On Facebook, On The Social Network (David Fincher, USA, 2010)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews

I’m not entirely sure I have that much to say about The Social Network that has not already been said.

Zadie Smith has written an excellent article on the film in the New York Review of Books, and countless others have chimed in with, predominantly, praise for Fincher’s film, some critiques of Aaron Sorkin’s rather too stylised dialogue and the possible sexism in the film aside.

As for Smith’s article, it seems strange that she had not yet come across ‘software studies’ before writing it, but this is perhaps only my own small-world view; given that I research the role of digital technology in cinema, among other things, software studies entered somewhere into my feeble brain a couple of years ago – and I just assumed that I was as usual late in thinking about software.

But either way, Smith is correct in thinking about how the choices given to us when using software are not necessarily liberating. Perhaps we should all learn how to write code in order to be able to write our own software that can allow us to express ourselves as opposed to having software (arguably) always compromising what it is that we want to say. Software, in other words, is as ideologically constructed, consciously or not, than is a film.

Facebook is, as Smith also points out, certainly a simplification of life, as is a business card, as is a biography, as is everyone else’s opinion of us, as Jerry Thompson has so memorably found out. As is a sled, for that matter.

Shopping malls and the likes of Tesco are successful, because they save us the bother of having to go to lots of different shops, or at least lots of different shops in different places. Everything is brought to one place – and life is made easier. And while buying everything in one mall/megastore is easier than traveling around town or further afield for the things one wants or needs, buying tout court is easier than having to source raw materials and make and/or grow everything one’s self.

You bet that Tesco has transformed, say, the book market because it offers to readers a small selection of choice titles that satisfy the need for books in most people. As a result, Tesco, HMV, and the Oprah Winfrey/Richard & Judy book clubs ostracise the majority of authors from the mainstream.

Meanwhile, Chris Anderson has argued that Amazon reverses, to some degree, the ‘Tesco’ trend (as I am terming it), since Jeff Bezos‘ baby allows buyers to find the books that they want – because they have a larger choice online than in, say, even the wonderful and massive Foyles on Charing Cross Road in London.

And yet even Amazon comes at a price. Even though the Amazon marketplace does help many booksellers to work with and not against Amazon, its sell-everything approach and its tight grip on the online book sales market has put paid to many individual booksellers in the flesh and cyber worlds.

Smith points out at the end of her essay that audience members laughed when the characters of The Social Network discussed the primitive predecessors to Facebook, such as LiveJournal. Strangely, I do not find myself laughing in a similarly superior fashion when I think about what would otherwise translate into the ‘ineptitude’ of the independent second- and first-hand booksellers that Amazon has put out of business. I find myself saddened in some respects. Some types of obsolescence, it seems, we can cruelly laugh at; others will always make us feel sad (especially when it is our own turn to go on the old scrap heap).

What is linking Tesco, Amazon and Facebook, then, is the fact that each unifies in a single place a bunch of things that might otherwise be dispersed and hard to find. As such, they are simplifications, of course, and saddening ones in certain respects. But their success is based upon the fact that they save humans from having to learn a computer language, hire some web space, and put themselves online – as seemingly we all should do (a position that is replete with its own ideological assumptions concerning the ‘superiority’ of a technical and mediatised presence).

In other words, Facebook is the internet redux before it is life redux; the internet, the bigger version of what Facebook is, is life redux, such that we have an order of largesse: Life > Internet > Facebook. In the same way that shops saved us from growing our own, so, too, does Facebook save us from making our own websites. Facebook is the fast food of the internet, its prefab apartments; if you want a mansion or even a nice house, you have to pay someone more dearly to build it for you, or you learn the skills to build it for yourself.

