Facebook’s already-beat-up public image took another hard hit last week when the New York Times published a bruising exposé that detailed, among other things, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg’s unwillingness to take seriously the spread of Russian disinformation and Trump-inspired hate speech on their platform ahead of the 2016 election. The Times report is the latest in a cascade of crises for the tech giant—crises that have made a travesty of the mantra most associated with Zuckerberg, “Move fast and break things.” Now that Facebook has broken people and places in addition to things, many are understandably furious at the company.
Should we have been more worried about the fragility of the things—and people and places—around us? In hindsight, the answer is obvious. Now that Silicon Valley’s gospel of technological progress has been revealed as PR gloss, it’s time to wonder why we were so easy to dupe for so long.
Released in 2010, The Social Network was made long before Facebook was powerful enough to destabilize democracies or help enable genocide. Directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin, the Best Picture nominee (and most acclaimed movie of its year) is something akin to a Greek tragedy, playing up the irony of a visionary connecting the world together in a historically unprecedented way by betraying his only friend. But The Social Network is also very much a Hollywood biopic, with its schmaltzy psychoanalysis and Great Man mythmaking. Played by Jesse Eisenberg, the fictional Zuckerberg is given a lost love, Rooney Mara’s Erica, and his yearning after her sparks some of his biggest breakthroughs. (The real-life Zuckerberg would famously go on to marry his college sweetheart, Priscilla Chan.) The movie ends with a haunting scene: a lonely Zuckerberg refreshing Erica’s Facebook page after he requests to be her friend, stuck behind the digital wall he himself built, as the Beatles sing-taunt, “Baby, you’re a rich man.”
But The Social Network also can’t help glamorizing Zuckerberg. It’s one thing to humanize the protagonist, which the film also does. But this version of Facebook’s origin story gives Zuckerberg a rascally anti-heroic sheen. New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg likely wasn’t alone in his initial reaction to the movie nearly a decade ago: “I was rooting for the young Mark Zuckerberg to get the better of the people trying to hold him back,” he reflected in a column on Sunday. “Wasn’t it time for the geeks to take the power from the old guard? For the underdogs to beat the establishment?” The movie’s Zuckerberg speaks in professionally punched-up one-liners, and his brilliance is so absolute that his only mistake was to LiveJournal misogynistic comments about Erica the night of their breakup—never anything business-related. In contrast to the preppy Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer) and even his Wall Street whiz-kid best friend (Andrew Garfield), he’s a self-made gajillionaire who doesn’t really care about money—no less than a personification of the American dream. Though Eisenberg plays him with a perma-scowl, as if he’s never not sucking on lemons, Movie Mark is certainly an improvement over the charisma black hole that is the actual Zuckerberg, whom writer Talia Lavin once described evocatively as a “wax doll cursed into life.” And whatever his former friends and acquaintances think of him, Zuckerberg has, by the movie’s end, an empire that has changed the world. What have those guys got, other than an anonymous pile of molding money and some overpriced suits?
The Social Network begins and ends with Zuckerberg’s ego—and therein lies, I think, its lamentable contribution to how we think of Facebook. Sorkin and Fincher don’t pull punches in their criticisms of the site’s first months of existence, at least if you read between the lines. The movie implies that there’s something gross about the site’s instrumentalization of human relationships—a reflection of how the status-obsessed Mark sees those around him—in which social bonds are forged primarily to signal how many and which people you can put in your outward-facing Rolodex. But the film is bookended by his heartbreak over Erica. How does Facebook affect the lives of the million people who have signed up by the movie’s end, who have implicitly adopted Zuckerberg’s reflexive cataloging of friendship? The Social Network has no idea. After revisiting the film, Rutenberg concluded that “everything we needed to know about Facebook was right in front of our faces, on the big screen, in 2010.” If only that were true.
It doesn’t feel altogether unrelated that, less than a year after the film’s premiere, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney would declare, “Corporations are people, my friend.” The Social Network made Facebook and Zuckerberg mirror images of one another in the public imagination, so much so that Sandberg’s glitzy media launch a few years later did little to disturb that conflation between man and platform. But it shouldn’t be the tech giant’s face that matters. It should be its impact. Soaked in sentimentality that absolves jerk-geniuses for their mistakes (a Sorkin fixation), The Social Network helped normalize the Silicon Valley ethos of “It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission” by once again worshipping at the feet of bad-boy rebels. The Social Network built another altar, but what we’ve needed all along is a magnifying glass.