“Mark, I’m not speaking in code.” Wearying of her boyfriend’s verbal angling, Erica (Rooney Mara) tries once more. Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) insists she’s not appreciating his fixation with getting into one of Harvard’s final clubs, that he’s motivated and not obsessed. When he adds that if he gets in, he can help her to meet people she, a mere BU student, wouldn’t otherwise, Erica—seated across from him in a campus pub—leans in and gives up. “You’re going to go through life thinking girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd,” she asserts. “That’s not true. They won’t like you because you’re an asshole.”
Still, this seems like code to Mark. And so, by the time he makes his way through the dark fall night back to his dorm room, he’s devised a way to reinstate the order in his universe: he begins to blog (not exactly heady stuff: “Erica Albright’s a bitch”) and oh yes, he invents Facebook.
Sort of. At this point, just a few minutes into The Social Network, Mark has only invented a way to crash the cumbersome Harvard server (in 2003) by soliciting the interest of hundreds of students in a game he calls “Facemash.” For this he steals and publishes pictures of female students so that they might be deemed, by mouse clicks, “hot” or “not.” Being college students, the judges are vicious and the girls are mortified. Mark becomes instantly notorious, his whiz-kiddy programming prowess attracting the attention not only of scolding authorities, but also other would-be site purveyors, namely, the essentially interchangeable Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler (both played by Armie Hammer, helped by director David Fincher’s signature CGI-perfectionism).
The Winklevosses and their partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) call Mark to their rooms to ask him to design a social network they have in mind. He agrees, then screws them. That he does this with financing by his “only friend” and Facebook’s first CFO, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), then screws him too, indicates a basic theme here, that Mark is pretty much exactly as Erica sees him (repeated shots of her teary eyes reinforce the point). The twins’ and Eduardo’s efforts to extract justice by legal means provides the film with a helpfully non-chronological structure, as it skips between depositions and the events recalled. As each of the points of view is plainly self-defensive and none entirely trustworthy, this structure allows The Social Network to proffer possibilities, as well as various comments on these possibilities, rather than insisting on a single truth. You know, like Facebook.
Based on Ben Mezrich’s 2009 book, The Accidental Billionaires, and scripted by Aaron Sorkin, the film is already renowned for its breakneck dialogue (especially when Mark speaks, condescendingly and oh-so-cruelly). However fictionalized that dialogue might be (the book imagines conversations as it recounts events mainly from Eduardo’s perspective, and includes luridish party and sex scenes), it represents here an attitude that makes its own political and cultural point, that men and boys in privileged positions tend to see the world in ways that benefits them, that reinforces their privilege. At film’s start. Mark looks in from something like an outside (he’s at Harvard, so he’s not completely “outside” by many standards), but even as an aspirational club member, he’s certain he “belongs” more righteously than the rich kids born into it.
The film makes the case that his longing—and his loneliness—make Mark something of a bitch, to use his language. Yes, it’s ironic that he devises this system for communication and is unable to communicate with, say, Eduardo (who is invited to join one of the final clubs and so earns Mark’s desperately jealous barbs). And yes, it’s ironic that he imagines he’ll use his new site, his new money, and his new reputation to “score,” to have lots of sex, abuse lots of substances, and make lots of friends.
The model for such a transition is and isn’t Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster who gave up his legal fights to pursue other ventures, including partial financing of Facebook’s eventual global launch. Sean is a veteran hard partier when Mark and Eduardo meet him, and his seduction is indicated in a montagey sequence full of dissolves and laughs and drinks. Sean, cast as Mephistopheles here, pulls Facebook from its original concept (“We want it to be cool,” asserts Mark more than once, which initially means no ads, because those aren’t cool) and east coast location to Silicon Valley, where it’s backed by venture capitalists (including Sean), manned by drones in cubicles. As the business achieves a series of benchmarks—so many millions of users, so many billions of dollars—Sean looks creepier and Mark looks increasingly tense. The behemoth Facebook isn’t and also is what he has in mind. For the first, the site is less about communicating and making friends and more about claiming territory and shutting down competition (indicated by one of Mark’s early “growth” strategies, to make Facebook available to colleges near a central target, say, Stanford, and then fulfill the rolling requests for access).
But for the second, Facebook is, at least in theory, a means to expose information, to “make the world a more open place,” as the real Mark Zuckerberg tells the New Yorker, in response to concerns over changes in Facebook’s privacy settings. The film doesn’t get to that point in time: it’s resolutely focused on the beginnings of Facebook, and the individual and cultural pathologies that inspired and overdetermined it. As such, it’s a bracing entertainment of the sort Fincher can make (see also: Zodiac, another, more brilliant, story of obsession and loss of self), but also overdetermined.
That is, the possible “openness” of Facebook here hinges on the definitive closed system embodied by this fictional Mark Zuckerberg. As the site gains users, Mark is pained. And as he pines for a girlfriend (specifically, in this invention, for Erica), the girls in the film must stand for connections he’ll never have. From the lawyer (Rashida Jones) who’s nice to him to the many college students and clubgoers he sees in passing, the girls in The Social Network are ciphers, scary to him because they’re unknowable, available to Sean or Eduardo, because they’re not Mark. When Mark devises his business card—“I’m CEO… bitch”—it manifests both his residual obsession with Erica and his willful immaturity. The movie reflects and reveals his emotional world. It can’t show a world beyond it.