Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Asocial Network

In an anti-social Saturday night mood (I have a lot of work on this week) I decided to watch The Social Network. As I consumed it on my laptop, I couldn't keep my Facebook page open (as many people increasingly seem to do). This was probably a good thing.

Zuckerberg, Prince of Geeks
According to the film, Facebook started out of a miasma of greed, spite, boorishness and awkwardness. Mark Zuckerberg, reeling from being dumped by a girl, sets up a site called Facemash which compares girls at Harvard in terms of hotness. It gets him into (ahem) hot water; it also receives thousands of hits in the first day it was set up. Zuckerberg was portrayed by geek idol Jesse Eisenberg as a sort of mechanical, sleep-walking droid who dreams of algorithms and of being socially accepted into one of Harvard's clubs (which seem, as far as I can see, to be far more exclusive than anything Oxford has to offer). His friend, Savarin (played with emotional heft by future Spiderman Andrew Garfield), is on his way to becoming part of those clubs, which sows the seeds for future revenge.

The Olympian Winkelvoss twins, who embody the patriarchal, moneyed system that Zuckerberg wants in on (I think I met one of the Winkelvoi [as Zuckerberg calls them], at Oxford: which one I can't remember, but it was definitely something to do with rowing and I seem to remember a vast expanse of lycra), note Zuckerberg's success with Facemash and tell him about a network that they want to set up between Harvard students. Zuckerberg plays them off, telling them he can't do it, whilst at the same time setting up exactly the same sort of thing - which will eventually become Facebook. The film is slick, dark, with a sinuous soundtrack (by Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose which loops and grinds and whirls in deep ambient beats), as gripping as a hawk's talons on a mouse.

Something that is meant to encourage us to become freer, to share, was born from the most negative human emotions: lying, cheating, oneupmanship. Zuckerberg's treatment of his friend Savarin is particularly poignant, diddling him out of his share of the business with the help of Sean Parker (a dotcom brat played as an empty, vain cokehead by Justin Timbersnake). The Facebook office moves, at Parker's advice, to California, where Zuckerberg and his pals lark around like stupid fratboys toking on bongs, diving into pools and getting 'wired in' to computers. It's not a pleasant sight, and it slightly worried me that that sort of empty hedonism might be anybody's idea of a good time.

A friend of mine with Asperger's syndrome told me once that, at his fortnightly meetings with the Asperger's group, they had decided that Facebook had been set up by someone with a similar syndrome. Watching this film has confirmed that point for me. Social interaction on Facebook is much, much easier for people who are unable to speak to each other face to face, who find the multitude of signals and ironies that people use in speech too confusing. It is not designed to be 'creative'. Zuckerberg seems to think that it is creative. In fact it is almost the opposite of 'creative', as it forces thoughts and feelings into trammelled paths. On a day that three or four friends announced their engagements, as a joke I put my status up as 'engaged'; within ten minutes I'd received congratulatory messages from people who surely must have known that I wasn't in the slightest about to get hitched. There is not much room for jokes or irony on Facebook.

A truly creative site would allow you as the user to make it what you wanted it to be. People talk a lot about Facebook's role in revolutions: I've also seen its role as a mobiliser of hate - there was a truly vile page about the woman who put a cat in a bin, for example. For every page promoting peace and love there's another promoting destruction.

I am uneasy about Facebook, I will admit. It sucks up my time. I like to pretend that it is a passing fad, that within ten years we'll all have moved on to something else. But it's been part of my life for six years now; many teenagers have grown up with it as a viable and normal form of communication. There is an image at the end of the film where Zuckerberg befriends his ex-girlfriend on the site; we see him pressing refresh, every few seconds, to see whether she has accepted him. Zuckerberg has succeeded, is my feeling, not in becoming part of those exclusive clubs; but in making the world his club, and turning us all into versions of himself.

And now I shall upload a link to this piece onto Facebook, and press refresh until somebody 'likes' it... The Social Network is a superlative piece of filmmaking - of last year's Oscar contenders, I think the best. And it is also the most worrying.

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