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Jane Ahlin, Published January 23 2011

Ahlin: ‘The Social Network’ paints a troubling cultural picture

For those who think that “bit” is the past tense of “bite” rather than a computer memory building block that along with other “bits” are the subsets for “bytes,” the movie “The Social Network” poses a few hurdles of age-related understanding. (Note: “Bit” is short for “binary digit” and is the smallest unit of data in a computer. And … prepare yourself … half a byte is called a “nibble.” I swear, that fact alone makes me want to take classes to get tech-savvy.)

To the ear of anyone who remembers using a slide rule or relishing the smell of ditto paper, there’s a patter of technical language in “The Social Network” that might as well be Swahili.

The good news is that there also are standard themes and storylines in the work: friendship and ingenuity, betrayal and greed, which play out in lawsuits that frame the story. Still, the film – fast-paced as a thriller and about as emotionally warm as a cell phone manual – paints a disconcerting cultural picture.

Here’s the kicker: I really liked the movie. It’s intense and amusing, and there’s something about a 20-year-old turning his friend’s thousand-dollar investment into a multibillion-dollar business before he’s 25 that is quintessentially American.

Billed as a biopic about Mark Zuckerberg and the founding of the social networking website Facebook, “The Social Network” omits or changes key facts. The prime example is the romance that bookends the movie, a romance that is fictional and unnecessary to the drama of friends whose friendship does not withstand the pressures of Facebook’s meteoric rise. Frankly, that story is painful enough.

The film begins with boy genius and Harvard student Zuckerberg in a bar arguing with his girlfriend. He is both arrogant and insulting. When she breaks up with him, he goes back to his dorm room and with the help of his roommate, Eduardo Saverin, sends out a vicious message about his girlfriend and hacks into every Harvard residence hall’s membership lists – including photos – to design an obnoxious game called “FaceMash,” a game of who’s “hot” and who’s “not.” The game overloads Harvard’s computer system, and Zuckerberg is put on academic probation.

Already the message is clear: As highfalutin as Harvard is, the school’s computer capabilities are woefully behind those of the audacious student who suddenly finds himself the toast of the campus – a heady time for Zuckerberg, whom viewers are led to believe is socially awkward, frustrated at not being chosen for an elite Harvard club (his roommate is chosen), and unattractive to females. (Note: Except for the first scene in which the girlfriend holds her own, young women are portrayed as sex objects or groupies – absolutely over-the-top sexism.)

The plot thickens when Zuckerberg is approached by three other Harvard students who have an idea for a campus network they call “Harvard Connect” but need someone to code it. Zuckerberg acts as if he is working on their project, although he’s really working on his own. Two of the three guys are a set of twins, the Winklevoss twins, who are handsome, athletic and wealthy. (Zuckerberg soon has them looking like the old “Saturday Night Live” duo Hans and Frans.)

The entry of another boy genius, Sean Parker of Napster and Plaxo fame, sets up the break between Saverin and Zuckerberg. And all that’s left are the lawsuits, which make the betrayed and disappointed very rich indeed. Zuckerberg, of course, is mega-much richer, but his successful, worldwide network also leaves him more alone than ever.

Although the real Zuckerberg insists the bleak ending is fictional, the film points up what’s disconcerting – and no longer generational – about Facebook. We’ve become a society that likes communicating in a medium a mile wide and a half-inch deep, a medium that allows us to control the image we project; a medium in which the average user has 130 “friends.” And all it takes to nurture those friendships is to sit down to the computer.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum’s commentary page.