Will you be my friend?
It’s a question pregnant with meaning, dependent on context. Said on a school playground it means something. Said in a singles bar or by a politician, it means something else. Said with a push of an online button, it might mean anything. With the advent of Facebook, people can be “friends” with strangers, enemies and coffee shops. And we begin to wonder what the word friend really means in the Information Age.
In a club near Harvard University in late 2003, Erica Albright tells Mark Zuckerberg—future businessman, future billionaire, future inventor of Facebook—that she just wants to be friends. She doesn’t mean it. Few do when they’re breaking up. Nor, perhaps, would Mark grasp the concept if she did. You get the sense, watching The Social Network, that Mark has little experience with friendship.
Arrogant, angry and oh so brilliant, he interacts with people as most would with a computer, relates to a computer as most would with people. And in the wake of Erica’s rejection, he flees to his dorm room and opens his soul to his laptop screen, flooding a blog with bitter put-downs and unspoken rejoinders—venting and processing perhaps the only way he knows. And while doing so, he patches together bits of code and unleashes a bit of vitriol on women in general—creating an online game of “who’s hot, who’s not” on the Harvard campus.
He calls his work Facemash, and it nearly gets him expelled, partly because he hacks into Harvard’s secure network to launch it. But it also earns him a measure of fame, of notoriety. It’s a taste of the popularity Mark pretends to eschew but obviously craves. Soon, members of Harvard’s ruling caste ask for his help in crafting a campus-only social network, and he agrees. But instead of hammering out code for his new employers, he begins working on a networking site of his own—a site he initially calls thefacebook.com.
Within days of launching, it’s the rage at Harvard. The following month, The Facebook expands to a handful of other campuses. Financially backed by roomie Eduardo Saverin, the site then earns a rabid following among tens of thousands of collegians around the world and interest from entrepreneurs. People are meeting, socializing and hooking up online. And friend instantly becomes a verb.
Mark didn’t understand friendship, The Social Network tells us, so he redefined it.
The Social Network is based on Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires, written largely with the help of Eduardo Saverin. Little surprise, then, that the big-screen version of Eduardo is the film’s most sympathetic character.
Amiable and winsome, Eduardo is Mark’s only true friend. As the rest of Harvard ignores Mark, Eduardo supports him, both personally and—as The Facebook slowly takes flight—financially. He ponies up the first $1,000 for the venture, becoming Facebook’s chief financial officer, then sweetens the pot to $19,000 when Mark sets up shop in Palo Alto, Calif. He’s not the film’s hero, but its everyman. And it’s through Eduardo’s eyes that we see Facebook’s brilliant and brutal beginnings. He is, in some respects, a Horatio Alger character … ultimately betrayed by the American Way. He works hard and plays by the rules, only to find that the rules have changed around him.
Twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss are more extreme examples of this same dynamic. Wealthy and powerful, they represent old-school Harvard—including its semi-chivalrous code of conduct. They believe they came up with the idea for Facebook. But even when it seems obvious to them that Mark pilfered their idea and used it as his own, they decline at first to sue “because we’re gentlemen of Harvard.”
Such ideals seem quaint within The Social Network, but while the film chides the Winklevosses a little, it saves its harshest criticism for the amoral system that swept such notions of fair play aside. The new dot-com ethos, embodied by Napster founder Sean Parker, is smooth and brilliant and ethically vapid—with Sean serving as a postmodern Mephistopheles. As such, The Social Network becomes something of a morality play—a tragic paradox in which a site based on connectivity leaves its creators disconnected from what matters. Though you’ll find no real heroes here, The Social Network’s narrative moral underpinnings are difficult to miss.
One specific item of positivity: The movie goes out of its way to remind moviegoers that just because a stray (hurtful) thought manages to skitter through their heads doesn’t mean they should write it down and post it to the Web. More on that in my conclusion.
When Mark tiredly closes his eyes after launching The Facebook, someone facetiously asks him if he’s praying.
The first time we meet Sean, he’s waking up in the dorm room of a Stanford undergrad. We see the Stanford woman in revealing underwear and, later, see her bare back as she removes a towel to get into the shower. We learn that Sean’s been involved with Facebook interns and other young women, too. He parties with several woman—one of whom takes off her blouse (we see her bra) so Sean and others can snort cocaine off her body.
But Parker’s far from the only character preoccupied with sex. As both Mark and Eduardo allude to, one of Facebook’s most popular features for the college set is its “relationship status.” It tells users, in Mark’s words, “Are you having sex or aren’t you?” We see students dance in underwear and play strip poker. Women kiss each other and cavort in a club wearing bikini-like outfits.