Now, there is a difference between Tesco and Amazon and Facebook. Facebook is about people, while the former two stores sell stuff. Beyond truisms and urban myths about how family members have discovered the copraphilia of relatives, etc (if you’ve seen that fake, viral Facebook page), and the odd gaffe that most people do not notice (because most of us don’t have time to read other people’s Facebook profiles all day long – as most people don’t read these blogs – a pet hate: people who assume that you have kept up with their life because they report on it via Facebook), and beyond UK murders based upon slurs made on Facebook (revealing that we really do believe erroneously that everyone is looking at us and – more particularly – judging us?; as per one of Smith’s commentators, Facebook allows us all to be famous in our own postcodes; perhaps there is an element of ‘becoming light’ attached to Facebook that does appeal to the appeal of being mediatised, turned into an image, made into a star), Facebook is not really the be-all and end-all of our lives. Indeed, it is only when we confuse Facebook with the internet that we begin to think this way, while my ‘identity’ online consists of numerous email addresses, membership of various sites, some obsolete stuff, comments left in hundreds of forums (to which I never return), and so on. I don’t think anyone takes Facebook to be real life, in the same way that there has been a now-long-standing backlash against the ideological critique of films, because audiences are not dumbly passive to the questionable messages being peddled at them in movies. Facebook alone might constitute something of an implosion of the self, a shrinkage as Smith puts it; but the internet as a whole, especially when considered alongside that even greater medium for (compromised and intersubjective?) self-expression, reality itself, constitutes what Sean Cubitt once described (perhaps rather hyperbolically) as a ‘big bang of the self,’ so many ‘identities’ (or aspects of a single identity) can and do we have floating around in cyberspace.

Jean-Paul Sartre has said that looking at a dice in real life/in existence is a richer experience than imagining one. He says that while in our heads/imaginations we can see all six sides of the dice at once, in real life we can only see at best three or four (unless the dice is in suspension and we have mirrors, although this is my own cheeky contention, not Sartre’s). As such, existence trumps the imagination, hence Sartre as an existentialist who feels that it is better to engage in reality than to disappear into self-invented worlds.

Now, the internets as a whole might be self-invented worlds (though there is grounds to defend them, not least from a postmodern perspective). My invocation of Sartre, however, is not to call people to reject Facebook (as Smith has done), but to suggest that when we look at Facebook, we are only seeing two or three of the many sides of the people we are regarding. Reality is always more rich than Facebook; we know Facebook is a simplification, in the same way that we know a hammer makes simpler the task of making some shelves. Sometimes we would be fools to bloody our hands for the sake of not using simplifying tools to insert some nails in the construction of our lives.

By this rationale, The Social Network is a simplification of the story of Facebook, and this is not surprising given how stylised the film is, with its signature Fincher shady interiors, its dialogue that normal people can only think of after the opportunity, and other flourishes, including, as Smith has also explained, a memorable sequence in Henley, which, as Smith fails to mention, borrows the tilt shift technique made remarkable recently by Keith Loutit, and a good example of which, Mardi Gras (Australia, 2008), can be seen below.

I’m not sure how to interpret Fincher’s tilt shift sequence, except perhaps that, by rendering human endeavour into a cartoonish, or better a stop-motion-like and seemingly toyish form, Fincher is directly commenting upon how his film involves a simplification of a reality, a toyification of the raw material from which he ‘sculpts’ his work.

(It might also suggest that Fincher is uncomfortable shooting outside of the USA. Considered in the light of other of his films, especially The Curious Case of Benjamin Button [USA, 2008], it might also suggest that Fincher is offering a prolonged consideration in his work of the effects of cartoons/simplifications on the human psyche – though in some respects this is no profound thought.)

Even though my last paragraph has dealt with the use of tilt shift in The Social Network, it is time to say that, quite a ways into this blog, we finally are talking about the film as opposed to its subject matter. Smith makes no claims to be talking solely about the film in her essay, so this is not something to hold against her, but it is worth pointing out that no one – myself included – seems capable of talking or writing about the film without using it as a platform for talking or writing about the Book of Face itself.

So Facebook has us in its grips – but we really did not need a film to tell us that. Even several years after joining, I still use it regularly, still ‘stalk’ pretty regularly, and still feel that it is the best self-updating address book I have ever owned (and feel that the rest is fun when I want it to be, and annoying when I don’t). But it’s not as if Facebook is not working alongside various other bits of hard- and software in changing our worlds: mobile phones, the internets themselves, iPhones, iPods, iPads, YouTube, Bit Torrents, and more. Facebook is only a small component of this. We have quickly become habituated to them, so one wonders whether The Social Network might one day be the You’ve Got M@il (Nora Ephron, USA, 1998) of a slightly younger – but still Radiohead-listening – generation.

