was his involvement in that decision? It's left very vague, probably as a result of non disclosure agreements attached to everyones multi million dollar settlements.

In the end, Parker ends up looking sad and desperate, Saverin comes off looking like a charming, trusting, betrayed but loyal friend, and Zuckerberg is exactly the same as he was in the first scene. A brilliant, awkward, immature, insecure kid. The only difference is, he's worth a billion dollars.

The Social Network draws immediate comparisons to Startup.com, the 2000 documentary that was supposed to chronicle the rise to success of another trio of sharp young entrepreneurs in the new landscape of internet business. Instead, it was a dramatic depiction of the 90's .com bubble popping. The only difference is that the facebook founders were fighting over real dollars, and the Govworks.com guys were so busy dividing up shares and squabbling over control of the company, they never really bothered to create anything that worked before they tried to sell it.

Zuckerberg would have been old enough to understand the .com mania, and the ensuing destruction of the new era of internet business. In that context, many of his decisions make perfect sense. He makes the right moves for the business, and it is a smashing success. The problem is that he also makes the best decisions for himself, and at the end of the day, he's standing alone at the top of the hill. He gets his revenge, even against those who tried to help and support him.

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