I finally got around to seeing that film everyone’s talking about. And, after reading Nathan Heller and Ross Douthat and Steve Sailer and Jose Antonio Vargas and Dana Stevens and Irin Carmon and Aaron Sorkin himself you’d think I’d have nothing more to add to the conversation. Hah! What kind of blogger do you think I am?
So: three points:
1. On the “does this say something important about the meritocracy” question: I think Ross has interesting things to say about the meritocracy, but I didn’t see it in the movie. That is to say: I get what he’s saying about the Winklevi actually buying into the same value system as Zuckerberg. The whole scene with Summers is intended to drive home the message that Harvard isn’t impressed with pedigree and isn’t trying to turn out gentlemen; everyone is about accomplishment, and accomplishment is measured relative to competitors. The Winklevi lose a race to the Dutch by inches; them’s the breaks. In their own minds, they lost a race – unfairly – to Zuckerberg, and now he’ll be a famous billionaire innovator and they’ll be . . . a couple of good-looking rich Harvard guys who nobody’s ever heard of. Time to sue.
But Nathan Heller’s point is that this picture gets Zuckerberg wrong. That he wasn’t this resentful creature out to get revenge on everybody who snubbed him. That he wasn’t, in fact, anxious about his social status at all. A movie about the Winklevoss twins that ended with them getting $65 million out of Zuckerberg, and leaving them . . . still just two rich good looking Harvard guys who nobody ever heard of – now that would be a movie making Ross’s point about meritocracy. But this isn’t their movie; it’s Zuckerberg’s movie. Why is his story something that speaks to “our time” – assuming it does?
2. On the sexism question: it seems to me Sorkin cuts his defenders off at the knees with his own self-defense. Many of Sorkin’s defenders have responded to claims that the movie doesn’t get Zuckerberg or his milieu right by saying, basically: it’s a movie. It’s following narrative conventions. It’s making about point about a certain kind of personality and its place in our society; it’s about the real Zuckerberg, but about a Zuckerberg invented to make an effective and important movie.
But Sorkin’s own defense is: no, this is about the real Zuckerberg. “I used Marks’ blog verbatim.” “Facebook was born during a night of incredibly [sic] mysogyny.” “These aren’t the cuddly nerds we made movies about in the 80’s. They’re very angry that the cheerleader still wants to go out with the quarterback instead of the men (boys) who are running the universe right now.”
Really? I didn’t go to Harvard with Zuckerberg, but I know a lot of nerds, including some very competitive and very rich ones. None of them fit this picture.
There’s a certain poetic justice in Mark Zuckerberg of all people being hoist by the petard of a blog entry he posted when he was 19, but it’s still obviously absurd to conclude that this blog post reveals the “real” Zuckerberg and his (so far as we can tell) healthy relationship with his long-time girlfriend is some kind of fluke. So the question remains: why did Sorkin write a movie arguing, basically, that Facebook was born of the mysogyny of social losers. His complication of their loserdom – basically, that they know that they will be financially successful, but they see no evidence that this will translated into sexual success, and this enrages them – doesn’t really change the basic picture.
3. What is Facebook, anyway? Zuckerberg says several times in the movie that “we don’t even know what it is yet” – but that was in 2003. We know what it is now. It’s a vehicle for promoting a new kind of addictive behavior, namely playing Farmville. But what do the moviemakers think it was, back in 2003? Why do they think it won the race?
A movie, of course, isn’t a treatise; Sorkin and Fincher aren’t doing an analysis of Facebook for Harvard Business School. But, really, this movie has two subjects: Zuckerberg and his creation. They created a Zuckerberg that served their narrative purposes, to make a point about the social environment among America’s elite and the psychology of the nerd-kings who now run the universe. But what about the creation?
Zuckerberg mocks the Winklevi in the movie for their idea for a Harvard dating site. But the only things we know about Facebook from the movie and why it succeeds are: (1) that it’s exclusive (meaning you get to pick your friends); (2) you can post your relationship status (meaning, you could use the site to look for dates); (3) it’s “cool” – though what makes it “cool” is never specified.
Forgive me for thinking that none of these are actual explanations – that is to say, none of them are the result of thinking about the actual question, or reading people who thought about the actual question. They are a priori answers designed to connect to themes the filmmakers had already decided on. And I think that’s a shame. I wanted to learn something about the creation of Facebook, and I don’t feel like i did.
To me, the film was a disappointment. Honestly, I would have rather seen a movie about the Winklevoss twins. I found their story, and their dilemma, a lot more interesting than Zuckerberg’s. After all, we already know it’s lonely at the top, that to succeed you sometimes lose your friends; and we came into the movie prejudiced to believe that the nerds envy the jocks and are thinking about sex all the time. But a story about two gorgeous, rich jocks who are so envious of the nerd that they can’t let go of the notion that he stole their idea? That’s a story we haven’t heard before. That would be interesting.