The Social Network

[Some spoilers ahead.]

The big winner at the Golden Globes this week (apart from Ricky Gervais), was Facebook biopic The Social Network, which picked up four awards, including best director and best picture. I caught the movie on a rare trip to the cinema back in October, and it got my vote for film of the year too.

What I liked about The Social Network was that it wasn’t really about the internet, or social media, or anything new-fangled like that, but instead was an examination of that timeless theme, the outsider’s quest to break down the barriers of class that stand in the way of his destiny.

This wasn’t exactly a subtext; the message was pretty clearly spelled out in the very first scene, where Mark Zuckerberg lists the advantages of belonging to one of Harvard’s elite final clubs to his unimpressed, soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend. This initial interchange establishes our hero’s less than charming character, but we gradually realise that he isn’t such a bad guy, as we are introduced to some of his even more unlikable associates.

Chief among these are the Winklevoss twins, scions of privilege with a sense of entitlement so broad that they literally cannot believe that Zuckerberg might breach the social code by presuming to rip them off. In one of their many comic scenes they use their connections to arrange a meeting with the President of Harvard, to whom they complain that Zuckerberg has behaved in an ungentlemanly fashion; their reaction on being told they should adjust themselves to the real world is an amusing mixture of bafflement and outrage.

(As an aside, I thought the filmmakers might have exaggerated the boorishness of Ivy League fraternities, until I read this. These are our future rulers.)

Zuckerberg subsequently falls under the mephistophelian influence of flawed Napster guru Sean Parker, and after a series of sharp business manoeuvres and steely confrontations in lawyers’ offices, finally gets the better of his adversaries.

But does it make him happy? The final scene shows Zuckerberg alone in an office, forlornly clicking on the Facebook profile of his lost girlfriend. All his billions are worth nothing, the film suggests, without the simple gift of friendship.

Which is nonsense of course, a fable we poor folks tell ourselves to temper our resentment at the good fortune of the rich. I’m sure that Zuckerberg (who in reality has been with his current partner since his pre-Facebook days) is perfectly content with his life, having learned what the likes of the Winklevosses have always known – money really can buy you happiness.

The overall moral of the film is more egalitarian though; the idea that the old structures of wealth and class can be undermined by a new technological paradigm, in much the way that Facebook itself morphed from an exclusive Harvard club into a tool for the masses. I’m not sure that I entirely buy that – the investors who stand to make the big money from Facebook were rich to start with, and the circles of real power are as closed to outsiders as ever – but the story is so engagingly told that one can’t help rooting for plucky underdog billionaire Zuckerberg as he strives to make the world a better place by letting us all be “friends”.

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