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Dis-integrated?: The Social Network: A Review Article

Gregory E. Reynolds

My interest in The Social Network is not as a movie reviewer—because I'm not one, although I enjoy well-crafted films—but as a media ecologist. This is my principal interest in the movie; and the movie delivers lots for the media ecologist to contemplate. I will assume knowledge of the characters and plot and focus on the highly important message of this movie.[1] Perhaps there is a message within a message—movies, like television, direct us away from those sitting next to us. They are a whole new way of knowing, inviting not so much reflection as total participation. This movie is a medium about a medium. As such it concentrates our attention even as it embellishes the story of Facebook and its inventor(s).

The Movie

Portraying at least four of the seven deadly sins—lust, greed, envy, and pride—the movie reveals the dark side of human nature in a brilliant, if not entirely intended, tour-de-force on original sin. The characters, their milieu, and their electronic creation are emblematic of an epoch disintegration. The remarkable intelligence of those made in God's image is also on display—even as that image is so tragically distorted by sin. The brilliance accents the sin and makes it all the more egregious.

The depiction of Harvard undergraduates is perfectly accurate. A cross section of students at this hubris-incubator includes the well endowed WASPs and the ethnic outsiders. There is a beautiful symbolic summing of this social reality in the scene where Mark Zuckerberg, the eventual creator of Facebook, is allowed, through pure noblesse oblige, to enter the lower lobby of the premier final club—Porcellian. The movie could have done more with the mirror that hangs over the door to allow club members to view those desiring entrance. There is no sign indicating the name of the club, only the very ordinary looking street number 1324—dramatic understatement in the old New England way. But then the director was probably an outsider, perhaps even snubbed—since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was famously blackballed by Porcellian.

The "Pig Club" got roasted in this instance. The WASPs, the Winklevos brothers, are depicted as overbearing, privileged undergraduates, with only slightly above average intelligence. Their assumed success in every endeavor is disappointed, especially by the socially awkward Jewish sophomore Mark Zuckerberg. It's a theme everyone who did not go to Harvard loves—but watch your gloating—hubris restrained by civilization may prove superior to the same without it. The brothers, who are outwitted by Zuckerberg, work hard at suppressing their basest instincts. But the hubris is there like a Columbo movie, on both sides of the social equation.

The opening scene proves this point with our villainous hero larding on his superior intelligence and education. Zuckerberg's date (supposedly fictional) wants none of his adolescent one-upmanship. So a majority of the deadly sins fuel the nascent creation of Facebook, although Zuckerberg would leave one form of greed to others. Money never seemed to motivate him.

The world's most successful social network was borne of antisocial instincts; inspired by the quest to meet co-eds without the embarrassment of attending parties; resulting in the creation of elite circles in which one must be "punched" (friended) to be accepted—our own little Porcellian Clubs. Revenge against adult maturity, social conventions, and face-to-face interaction, all start with a date's rejection of Zuckerberg's puerile behavior. Facebook is ironic if not cynical; but the original name, invented in a drunken mania, is more brutally revealing—Facemash—a kind of egalitarian dissing.

Framed by lawsuits, the movie pits the young technocrats against the adult world, which is regularly outwitted, with the exception of the Porcellian twins, who are simply young adults put in their place by president Summers. Surly Napster inventor Sean Parker proclaims, "We rule the grownups." In geek world the apotheosis of adolescence is signaled by the casual yard-work attire, never, of course, worn for anything but keyboards or beer bottles. It is ironic that the gravitas of an elite educational institution is depicted as no longer rooted in a well-rounded brilliance, but in a rather limited sort of genius. The awe is created by a spectacle, rather than something profound. As reviewer Zadie Smith observes, when Zuckerberg is dazzled by the hubris of Parkers vision, "Zuckerberg is too hyped on the idea that he's in heaven to notice he's in hell."[2]

Remember that as a medium a movie is not like a book. In this case the book upon which the movie is based, The Accidental Billionaires[3], provides the narrative account of the "facts" as reported by Zuckerberg's spurned business partner Eduardo Saverin.[4] Neither movies nor books are replicas of reality. But a well-crafted movie, as a work of art, accents aspects of reality worthy of careful inspection. This movie's concentration on one of the great stories of our time illuminates themes in modern culture that demand our attention. Among those is the dis-integrating tendency of social networks. Self-worship has been given new outlets of expression—social networks chief among them.

One of the main players in the real life drama said of the film something to the effect that the real story was a lot more mundane. There's a theme. Facebook promises a kind of constant excitement. It draws users into a digital social network. Ironically it narrows the world in which users live. They become absorbed in the network, and like the users of drugs—addicted to the fleeting high that participation gives.

