David Fincher’s “The Social Network” is in many ways a traditional exploration of, as screenwriter Aaron Sorkin put it during Q&A following the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival: “loyalty, friendship, power, money, envy, social status, and jealousy”, emphasizing timeless values that, “if Aeschylus were alive today, he’d have written it”. Indeed, exploring these themes within the context of an American figure’s sudden rise to success is an established method used in Hollywood to ask certain questions regarding the seedy underbelly of modern capitalist civilization. What this film adds to that equation, which is unique to our particular time-period of digital media, is the presence of an interconnected society wherein all value is concentrated within the relational self.
American psychologist Kenneth J. Gergen’s “I am linked, therefore I exist”, his response to Descartes’s dictum “I think, therefore I am”, most certainly applies in the case of Facebook, which boasts more than 500 million registered users participating with fetishistic fervor. It’s also very fitting for this particular film’s take on the site’s origin story. Sorkin’s script focuses on the deposition transcripts of two lawsuits brought against Facebook simultaneously. This is the launching point from which the story is told, through the testimonies of the various players involved, interweaving a network of alleged connections and relationships that may or may not have existed, depending on which narrative you deem reliable. The characters in the film are defined solely by the multitude of relationships that they manage to establish with other people, in keeping with the dynamic by which actual social networking sites operate.
The appropriately dialogue-heavy screenplay provides a perfect display of this dynamic; the fast-paced exchanges between characters emphasize their neuroses in a way that’s different to the usual driving forces behind these kinds of stories. Meaning, the conflicts resulting from this website’s sudden rise to prominence are less to do with your usual unbridled pursuit of wealth and fame, and more to do with identity crises. The characters are driven by a sense that, should they be “left behind” or lose their connections to the site’s creation, the result would be a loss of their identity.
Facebook’s eventual creator Mark Zuckerberg, who is played with stubborn resignation and intense bitterness by Jesse Eisenberg, states his motives clearly in the opening scene, talking to his girlfriend at The Lonely Scholars Pub at Harvard, “I need to do something substantial in order to gain the attention of the clubs”. In this conversation, he dismisses the importance of money, relaying an anecdote of his roommate Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) making over 300 thousand dollars over the summer through business ventures in oil, only to remain nameless within the Harvard community. Mark’s problem is that, within a population of successful geniuses, he is still a nobody.
After getting dumped in this opening scene, he retreats into social networking, resigning himself to any relationships that don’t help him establish an identity for himself. He rants about his ex-girlfriend on his blog and emails links to his friends, only to ignore them once they actually stop by in person to provide consolation. He instead continues work on his blog and related projects. During most face-to-face interactions, Mark buries himself in his headphones but stays “connected” on his laptop. After all, what value is a friendship in moments when its existence can’t be seen and validated by others?
A person’s connection to a network holds the ultimate importance regarding their sense of self. Zuckerberg acknowledges this and finds a like-minded thinker in Sean Parker (portrayed by Justin Timberlake as the ultimate egomaniac, and an anarchist rock-star of sorts). He’s the inventor of Napster and displays all the signs of extreme narcissism associated with the rise of social media, having been in the game many years with his notorious file-sharing programs by the time he meets Zuckerberg. Parker makes a point to emphasize the irrelevance of money, constantly reassuring Mark that he only wishes to help out “as a fan” of the site. His sole objective is to somehow link himself to what he accurately anticipates will become the most revolutionary social phenomenon of the new century.
The two have similar ambitions relating to their respective inventions and desires to shake up establishment, leading Zuckerberg to forge stronger bonds with Parker and disconnect from his roommate Eduardo Saverin, who is also his best friend and original financer of Facebook. In his portrayal, Andrew Garfield gives Saverin a soft-spoken and well-meaning personality. He’s basically a nice partner, unable to keep up. The two bicker constantly over introducing pop-up ads on the site, which Saverin contends is necessary in order to generate revenue. His conventional concepts, based on dated business models, are irreconcilable with Zuckerberg’s vision of keeping Facebook “cool”; they threaten the inflated ego that Mark’s attached to his invention. The connection to Saverin loses value and meaning in light of this impasse, so he is pushed out and the friendship is discarded for failure to serve Mark in defining himself to the world.
By the story’s conclusion, many people have been linked together in one way or another, but at the same time alienated. In Gergen’s studies of human consciousness in the age of social networking, the concept of a “pastiche personality” is introduced, defined as “a social chameleon, constantly borrowing bits and pieces of identity from whatever sources are available and constructing them as useful or desirable in a given situation”. Facebook is one of the more extreme manifestations of these notions. In The Social Network, this new collective order becomes a reality that leads the characters to revisit old definitions of identity and relationships, and a considerable price is paid by each.
Much was made at the press screening about this allegedly being a departure of sorts for Fincher, who is tagged as a “visual director” suddenly tackling a film that consists mostly of conversations between university students, but the movie still does end up having a distinct look about it. Many lighter colors are drained in order to complement some of the movie’s bleaker themes, and darker colors are softened to be sure that appearances are kept (most of these issues of anger, frustration, jealousy, et al, are internalized by the characters and remain bubbling just underneath the surface). Trent Reznor’s score also has a suitably clean and minimalistic production quality to it. For instance, the melodies sound as if they were taken from old polyphonic ringtones. The strength of the movie’s writing, directing, acting, score, etc, is consistent across the board, but what is so remarkable about it is that the movie introduces an innovative and recent form of social media to the traditional story of the tragic hero, in a subversive and imaginative way that I hadn’t seen done before.
The Social Network comes out in the US on the 1st of October and in the UK on the 15th of October