social network

Web L.0neliness: Quantity vs. Quality in The Social Network

Boy meets girl. Girl dumps boy. Boy creates Facebook. Boy friends girl.

That, in simple form, is the plot of David Fincher’s The Social Network, but Fincher and scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin know how to make a simple plot compelling, addictive—a bit like Facebook, actually, by inserting a question. Does boy create Facebook, or steal Facebook? The answer may depend on how many friends you ask.

Fittingly, for a movie about new media, The Social Network derives its drama from numbers. Even the tagline, “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies,” points to a lopsided equation, with huge numbers of people on one side, and a select few on the other. It is quantity vs. quality. For Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), the huge numbers are easy to get. It’s the select few he is unable to win over.

High numbers are tossed about from the opening scene, where we see Mark asking girlriend Erika Albright (Rooney Mara) how a person can stand out in an environment where everybody has a 1600 SAT score. Unsatisfied with merely being admitted into one of the world’s most exclusive colleges, Mark wants to be selected for membership at one of the truly elite all male final clubs. Throughout the conversation, Mark is oblivious to the ways that his casual arrogance insults Erika, only getting the message when she abruptly dumps him. In an effort to have the last laugh, he returns to his dorm, badmouths her in his blog, hacks into databases containing the ID photos of Harvard’s student dorms, and creates Facebook’s precursor, Facemash, a site where guys can compare two women and rate which one is “hotter.”

This is where the relationship between quantity and quality becomes dramatic. The Facemash site gets 22,000 hits in its first two hours, and is eventually shut down by Harvard’s network administrators. Mark is hauled before a disciplinary board and given academic probation, but he also becomes famous enough on the campus to attract the attention of the Winklevoss twins. The Winklevosses (Armie Hammer) are handsome, athletic, brilliant, wealthy, and thoroughly elite members of Harvard’s Porcellian Final Club, exactly the sort of people Mark wants to get to know. They seek him out to ask if he might like to be the coder on their new online venture, Harvard Connection, a very exclusive social network where invited participants can make quality friendships. Without hesitation, Mark says, “I’m in,” agreeing to their terms, and then rushes out to create his own social network, “the facebook,” from which he summarily excludes the Winklevosses.

Despite the fact that Mark misled the Winklevosses, and probably stole their Harvard Connection idea, it is hard to sympathize with the twin brothers. Their civil suit, which forms a big part of the backdrop of this film, will ultimately land them a $65 million settlement for their part in Facebook. They will continue to live the charmed lives of the exclusively elite, competitively rowing in international tournaments and rubbing elbows with European royalty. Even Harvard president Larry Summers basically tells them to get over it when they complain about Mark’s ungentlemanly conduct. It is much easier to sympathize with the other person suing Mark in this film, his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield).

Eduardo, a business major at Harvard, gave Mark his startup capital, and was the first to encourage him to think beyond Harvard to allow other Ivy Leaguers to sign up for Facebook. He is completely supportive of Mark, serving as Facebook’s business manager, until he is pushed out by Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the Napster co-founder who, with his silver-tongued patter, steals Mark’s loyalty away from Eduardo just as effortlessly as Timberlake steals every scene he appears in. More than any other character, Sean Parker understands the impact of quantity in the Web 2.0 era. “A million dollars isn’t cool.” he tells Mark, “You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.”

Suave as Mephistopheles, Sean persuades Mark to move to California, meet with venture capitalists, expand Facebook beyond the US, all without alerting Eduardo, whom Sean sees as naive. Eduardo only realizes he has been ousted when he sees the value of his share of Facebook stock has dropped to one one thousandth of its original worth. In the film, this betrayal is carefully timed to coincide with the celebration of Facebook’s one millionth member. It is one of many indicators in The Social Network of the triumph of huge numbers that characterizes the Web’s second decade. Hits on a website can be monetized. Millions of people can be mobilized with a mouse click, but what does it mean to have so many virtual “friends” if you can’t keep even one “real” friend?

The last image of the film paints a compelling portrait of Web 2.0 loneliness. All the attorneys and witnesses have gone home after a long day of hearings and depositions. Mark sits alone with a laptop. He finds his former girlfriend Erika on Facebook, and slowly, with several contemplative pauses, sends her a friend request. The film ends with Mark repeatedly hitting the refresh button on his browser, waiting to see if Erika accepts him as a friend. A title overlay tells us he is the world's youngest billionaire.

The Social Network is largely based upon Ben Mezrich’s controversial book, The Accidental Billionaires. Is any of it true? Not according to Facebook’s founder, who has stated that Facebook will officially ignore the movie in the hope that it goes away. That doesn’t seem to be happening, though. The Social Network has been number one at the box office for two weeks running with critics claiming the film is an Oscar contender. The same numbers that made Mark Zuckerberg famous are now flowing toward a movie that portrays him as infamous, and we all know that numbers don’t lie.


Joseph Christopher Schaub, CineMatters: October 2010.