“Every creation myth needs a devil,” a sympathetic attorney tells Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, in the last scene of David Fincher’s dazzling, engrossing The Social Network. It’s a slyly subversive line, simultaneously summing up and calling into question much of the interpretation of events we’ve seen over the last two hours—and it gains another twist when you know that the line was neither dreamed up by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin nor copied from life, but was first uttered by a Facebook executive after reading the screenplay.
If The Social Network is a creation myth for the era of Facebook, what does it tell us about the world in which we live, the people we have become? As with other myths, different commentators may draw out different levels of meaning. Viewed one way, it highlights the elusiveness and malleability of the most explosive commodity of our times: ideas. Intellectual property can be so indefinite that even when you know you have something great, you may not be able to say exactly what it is, let alone where it came from or who has rights to it.
Viewed another way, The Social Network illuminates the strange blend of emphemerality and indelibility that defines our times: On the one hand, our lives are changing at breakneck speed, and people live more than ever on the cusp of an ever-evaporating Now—but on the other hand nothing ever goes away, and we are more than ever tied to and defined by events and people that could once have been mercifully consigned to the obscurity of the past. Connected with this is the unsettling blend of anonymity and the loss of privacy. Sitting alone at a keyboard, computer users are freed from social constraints for their actions, yet the scope of such bad behavior is wider than ever, and they are not the only ones who will have to live with the consequences.
None of these ideas is revolutionary, but The Social Network embeds them in a taut, intellectually exhilarating narrative in which daredevil dialogue simultaneously defines characters and obscures motivations. The movie is canny and knowing about human nature, but somewhat agnostic about getting to the bottom of anyone or anything. Perception overshadows reality; what actually happened may matter less than the story that a lawyer could suggest to a jury, or a storyteller to an audience. The Social Network doesn’t really try to explain what makes Zuckerberg tick, and most of us may never know how true to life the depiction is, but many of us know people like the movie’s Zuckerberg, and the portrait rings true in that sense.
The opening scene, a blistering back-and-forth between Mark and a girl named Erica (Rooney Mara) whom he has been dating, establishes the tone. The dialogue ricochets unpredictably among several subjects at once, Erica gamely trying to keep up with Zuckerberg’s mental acrobatics, Mark oblivious to Erica’s emotional responses. It’s all about Mark. Somehow it’s always about Mark. At the moment he’s obsessing over how to distinguish himself in a population of people who all got 1600 on their SATs, such as getting into a finals club. It goes without saying that Erica didn’t get anything like 1600—and she’s going to B.U., not Harvard—which means she is ancillary to the discussion, although Mark does want her to be supportive, since it would be in her best interests for him to succeed and be in a position to take her to parties where she would meet people she otherwise wouldn’t. Erica breaks up with him with the kind of speech that people often imagine saying beforehand or wish they had said afterward, but seldom succeed in delivering unless they’ve carefully rehearsed it. It is explicit, succinct and devastating, and for once Mark has no comeback.
In the end, The Social Network suggests that even people like Zuckerberg who have the power to shape the world in which we live must ultimately live in the world that they themselves have created. Zuckerberg played a key role in shaping a technology that has enabled hundreds of millions of people to connect in new ways—or, conversely, to avoid connecting, to devote untold hours to games and other diversions instead. But the connections he made that enabled him to do what he did were not connections with other people—which are, in the end, the connections that matter. People like Mark change the world, but it’s people like Erica that make the world worth living in.