The Uncomfortable Truths of "The Social Network"

Last Updated Oct 2, 2010 12:30 PM EDT

"The Social Network," a movie about the founding of Facebook, weaves together scenes of tedious legal fights and hypnotically boozy parties, making it alternately mundane and voyeuristic. It feels, actually, a lot like using Facebook.
It's possible to walk out of The Social Network stiff with boredom but also, somehow, with the impression that you've been entertained. The movie milks the exclusivity around Harvard, and hams up Mark Zuckerberg's precociousness, both of which are fun to indulge in. But the details of Facebook's founding, the actual story of the founders' fall-out, is actually a pretty predictable and boring little saga full of blithe selfishness. When the lights come up, it feels like you've absorbed a stream of verbal darts and dug around in other people's dirty laundry. Not unlike the feeling you get when you spend two hours reading your Facebook News Feed.

The movie sort of suggests that we can use wealth as a yardstick for Facebook's success: the numbers are always going up. The founders start out with $1,000 budget. Then one of them puts in $18,000 more. Then $500,000 of angel money. Then the word "billionaire" starts popping up. Towards the end, the movie is fogged in money; the epilogue tells us that Facebook today is finally worth $25 billion. This kind of wealth feels a little bit intoxicating in other movies -- even the recent Wall Street sequel, which is a real turd -- but in "The Social Network," the money is just as boring as the lawyering. It almost feels moot. Yes, the user numbers rocket, the angel investments flow in, and the valuations inflate. But it's hard to care about those numbers, which go up naturally at every successful startup, when there's a much bigger question the movie can't answer. Why did this startup grow so explosively? Why is this the thing that half a billion people on earth want?

You would probably need a 12-part documentary to answer that question adequately, but this movie does what it can, which is discreetly exploit the mystery. (Several times in the movie, Zuckerberg exclaims of Facebook, "We don't know what it is!" except that it's "cool.") When Zuckerberg's first CFO, a Harvard classmate, wants to tart up the social network with banner ads, Zuckerberg reacts with disgust, saying that ads would destroy the coolness. Sean Parker, the Napster founder, keeps using "the party" as a metaphor for Facebook throughout the movie, telling the founders that putting ads on the site would be tantamount to "ending the party at 11." When Zuckerberg screws his CFO out of the business with some contract chicanery, it's because he knows desperately that the party must go on: that Facebook's allure is in its cleanly-designed, sanitized raunch.

Ironically for a movie that uses "the party" as its metaphor for Facebook, nothing much of consequence happens in the actual party scenes. People get wasted and it comes off as pointless. In fact, partying runs like a background operation in this movie: serviceably but without any vim.

But the those party scenes are incredibly captivating, perhaps because they feel sweetly, almost naively hedonistic and private, as if adolescents experimentation is by nature clandestine, and that Facebook is just one grand adolescent experiment. The feeling is so acute that, at times, it feels like we're an audience of unwelcome adults who are not supposed to be in the room.

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