Fifty years before Mark Zuckerberg arrived at Harvard—back when facebooks were actually books, back when poking a friend had a whole different set of connotations—Thornton Wilder came to campus to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures. He devoted one of them to “the loneliness that accompanies independence and the uneasiness that accompanies freedom.” Raising such difficult subjects made him uncomfortable, he recalled later, but he felt better knowing that all of his listeners were American. It meant that “these experiences are not foreign to anyone here.”
What Wilder called “the American loneliness” ran rampant long before he talked about it in 1952. And to judge from the stories our culture has produced in the last few months, all our Skype calls and Gchat sessions haven’t stopped it from running just as rampant now. The latest and most vivid example comes courtesy of The Social Network, and its nickname is Zuck.
David Fincher’s film arrives in a cloud of gossip about its scandalous goings-on. Based on The Accidental Billionaires, Ben Mezrich’s libidinal account of Facebook’s founding in a Harvard dorm, it delivers the advertised sex and drugs amid its coding binges. On the big question—whether Zuckerberg stole the idea for the world’s most popular Web site from the Olympic rowing twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and their partner, Divya Narendra—the film stays agnostic, letting you decide for yourself whether he’s a 10-figure American success story or a devious, thieving cheat.
Beneath the tawdry fun, though, there’s a surprising undertow. The halting dorm-room conversations, the lawsuits, the recriminations: they all look like up-to-date expressions of the loneliness and unease that Wilder described. The film turns out to have less in common with other campus caper flicks than with Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s masterful new novel about an imploding family. Nobody comes right out and says that Zuckerberg and his associates (I almost said friends) don’t know how to live, as someone says of the Berglunds early in Franzen’s book, but the trouble appears to be the same. And the reason why both the book and the film resonate—why they stick with you afterward—is that plenty of the rest of us have that trouble too. By suggesting that a modern kind of loneliness led an obnoxious hacker (business card: “I’m CEO, Bitch!”) to start Facebook, the film helps pinpoint our own loneliness—the feelings of aimlessness and isolation that make us do things like sign up for Facebook.
Friend Feed: We talk to Facebook users (and self-proclaimed addicts) about how the social networking site fits into their lives, Video muted: click volume for sound
Here we have to make a distinction. The “Zuckerberg” to whom I refer is not Mark Zuckerberg, the proud son of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., the one with the well-documented longtime girlfriend and mania for flip-flops. “Zuckerberg” is a character in a movie: a groupie-screwing, friend-betraying jerk who still manages to win some sympathy in spite of himself. This Zuckerberg plainly shares some traits with his off-screen counterpart (cf. the hoodie). On the other hand, it’s fair to think that Movie Mark is better spoken than Actual Mark, having been polished to a shine by the precision tools of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. For the moment, the resemblance or lack thereof doesn’t matter: the Zuckerberg under discussion is the one created by Fincher and Sorkin, not the real live boy billionaire.
It was Sorkin who, in last week’s New Yorker, offered the capsule premise for the film: “It’s a group of, in one way or another, socially dysfunctional people who created the world’s great social-networking site.” You don’t have to wait long to see what he means. On the night the story begins, we watch Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), drunk and angry that he’s just been dumped, call his ex a bitch in a blog post, hack into Harvard’s servers, and create a site that lets visitors rate the looks of their female classmates. That’s social dysfunction, all right. Yet Sorkin’s comment implies that the people around them must function better. They don’t. While Mark’s prank is crashing Harvard’s servers, we catch glimpses of behavior that’s at least as antisocial at the choosy finals club that he wants to join: a party full of drugs, booze, and misogyny. The rest of the movie isn’t a church picnic, either: Fincher and Sorkin show us a world in which all sorts of smart, successful people prove pathetically unable to form healthy adult relationships.
As if to underscore the brittleness of all these social ties, the action keeps skipping back and forth from the months around Facebook’s launch in February 2004 to depositions in the lawsuits brought against Zuckerberg a few years later. In one case, the Winklevoss twins press Zuckerberg to acknowledge that the site was their idea. “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you would have invented Facebook,” he shoots back. In the other case, the one person who has genuine affection for Zuckerberg, his onetime business partner Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), tries to win back the share of the company he claims Zuckerberg denied him. The fact that these putative friends can deal with each other only through legal counsel is one of the darkest touches in a dark film. (How dark? No less than Trent Reznor, the man behind the unremittingly dark Nine Inch Nails, recently said so. And he would know: he and Atticus Ross wrote the buzzy, menacing, excellent score, one that frequently makes you think an alien invasion is imminent—which I mean as a compliment.)