Two girls hit on Mark and Eduardo, and all of them end up in bathroom stalls. Between the two couples, we see pants being unbuckled and unzipped, shirts ripped open, groping, panting, etc. One girl moves down to give oral sex.
Victoria’s Secret gets a shout-out, and Mark discusses his ex-girlfriend’s bra size on his blog. He suggests to her that the only reason they gained access to a particular club is because she slept with the door guy. (She denies it.) A poster reads, “Big Boobs and Brains.” Someone makes a reference to necrophilia.
Several characters threaten, with varying degrees of seriousness, bodily harm to others—from hitting to using a Glock. Eduardo’s unhinged girlfriend nearly sets his apartment on fire when she purposely burns a gift he gave her. One of the Winklevosses breaks off a doorknob.
Two and a half f-words and nearly 20 s-words. Jesus’ and God’s names are abused a half-dozen times each. God’s is paired with “d‑‑n.” Other curse words include “a‑‑,” “b‑‑ch” and “h‑‑‑.” Zuckerberg’s name is twisted into a crude expression. An obscene gesture is made.
Sean is busted by police for cocaine possession. He’s caught with the powder on his hands shortly after snorting a line off a girl’s stomach. We hear rumors that he’s used drugs before. Two girls share a gigantic bong. Others light up joints and/or cigarettes during a college party.
Lots of characters, many underage, down everything from beer to mixed drinks to whiskey. Mark admits that, as he creates Facemash, he’s a “little intoxicated.” And he’s fond of finding out whether others can code while drunk, forcing prospective Facebook techies into a wild drinking game while testing their abilities.
Sean relishes the idea that Napster turned the music industry on its head by triggering the music piracy stampede. He comments that it might not have been a good business move, but it “p‑‑‑ed a lot of people off.” Eduardo loses his influence in Facebook through duplicitous means. When the police bust up a drug party, a row of college girls all lie about their age. We see a student throwing up during a hazing ritual.
Though based on real-world research, The Social Network is a work of fiction. Its characters bear recognizable names and some of the events they participate in truly did happen, but they may or may not actually be like their real-world counterparts. This is not a documentary. It’s a drama—albeit one that the real Mark Zuckerberg would rather you not see. As screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (Charlie Wilson’s War, The West Wing) tells The Daily Beast, “He’s got right now—frankly, because of me—the whole world wondering if he’s an a‑‑hole, OK? He’s got to pick up the paper every day and see that.”
This film may indeed cause some to look at Zuckerberg—who seems to have more confidence and charisma than we see onscreen—in a harsher light. I doubt, however, that it’ll impact how folks use Zuckerberg’s landmark achievement. Those familiar with Facebook know how it’s used, misused and sometimes abused. Many probably know something about its recurring privacy issues and sneakily addictive games. Frankly, they probably know more about that sort of thing than Sorkin himself, who admits he doesn’t use Facebook. They’ll continue to use it if FarmVille stays fun and it allows them to stay in touch with Aunt Gertrude across the country. Whether Zuckerberg was a jerk when he created the thing will remain beside the point for most.
And the film’s makers seem to know this. The Social Network—a well-crafted story of modern-day creativity and greed—points a lot of fingers at Facebook’s creators, but talks very little about Facebook itself. We know it’s “addictive” because a Stanford coed tells us so. We know it’s a billion-dollar idea because Sean says it is. We know folks think it’s cool because we’re told how many students have flocked to it. But Sorkin and director David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fight Club) spend very little time critiquing this mode of communication itself … except for this recurring caution:
Just as thefacebook.com is beginning to take off on the Harvard campus, Mark walks up to Erica and asks if he can speak with her alone. Erica shrugs him off. Why would he want to speak to her alone yet feel fine speaking about her to the entire school through his blog?
“The Internet isn’t written in pencil, Mark,” she tells him. “It’s written with ink.”
Facebook, like most other online modes of communication, is a tool—something which we can use for good or ill. (The good part better be true; Plugged In has its own page.) Zuckerberg’s creation has allowed us to connect to people in new and exciting ways, but it’s given us yet another avenue in which we can hurt or offend those we care about, too. Sometimes we write things we’d never say, post things we’re sometimes ashamed to even think. We actually live in the Too-Much-Information Age, where we confess not to a priest in the quiet confines of a church, but to an entire online universe.
The Social Network, if it has a practical message at all, tells us that the wonderful promise of online communication brings with it a cadre of new temptations and problems. And we’re shown some of those in an up-close-and-personal way. We’re told that the movie’s main characters never paused to consider such things. But we, the users, might want to do just that.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.