The Network

David Denby is one of the few reviewers, besides Zadie Smith, who identifies the real message:

By focusing on the moment of creation, Fincher and Sorkin are getting at something new. From the first scene to the last, The Social Network hints at a psychological shift produced by the Information Age, a new impersonality that affects almost everyone. After all, Facebook, like Zuckerberg, is a paradox: a Web site that celebrates the aura of intimacy while providing the relief of distance, substituting bodiless sharing and the thrills of self-created celebrityhood for close encounters of the first kind. Karl Marx suggested that, in the capitalist age, we began to treat one another as commodities. The Social Network suggests that we now treat one another as packets of information. Mark Zuckerberg, as interpreted by this film, comes off as a binary personality. As far as he's concerned, either you're for him or you're against him. Either you have information that he can use or you don't. Apart from that, he's not interested.[5]

This reminds me of the corporate advice of megalomaniac Dogbert in the Dilbert comic strip, "In phase one we'll dehumanize the enemy by calling them data."[6] Zuckerberg has been referred to as a villain-hero. Is he not the ubermensch of Nietzsche, whose only god is his art, which in turn bestows power on him to dominate, especially those who have offended him? Control is a major issue. The god-like pretensions of this new breed of digital inventors make the conceit of the final clubs seem tepid. Zuckerberg rejects the decadent partying of Parker, not to seek mature adulthood, but rather to achieve superiority in the world he is able to alter and direct. But Parker draws Zuckerberg into a subtler conceit when he challenges him, "Do you like being nobody?" In a kind of ironic insight into the social nature of people his own social pains make him realize people are hungry for social identity formed by networks of friends. In querying about the motive that drives Zuckerberg—girls and money don't do it—Zadie Smith zeroes in,

The striking thing about the real Zuckerberg, in video and print, is the relative banality of his ideas concerning the "Why" of Facebook. He uses the word 'connect' as believers use the word "Jesus," as if it were sacred in and of itself, "So the idea is really that, um, the site helps everyone connect with people and share information with the people they want to stay connected with ..." Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits—none of this is important.[7]

Communication technologies alter social space as access to information changes. It is telling that the initial network became so popular so quickly—one night—that its 22,000 hits shut down the entire Harvard computer network. This was in 2003. Social networking and texting are closely linked as personal presence is increasingly diminished. Ironically, as expanded connection with the mundane activities of "friends" increases, knowledge of the world, especially the past world, is diminished. Lives already disordered by sin face new challenges in this environment—a dramatic disruption.

The self may be promoted in new ways. This self is largely unverifiable, because largely unaccountable. And the self that is promoted can be redesigned at will. Every nobody can become somebody. This techno-anthropology views man, like artificial intelligence scientist Alan Turing, as a machine, whose impulses can be calculated and manipulated at will with the proper programming.

If you fail to participate, you will be unfriended by default. Email and cell phones become your father's Oldsmobile. But the social rearrangement involved here must not be overlooked. The principle is that the further faces are separated from interaction, the less accountable the participants seem to be. The example of job loss due to an employer, or potential employer, checking Facebook accounts is a case in point. The Facebook user wrongly assumes that "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." But, of course, it doesn't, because what happens on Facebook, or in the world depicted on Facebook, is predominantly public. As benign as grandparents viewing their grandchildren's latest pictures may be, the larger picture is not as happy.

Marshall and Eric McLuhan, and especially son Eric, have given us a very helpful paradigm for media analysis.[8] The four "laws of media" inhabit every human invention simultaneously. Every innovation has a linguistic structure that is discerned by observing its effects. The first of the "Tetrad," or laws of media, is Enhancement. So Facebook connects the user with more people than possible before and enhances daily contact, creating a network among networks of "friends." The second law is Reversal or "flipping," when enhancement becomes the norm and invites a reaction. Facebook connects the user with too many friends and crowds social space, so as to undermine connectedness. The third law is Obsolescence—the displacement of older technologies and social structures. Just as email obsolesces regular mail, Facebook obsolesces face-to-face interaction. Law four is the law of Retrieval. Facebook retrieves the long-lost friends from childhood or high school, including the use of older technologies or social connections. The renewed friendship may invite an actual visit. These four laws are meant to help us understand each new medium.

The oddest aspect of social networks is that "going out" into the wide world through a screen gives the illusion of broadening one's exposure to the world. And yet, because social networks focus on a circle of friends, very little is learned about the context of those friendships—what is going on in the present or what has gone on in the past. Personal relationship defines the circle of one's world—a small circle indeed. Furthermore, the outgoingness of this medium tends to crowd out the kinds of spaces that cultivate depth of personal reflection or relationships, human or divine. "Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality."[9] I am continually amazed at the resistance people exhibit toward the idea that digital connection is not essentially different from personal presence, as if people were data bases. The complex mystery of human and divine presence is not reducible to bits and bites or even words. Software, however, forms human relations and social spaces in ways we are not quick to notice. But failing to notice opens us to serious diminishment. In the end social networks may be like the gold rush, leaving users with a few flecks of nearly worthless dust—and a yawning emptiness.