More important, then, than Facebook, is, after Sartre, reality and people. What does The Social Network have to say about society, about ‘the soul’ and things that Facebook no doubt slightly influences but which more importantly it simply allows to be expressed, whether or not what it expresses is only the Harvard sophomore in all of us?

Rather than being a rewriting of what has been written, and certainly rather than being the final word on The Social Network (which is a superior film by a superior filmmaker, but not necessarily his best), this blog, then, is only supposed to bring out an element of the film that seems to be overlooked by most commentators.

The element that I wish to discuss is the grouped idea of class, private property and commons in the film.

One thing that Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) wants is to be recognised as the author of Facebook. The fact that Facebook for a long time in real life contained the legend ‘A Mark Zuckerberg Production’ on every page has been pointed out. This implies that the internet, like television before it, aspires to the movies in order to be considered legitimate, but it also implies that Zuckerberg is interested in authoring something that is supposedly a collective enterprise. “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook,” says the fictional Zuckerberg, before he allows all of his collaborators to get screwed over. Zadie Smith reads this Zuckerberg as someone who wants to be liked, but he is also one of those odd types, whom I can see sometimes in myself, who will screw over his close friends, precisely, perhaps, because Groucho Marx-style, he disrespects anyone who actually does like him, because they must have lousy judgment in human beings.

I have no interest in the real Zuckerberg, but the fictional one at least is a self-absorbed but complex chap who wants to give to the world something ‘free,’ but who, megalomaniacally, also craves recognition for the same. And this is the real paradox in the Zuckerberg character presented here, which does make it perhaps a 2.0 Person created by a 1.0 Person, as Smith says, but which also hints at the 1.0 that holds back the 2.0 in all of us: he talks of an open and free society, but he walks in a privatised world of intellectual property. Zuckerberg’s real genius is not having written Facebook. Contra the ‘great man’ of history (or at least computer programming) that Zuckerberg self-servingly espouses (much like Steve Jobs has done recently on the similarly self-important TED), Zuckerberg’s real genius is in winning his legal battles. Someone else most certainly would have designed Facebook or something like it (indeed, we know this, because various other people are working on this idea in the film), in the same way that someone else would have come up with the fonts for word processing software that Jobs claims as making him/his computers so special. That it was this Zuckerberg – in the film – is simply a twist of fate, a moment of hazardous (inevitable?) chance. But getting the world to recognise that he was the author of this phenomenon – this was the greatest coup. And yet this recognition relies solely on the notion of being a 1.0 person – someone whose ideas are shaped by the rights of private and intellectual property – while claiming to be a 2.0 person – someone who believes in the common, the free, and the abolition of intellectual property. Someone who pretends to be a team player but, whether he ‘actually’ stole from the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer) or not, is anything but a team player, as Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) finds out.

In this way, Fincher/Sorkin’s Mark Zuckerberg is not the face of the future, but the Janus face of the past in the present as it comes head to head with the future. Is Zuckerberg a breed that is dying out, however, as thousands of anonymous programmers work for minimal money or for free on open source software around the globe and around the clock in a real self-organising commons of soft wares? Or is he the lingering face of capitalist greed, regardless of whether the real Zuckerberg has pledged to give away a large proportion of his wealth during his lifetime?

The Social Network is not about Zuckerberg, then, but about a world that is on the brink of potentially undergoing huge social change, upon the brink of becoming, or at the very least welcoming into its fold a generation that is, a network society not of homogeneised kids putting their mindlessness down in their live feeds, but of heterogeneous and collaborating humans who will pool information and resources in such a way that private property, both intellectual and material, is replaced by a sense of a common wealth. A society in which, pace Fincher/Sorkin’s Zuckerberg, emphasis is not on the individual, but, after Hardt and Negri (whom I am quoting a lot at the moment – apologies!), on the multiple singularities that we are both collectively and ‘individually.’ A generation that recognises its own participation in a reality that is far too complex and ‘existential’ than any single film or piece of software might be able to convey.