Floating above the hazy bass lines and legal squabbles is Sean Parker, the Napster cofounder played with unexpected finesse by Justin Timberlake. A dotcom Mephistopheles, he entices Zuckerberg to Silicon Valley, the promised land of venture capital and Victoria’s Secret models. In fact, Parker offers so much of what Mark could want that he seems like a phantom only he can see, like Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in Fincher’s Fight Club. (This despite the scene in which Parker seduces Mark, Eduardo, and Eduardo’s girlfriend over sushi and appletinis—a sequence that’s mesmerizing enough by itself to justify casting a pop star.)
Yet as the movie wears on, you wonder more and more: what are Zuckerberg’s needs, exactly? Eduardo, who justifiably claims he was Zuckerberg’s only friend, also justifiably claims that Mark didn’t care about money. Groupies aside, he seems no more libidinal than most of the people around him. The most consistent answer offered by Fincher and Sorkin is that he wants distinction: specifically, he wishes he were as clubbable as a Winklevoss. “You’re obsessed with finals clubs,” says the girl who dumps him in the first scene. But the many recurrences of that note are the weakest and least convincing parts of the film. It’s as if Orson Welles spent all of Citizen Kane making sledding metaphors.
The film strains in these places because it’s trying to close a gap that can’t really be closed. Nobody can say what Zuckerberg wants because Zuckerberg himself doesn’t seem to know. Like the Berglunds, he has great abilities, but the ability to be satisfied isn’t one of them. Why did Zuckerberg turn down the pile of money AOL and Microsoft offered for some music software he’d written, deciding to put it online for free? He won’t say. Why, at the moment when Facebook goes live, does he react not with joy but with a knotted expression that suggests intestinal distress or prayer? Could he tell you if you asked?
Much of the credit for this enigmatic character goes to Eisenberg, whose astonishing performance goes deeper than the writing. When he clenches an eyebrow, it’s like a conductor dipping a baton, soon to be followed by a series of facial twitches, darting eyes, and other gestures meant to keep the world at bay. He’s defensive and vulnerable and needy and, despite his awkwardness, capable of piercing insights into what makes people tick.
His opacity leads to an irony that’s not quite tragic but, in light of how many of us share it, still plenty sad. Zuckerberg and his employees spend enormous time and energy trying to make people connect to each other via their online social network, but they’ve got the situation backward. The route to a happy life, let alone a meaningful one, doesn’t lie in escaping loneliness. As Wilder tried to tell his audience, it is an inescapable part of living in a country as big and free and unencumbered as this one. (See also the testimony of Hank Williams Sr., Billie Holiday, Edward Hopper, Bessie Smith.) The trick for us, and for the people around the world living as we do, lies in using our loneliness. Wilder stated the challenge best and for all time when he described “the typical American battle of trying to convert a loneliness into an enriched and fruitful solitude.” Like the Berglunds—or another touchstone of contemporary culture, Don Draper—these characters can’t get along with each other because they haven’t learned to get along with, and don’t even really know, themselves.
When you log into Facebook after the film—and you know you will—you might find that it feels a little different. On one hand, hanging around the site begins to seem like a bad idea. In a world that’s ever noisier and more demanding, it only gets harder to develop a “fruitful solitude” when dozens or hundreds of friends are constantly a click away. This round-the-clock aspect of Facebook, the perpetual presence of somebody to distract you from your anxieties and fears, begins to feel like being stuck in college.
The bigger shift, though, lies in how poignant Facebook suddenly seems. A site that began as a response to modern loneliness looks, after the film, like a record of our own struggle with that condition. The connection comes through most vividly in the movie’s trailer, of all places, which distills its virtues to three haunting minutes. To the accompaniment of a choral version of Radiohead’s “Creep,” we see glimpses of some Facebook profiles. These flickers of daily life add up to a panoramic view of a society’s vulnerabilities and dreams, à la Our Town. The insistent connecting can’t fix what really ails us, but we go on doing it anyway. We’re all trying to figure out the rules, we’re all trying to learn how to grow up, we’re all hoping to avoid turning into Mark Zuckerberg.