Yes, I know, Facebook helps people stay in touch. Plus almost everyone I know is on it. But being in constant "touch"—what an ironic metaphor—in many instances keeps users from being in touch in other ways, i.e. phone, in person, or even e-mail. I would argue that the most valuable connections on Facebook are those that already have a strong face-to-face origin. Personal presence is a key to evaluating our use of all media. "The last defense of every Facebook addict is: but it helps me keep in contact with people who are far away! Well, e-mail and Skype do that, too, and they have the added advantage of not forcing you to interface with the mind of Mark Zuckerberg—"[10] and I might add giving away your profile and privacy to advertisers and who knows who else. Smith, who by the way was a student at Harvard with Zuckerberg, concludes her review,

The Social Network is not a cruel portrait of any particular real-world person called "Mark Zuckerberg." It's a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.[11]

In order to navigate the whirlpool of social networks, we must ask several hard questions of the media and of ourselves. How does the social network alter our social and spiritual space? Is our participation enhancing our relations with church, family, neighbors, friends, and the Lord, or detracting from these? If the later, how may we modify our use to tip the scales toward enhancement? How does a social network change our perception of the church and its importance in our lives? How does it modify our relationship to texts, especially the Bible?

Church officers must ask these questions of themselves and their congregations. How do social networks affect the ministry of the church? To what degree should the session encourage or limit the use of these networks? How do social networks affect our relationships to God, humans, family, church, creation? Sessions as well as youth groups, for example, should be challenged to think these issues through. What are the benefits and liabilities of these networks in our lives? Then sessions should articulate policies that help guide congregations through this very challenging new terrain.

The Social Network is a must-see movie, both because it is superbly crafted and because wittingly or unwittingly it prods us to ponder our place in the midst of the electronic revolution. "It's the true digitization of life"—or should I say "dis-integration"? I wonder what the Apostle John would have thought of social networks: "I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face" (3 John 13-14).

Reviewer's content caveat: sexual content and rough language, certainly not worse than what is omnipresent on network TV, but also not glorified or promoted.

Endnotes

[1] Cf. these excellent reviews: David Danby, "Influencing People: David Fincher and 'The Social Network'," The New Yorker, October 4, 2010, http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2010/10/04/101004crat_atlarge_denby?printable=%20true#ixzz12Cd8i3NI; Joe Morgenstern, " 'Social Network': Password Is Perfection," The Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704483004575523822326312414.html; Roger Ebert, "The Social Network: Calls Him an Asshole, Makes Him a Billionaire," Chicago Sun Times, September 29, 2010, http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100929/REVIEWS/100929984. For the background of Facebook itself cf. Charles Peterson, "In the World of Facebook," The New York Review of Books, February 25, 2010, 8-11, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/feb/25/in-the-world-of-facebook/; Zadie Smith, "Generation Why?" The New York Review of Books (November 25, 2010): 57-60.

[2] Zadie Smith, "Generation Why?" The New York Review of Books (November 25, 2010): 57.

[3] Ben Mezrich, The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal (New York: Doubleday, 2009).

[4] Danny Olinger, email, October 29, 2010, "[T]he movie is a lot like the book. Aaron Sorkin appears to pick whole sections out of the book, and both rely upon Saverin's testimony. David Kirkpatrick's The Facebook Effect is Zuckerberg's side of the story. Saverin's role, and Zuckerberg's dumping of him, lends credence to the thesis that this has something very non-social in a biblical sense at its heart. Friendship is not as important as the promotion of self, which is what Harvard teaches above all else. Harvard's arrogance, which Zuckerberg mirrors, is that we're not interested in working for others; we aspire to have others work for us."

[5] David Denby, "Influencing People: David Fincher and 'The Social Network'," The New Yorker, October 4, 2010, http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2010/10/04/101004crat_atlarge_denby?printable= true#ixzz12Cd8i3NI.

[6] Dilbert, October 13, 2010, http://www.dilbert.com/. Lieutenant Commander Data is a fictional character in the Star Trek, designed and built by Doctor Noonien Soong. Data is a sentient android who struggles to imitate humans.

[7] Smith, "Generation Why?" 58.

[8] Marshall and Eric McLuhan. Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988. The laws were worked out in the last decade of Marshall's life in collaboration with his equally brilliant son Eric. Eric's Electric Language was an attempt to communicate the Four Laws in popular presentation (Electric Language. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998).

[9] Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget, quoted in Smith, "Generation Why?" 58.

[10] Ibid., 60.

[11] Ibid.

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