Zadie Smith should know well that Judith Butler has, among others, argued that gender is, or at the very least can be, a performance. And while Smith might decry Facebook as a reduced or impoverished life, I would contend that we must think about the performative aspects of Facebook, and understand that few are the people who take it for real. In fact, the performative aspects of Facebook are what make it a liberating tool. A tool for prevarication, perhaps, but also a tool that perhaps also makes a political statement out of prevarication; like the Goldman Sachs employee who preferred networking to making money.

To perform is to perform for others; it is fundamentally an act of communication. As such, performance is fundamentally a means of building relationships with others. Rather than isolating us, Facebook, and the internets more generally, can be considered as a means of bringing us towards a multitude.

To be circumspect, this is unlikely to happen with Facebook as it currently stands. Facebook is indeed too homogeneous/homogeneising, too simple, simplistic and simplified. But given how creative people are and can be with Facebook even now, when we all come to be contributing to an even more complex site at even more complex levels of creativity, and without laughing at Facebook as we would not laugh for poor, defunct booksellers, then perhaps we can see the creative impulses of Fincher/Sorkin’s Zuckerberg as a step in the right direction, a 2.0 wish, that was stymied by 1.0 desires.

As a meditation on authorship and private property, it is intriguing that The Social Network has Fincher and Sorkin stamped so clearly over it. Perhaps this film remains too steeped in the mythology of cinema as the work of a single auteur. On the other hand, Smith has attributed to Fincher a genius for casting in her article. In some senses, we need not attribute this to Fincher; certainly, we need not attribute the great acting solely to Fincher. For even if some elements and the general high standards of the film suggest the presence of his genius, it is not the only one, and actors, editors, cinematographers, writers, directors, and others all deserve credit for what they have achieved here.

Cinema, in spite of a(n understandable – and still in some ways rightly influential) detour into auteur theory as the main means of understanding it, has always been a collaborative process. Even for productions the goal of which is to make the maximum amount of money for the least amount of effort, many people contribute such that cinema is often a work of a/the multitude. Indeed, when one lets one’s collaborators do their own work, such that they are not just actors or crew members but what Gilles Deleuze might term intercessors, or people who truly bring their own genius to the pot, then something great can be born. Filmmaking is no doubt about teamwork, even if great teams also have great managers, trainers and captains.

Paradoxically, then, Smith might have it all wrong: cinema was always already (at its best? anyway?) the 2.0 endeavour, while the younger media, including the internet, are still stuck – as per the people versus Mark Zuckerberg court cases brought here – at the 1.0 copyright level. In some respects, Thomas Edison‘s insistence upon claiming copyright for his cinematographic invention stymied early cinema production, even though Edison shamelessly copied Georges Méliès’ Voyage dans la lune/A Trip to the Moon (France, 1902). In other respects, by going away from Edison to the West Coast, and by in effect shamelessly pirating his hardware, the film industry got going.

Even though it is easy to decry Hollywood for its overriding power and seemingly (but unfairly) homogeneous products, sometimes perhaps we can interpret it in a different way. Whatever it has become, the film industry in the USA might well have been founded upon a collaborative, multitudinous principle. And software, or the internet, is still in its Edison stage, with Zuckerberg as the (counter-?)Edison of his time. Even if the movies have had to evolve, as Dudley Andrew contends (rather self-evidently) in his latest book, sometimes cinema has evolved in beautiful directions, perhaps because through its multitudinous and emergent means of production it is flexible enough to change. As software, similarly, evolves, hopefully it, too, will have some beautiful iterations that allow the multitude to realise itself.

5 thoughts on “On Facebook, On The Social Network (David Fincher, USA, 2010)

  1. Once more in my life, I find I don’t understand Sartre’s analogy… Is it not better to see all sides of the dice? In our imaginations we see six sides, in real life only three. Life is ignorance.

