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What does ‘The Social Network’ mean today?

A decade after its release, the VAFF held a panel to discuss the implications of the film in a Facebook-dominated world

Ten years after "The Social Network" hit theaters, Facebook wields a colossal and unprecedented amount of political and economic power.
Ten years after "The Social Network" hit theaters, Facebook wields a colossal and unprecedented amount of political and economic power.

In the opening scene of “The Social Network,” Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, tells girlfriend Erica Albright, played by Rooney Mara, about the exclusive clubs he feels he needs to get into in order to be successful. When Albright starts to question why this is so important to him, he belittles her for going to Boston University, saying that if he gets in he can take her to the events to meet people she would never meet otherwise.

This is the mythology of Zuckerberg the 2010 film presented — a power-hungry individual who cares little for how what he says or does affects other people. This vindictive ambition is only solidified as the film follows his glorious rise to technological power. But what does this characterization of Zuckerberg mean in today’s climate, where Facebook is one of the most powerful institutions on the planet? As part of its virtual programming, the Virginia Film Festival streamed a 10th anniversary screening of the acclaimed film, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher, in conjunction with a panel that attempted to unravel the legacy of this film in a world that is so dominated by Facebook. 

The Film Festival’s panel consisted of three people who have spent a lot of time speaking critically about the modern power of Facebook as an institution. Siva Vaidhyanathan, a U.Va. Media Studies professor and author of “Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us And Undermines Democracy” served as moderator of a discussion with  Roger McNamee, Silicon Valley hedge fund manager and Mark Zuckerberg’s former mentor and Yael Eisenstat, an American national security expert formerly employed by Facebook. 

The overarching topic of the discussion was the recent concern surrounding Facebook’s existence as a possible threat to democracy and truthful public discourse. While discussing the controversy that has surrounded Facebook — especially the Cambridge Analytica scandal and concerns about Facebook’s role in the Myanmar genocide — Eistenstat said that the company claims to be a platform for free speech to shield itself from accusations. 

“This isn’t just about free speech,” Eistenstat said. She insisted that Facebook should not avoid consequences for their actions, pointing to Facebook’s refusal to include Holocaust denial as a violation of their terms of service as an example. McNamee expressed similar concerns about Facebook and Zuckerberg’s lack of accountability, saying “if you make a pharmaceutical and it kills someone you are liable, [but] if you hinder a democracy ... there’s no accountability at all.”

Despite the negative, resentful characterization of Zuckerberg that Fincher’s film presents — which would presumably aid the public’s willingness to see Facebook as a harmful company — the film also sometimes paints Zuckerberg as a plucky entrepreneur who is standing up to the old-money status quo. For example, there is a scene — based on real Zuckerberg lore — where he boldly wears pajamas to a serious pitch meeting, refusing to comply with the business world’s expectations of  presentational professionalism. This kind of underdog characterization makes sense in the context of the early days of Facebook and other tech industries, but it can seem strange to watch now, in a world where the monopolistic leader is anything but an underdog. The outsider story “The Social Network” represents is definitely narratively compelling, but it can seem rather false in our new era — where Silicon Valley magnates are not quirky outsiders anymore, but are themselves the institutionally powerful rulers of the status quo and are seldom held responsible for their actions.

Something that the panel seemed to agree seeing both in the film and in Facebook’s real-world offices are the deep cultural problems embedded in the company’s missions and origins. Vaidhyanathan noted the way the movie expresses the “boy culture” that “dominated the early days of Facebook.” Eisenstat also explained at one point that she told her colleagues at Facebook, “there are lots of different angles [they] can look at [the problems Facebook has] and one of them is a culture problem,” and became concerned that their positive intentions of “connecting the world” would constantly make people at Facebook feel as if they were doing no wrong. This “cognitive dissonance,” as Vaidhyanathan called the phenomenon, was also noticed by McNamee. 

“The essential promise from the beginning was that they were right and their vision justified whatever it took to get there,” McNamee said. “Mark had a vision of connecting the whole world on a network that he controlled … in [Mark’s] mind that was the most important thing a human being could do.” 

In “The Social Network,” the toxicity of Facebook’s culture is showcased in the on-screen criticism of both the misogynistic nature of its origins and the in-fighting between the company’s heads. In the film, Facebook is started as a mechanism for ranking female attractiveness and a revenge plot against Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend. The implications of that never leave the boy’s club environment that is shown throughout its runtime. The falling out between the company’s heads in the film also serves as an investigation of the way that Zuckerberg — and Facebook by extension — uses his own goals of greatness as a shield against any accusations of wrongdoing, as the panelists explained. It is fascinating to see the way these problems appear in the film — mainly as sources of conflict and tension — and serve as an eerie prologue for the way the world has grappled with the implications of these cultural problems for years to come.

The topics addressed by this panel made it drastically clear that the story of Facebook in the real world is far from being over, even when the film can let credits roll on its tale of the website’s early days. Facebook has only become more powerful and more contentious in the decade since the film’s premiere, and it certainly won’t stop being a major player in technology and politics anytime soon. As McNamee said in his closing remarks, at Facebook “hate speech, disinformation and conspiracy theories are not an innocent byproduct but are in fact the lubricant for the entire model.”

The ending of “The Social Network” shows Zuckerberg sitting alone to the sound of the Beatles’ “Baby, You’re A Rich Man,” sadly staring at his ex-girlfriend’s Facebook profile. Words flash on the screen that Facebook “has 500 million users in 207 countries” and “is currently valued at $25 billion.” Today, as noted by Vaidhyanathan, Facebook has 2.7 billion users. It is also currently valued at roughly $792 billion. There’s really no knowing if real-life Mark Zuckerberg is happier now than his lonely on-screen counterpart was in this ending scene, but he is certainly outrageously more powerful.