Thursday, September 30, 2010

How Facebook conquered the on-line world

The temptation in reviewing a hot-topic movie such as The Social Network is to try for a big statement. One could, for example, bemoan the illusion of intimacy that a massive social network such as Facebook seems to create. Or one might marvel at the technical savvy and sociological prescience it took to establish Facebook as a game-changing player in the world of communications.

Truth is I'm not ready to see Facebook as the mark of the devil or as a precursor of everything that's great about the unfolding century. For me, Facebook provides a way to keep in touch with old friends and relatives. I share tidbits (newsy or otherwise) that strike me as intriguing and may be of interest to others. I follow suggested links that seem worth a mouse click. I check Facebook at least once a day or (heaven help me) during breaks from Twitter.

Maybe it is just an illusion, but Facebook sometimes makes me feel as if I'm in the loop.

One thing's for sure: I'm not alone. With 500 million people using Facebook, it's a sure bet that a lot of them will want to see Social Network, a well-researched fictionalized and entirely captivating account of the founding of Facebook. The movie also exposes the various bruised egos and lawsuits that floated in the wake of this Web-based revolution.

Directed by David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing). Social Network might have been subtitled Revenge of the Nerd. Once the brunt of movie jokes aimed at characters with thick glasses, buck teeth and pocket protectors, geeks have morphed into major playahs, potential billionaires who have revolutionized nearly everything - from the way we buy music to the way we watch movies to the ways in which we keep up with world events.

The undisputed champion of the New Geek Order - at least according to Social Network - is Mark Zuckerberg, the kid who began Facebook at Harvard, spread his fledgling enterprise to a variety of other colleges and universities and eventually built it to the point where everyone from college kids to octogenarians have jumped on board. And, oh yeah, Zuckerberg turned himself into a billionaire in the bargain.

In the hands of Fincher and Sorkin, Social Network opens a window into the social structure of a prestigious university - we're talking Harvard and its culture of manic achievement. The movie also draws energy from the rollicking kick associated with invention and seat-of-the-pants entrepreneurship. From dorm room to billionaire isn't exactly an everyday journey, so Social Network passes the interest test with flying colors, particularly when you remember that Zuckerberg's now a ripe 26 years of age.

Of course, downs usually follow most ups, particularly if we're talking the stock market or drama. In this case, the down side involves the break between Zuckerberg (Jessie Eisenberg) and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). By its end, Social Network suggests that somewhere deep inside, Zuckerberg feels the pain of having thrown friends under the bus as he rose to the top of the teeming Web heap.

No point recounting the details of Facebook's founding. Know, though, that the movie draws on Ben Mezrich's book, The Accidental Billionaires. The word "accidental" is important. Zuckerberg doesn't seem to have an out-sized plan to conquer the world. As portrayed in the movie, he's an avid programmer and a conniving friend. He talks at high speeds, and spares no one's feelings. He's a tech genius who catches the social-network tiger by the tail and has the good sense not to let go.

These days success has many consequences, not least among them lawsuits. Social Network tells its story in flashbacks from two deposition sessions resulting from suits filed against Zuckerberg.

Saverin sued Zuckerberg after he was dumped as the company's CEO. Then there were the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer). The Winklevosses invited Zuckerberg to join them in creating something they planned to call The Harvard Connection. They wound up suing Zuckerberg, claiming he stole their idea and turned it into Facebook.

The Winklevosses were the antithesis of the avid, socially inept Zuckerberg. They belonged to one of Harvard's elite clubs; they rowed crew; they considered themselves gentlemen. When's the last time you heard a college kid refer to himself as a "gentleman."

But it's Zuckerberg who remains the center of this energetic, fascinating and smartly written movie. As played by Eisenberg, Zuckerberg becomes a true movie oddity: A main character who also comes off as a class-A jerk.

You don't have to wait around for Social Network to put Zuckerberg's thoughtless cruelty on display. The movie's first scene establishes the boy genius as the kind of IQ snob who dumps on his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) because she attends Boston University. He evidently regards BU as such an unchallenging institution that none of its students should have to waste time studying.

Zuckerberg's insult reflects his idea of an entitled "brainocracy," a group empowered by the kind of super-intelligence that aces the SATs. You get the impression that Zuckerberg's ego revolves around always having been the smartest guy in every class. Look, if you're constantly at the top, it's easy to spend a lot of time looking down.

It's a tribute to both Fincher and Sorkin that we get caught up in a movie about characters who don't exactly warm the heart. We're enveloped by the ceaseless whirl of Zuckerberg's success machine, which increasingly takes on a life of its own. This isn't a story for the bygone dial-up age. It's full of high-speed connections -- in every sense.

Special note should be made of Justin Timberlake's contribution to this frenetic code fest of a movie. Timberlake appears as Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster, chick magnate, entrepreneurial renegade and fellow brainiac. Zuckerberg found a conspirator in Parker, who - at least in this version of the story - taught him how not to feel guilty about screwing his friends during his conquest of the on-line world. Not that Zuckerberg was particularly guilt-ridden before he met Parker. Parker didn't start Zuckerberg's raging fire; he just poured gasoline on it.

When Parker convinces Zuckerberg to move to Palo Alto, the newly minted Harvard dropout starts to live a kind of dreamy nerd fantasy. Computer code mingles with a party atmosphere in the house Zuckerberg rents. He also runs into his first serious money, a $500,000 investment in his new company.

Fincher's final image leaves little doubt that Zuckerberg - the character in the movie, not necessarily the real guy - knows that all's not right, a message Eisenberg communicates with a drawn expression that makes him look as if he's on the verge of tears. Cynics among us might say, "What a shame; he can cry all the way to the bank."

It's a reasonably strong moment, but my first reaction after the movie - for all its depictions of business machinations, personal betrayals and brainy condescension -- had to do with Facebook. I wanted to drop my account, to withdraw from the ranks of those who have helped turn Zuckerberg into a high-tech titan.

The feeling passed. I'm still on Facebook.

If I had dropped Facebook I wouldn't have seen an old photo my cousin Richie dug up of my parents and most of my aunts and uncles, seated at a table at some long-ago wedding. I wouldn't know what foods are building the waistline of a food-obsessed "friend." I wouldn't know that another friend just found a new job, that still another is looking for a new house or that a page called "I'd Rather Have a Root Canal Procedure than Listen to Sarah Palin Give A Speech" has sprung up on Facebook.

I learn things - both trivial and significant - by participating in Facebook. But how you get from that to billions of dollars is beyond me. For that kind of action and savvy, you'll have to ask the real Zuckerbeg. Judging by the movie (and by a recent New Yorker profile), it's one bit of information Zuckerberg may not be sharing.

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