    Extending the logic (*ahem*), in Facebook we see only the visible sides of each person, so Facebook mimics reality whereas the truth, all-sided, is imaginary. Facebook reminds us that all we see, or indeed are shown, is all there can be (at least for the likes of us).

    As you point out, Cinema does something different. For me, it titilates and frustrates not by what it hides, but by momentarily setting us free from the tiny cell windows of space and time through which we are forced to view the world.

    Transformers 2.0 was still shit though.

    1. Sartre would not, if I understand him, say we cannot see all sides of the dice, but we cannot see all of them at once. Given that the example given is a dice, probabilistically we will be correct in guessing what those sides of the dice that we cannot see contain (a selection of dots, perhaps). But if this were seeing behind a wall, or the other side of the crest of a hill, then reality can and often does reveal to use – when we do get to see it – something that is richer than we could have imagined. Human invention via the imagination, magnificent and important though it is, then, will never be as powerful or as rich as reality itself.

      After a fashion, this viewpoint depends on the idea that the ‘truth’ (or better, just reality) is out there. There is evidence to contradict (this version of) Sartre here – not least in a ‘postmodern’ fashion. Namely, we invent reality as much as we behold it. There is justification of this viewpoint from the cognitive and from the physical perspective. (Although if we do invent what we see, then how do we know that arguing as much is not simply an invention? Or rather: we know it must be. But is there anything else?)

      However, most physicists and cognitivists would, I sense, say that there is a real world out there, that it does give us information, and that it is plainly richer than we can see or imagine. The human imagination is a wondrous tool, but it is an invention of nature in order to help us survive within it; as such, for me, it is and always will be less powerful than that which invented it.

      I am talking about the imagination alone here – how we can visualise that which is not visible to us. In some senses our capacity for abstract thought. Now, how we and our brains work is in fact more complex than this; never do we just imagine things in isolation – i.e. without input from reality – and never do we merely perceive things without input from our brains. In other words, the imagination is always at work somewhere even in our most physical moments where we pay attention to reality rather than drift into daydreams about Pandora.

      With this in mind, again one might attack Sartre and say that it is Facebook that is more like reality, that is perhaps more like a brain in reality.

      But even if in effect we have no ‘genuine’ access to that reality thing out there, and/or even if it is always influencing us, even when we daydream, such that we must confess that our imagination is playing a role in the ‘rich’ reality that I am trying to describe, I still maintain that it is the influence of that reality that drives our imagination into ever more profound insights, rather than simply being the invention of the brain. Those who isolate themselves from reality have a tendency to turn towards madness. Some of the greatest insights may have been dismissed as madness and in fact be correct. But paying attention to what surrounds us is still the most enriching experience there is/can be.

      Avatar comes to the fore here in my thinking(/imagination?). Those who were saddened that Avatar was not real life have not opened their eyes (so say I rather pompously and perhaps erroneously?) to the magnificence that a ray of light can have when it falls between two branches. Avatar tries to reproduce this in spades, but never does it achieve the intensity of that wonder when it happens in the fleshworld.

      Perhaps for other people, Avatar does beat fleshworld – and who am I to say that those people are wrong? But it saddens me if people feel that this is so, because even though I love film, I feel not only more engaged, but also as though I should be more engaged with this reality thing, which constantly surprises me (Avatar did not surprise me very much).

      Maybe I’m stupid, but there we go.

      Must dash – teaching in three minutes.

  2. Certainly, and you are quite right that we are forced to operate under the assumption that there is a real world that exists. It’s a gamble that seems worth taking.

    And indeed, the light of imagination is pale indeed compared to that of the senses, even if these very senses are also but an incomprehensibly expressive symbolic representation within us. Yet, “However expressive, symbols can never be the things they stand for.” – Aldous Huxley. The most remarkable thing about the modern imagination, I feel, is that it increasingly leads us to an understanding not solely of its own limits, but also those of its more convincing sibling, the sensory cortex. This is a something of which the imaginative might feel rightly proud. Not so that we may dismiss what we see, but all the better to marvel at its deep mystery.

    Now, the light falling between two branches in fleshworld: would this be called fleshlight?

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