The Social Network’s script grew out of a book by Ben Mezrich, who takes true stories of youngsters who make piles of money by outwitting some system, organization, or market and casts them into the breathless prose of embossed-cover airport novels. I read Bringing Down the House, his first of these, years ago, and I couldn’t quite get a handle on its core story about a pack of MIT kids’ elaborate card-counting scheme through all the shimmering please-adapt-me fog. By the time he got down to the “true story” of some guy who seems to have done something or other in a Dubai oil market, his empire seemed to have caught fire. Mark Zuckerberg and co. put it out right in the nick of time.
Given their artlessness, why do people read these books? True, it takes a rare ingenuity to figure out how to profit from a casino or an index futures market or Harvard’s student photo database or whatever, but these strike me as parlor tricks — highly lucrative parlor tricks, but parlor tricks nonetheless. I have to give Mark Zuckerberg more respect than the Aspergian aspirational randoms that star in Mezrich’s other narratives of choice, though, because at least he made something. Alas, he made an online social network, which falls pretty far down my list of impressive accomplishments, even when it results in becoming a billionaire and the most famous member of one’s — our — generation.
“I was hoping the people of the world might be united by something more interesting, like drugs or an armed struggle against the undead,” David Sedaris wrote about his IBM engineer dad’s early enthusiasm for computers. “Unfortunately, my father's team won, so computers it is.” Despite having been way into computers as a kid — computer games, specifically — and enjoying certain of their functions as an adult — podcasting, specifically — they often fail to inspire me in adulthood. That my peers seem mainly to find success with things like web startups, apps, and viral videos irks me; for all the innovation, these projects tend to strike me as just a bunch of undifferentiated internet stuff.
Cinema, however, has only grown in its ability to fire me up. (I know full well that, in, like, 1910, people probably dismissed everything on film as a high-tech waste of time too, but I’m too dumb to grasp the implications of that.) As lukewarm as I felt about an adaptation of Ben Mezrich’s account of Facebook, at least it took the form of a genuine movie, theatrically screened, instead of, say, a Flash animation. And how about its unlikely combination of creators? Aaron Sorkin writing, Trent Reznor composing, David Fincher in the director’s chair: despite being no particular fan of any one of those guys individually, I couldn’t fight back curiosity about what they put together. The film turns out to be as enjoyable as it is obscurely oppressive, giving the story a surprisingly dark, driving feel — Fincher’s hand, I assume — and high-glossing it with countless small visual effects. It features the highest volume of what I assume to be CGI focal trickery that I’ve ever seen in a much-discussed regatta sequence, which, alas, winds up being as cinematic as the picture gets, but that’s still probably more cinematic than most films in major U.S. release right now.
All the cooks do their damndest to flavor this broth, but I can’t help tasting a certain thinness. One clue to the problem comes in a quote from Gawker CEO Nick Denton, talking about Zuckerberg in the New Yorker: “Apparently, his original idea for Facebook was this dark Facebook. Like, the idea was that it was going to be a place for people to bitch about each other, and then it evolved. It was interesting how agnostic he was about which approach to take.” In that agnosticism lies the reason I can’t summon much interest in Zuckerberg’s accomplishments. He seems to have — indeed, The Social Network depicts him as having — ultimately just cranked away at the puzzle of figuring out what the greatest number of other people would flock to. Neither real life nor this movie offers any evidence that he’s especially, personally into what Facebook is. I don’t consider premising a movie on this a bad idea in itself — subject matter usually doesn’t — but this one feels as if it’s always insisting upon the inherent interestingness of Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook. I don’t buy it.