Friday, February 25, 2011

Some Thoughts on The Social Network, and a Question of the Day

Not too long ago, we watched The Social Network for the first time, and I was very impressed with it.

My interest in the movie going into it was twofold: on a personal level, as an enthusiastic facebook user who nevertheless maintains heavy skepticism about the ultimate healthiness of social networking; and also on a professional level, as a writing teacher who more and more has been bringing issues surrounding digital culture into the classroom. I had my rhet/comp classes this semester read Time Magazine's writeup of Mark Zuckerberg, and in the process of breaking down the article my interest in how facebook came to be was much heightened.

One interesting thing about the movie, on a rhetorical level, is the irony of the title. Very little time is devoted to facebook, facebook use, or the exploding phenomenon of social networking. The "social network" of the movie, rather, explores the (pretty ruthless) tendrils emanating from Zuckerberg and his activities, both on the Harvard campus and then later, by virtue of Napster co-found Sean Parker, Zuckerberg's "arrival" in silicon valley.

As many have noticed, the Zuckerberg charcter that this movie gives us comes across as quite socially incompetent--if not actually sociopathic. That is, Zuckerberg is represented in the movie as someone who is a genius but who seems to lack the capacity to even imagine the impact of his actions on others, let alone truly care about others. Jesse Eisenberg's portrayal of Zuckeberg in this regard was quite good, as were most all of the supporting cast--especially Justin Timberlake's portrayal of Parker, which I believe deserved every bit of hype it got--really, his performance may have even been underrated.

However. For me, the movie's overt representation of Zuckerberg as a quasi-sociopath raises, I think, very serious questions about the ethics of making movies about public figures in their own time. The Time Magazine writeup pretty much demolished a key premise of the film: more specifically, that Zuckerberg's rise was triggered by having lost, and wanting to impress, a girl that, for all the millions he made, he could never get back (this motif was rendered even more heavy-handed by the fact that the movie explains Sean Parker's Napster achievment on the same terms. Parker has gone on record saying that the movie's portryal of him is almost wholly fictitious). But in truth, as Time's writers made clear, Zuckerberg already had the girl when he started Facebook, and he is still with her today. Further, the magazine writeup went out of its way to demonstrate that Zuckerberg is actually quite socially adept--unless he feels like someone is wasting his time, at which point he tunes them out.

Time's worries about Zuckerberg were mostly aimed at his cavalier posture towards Privacy and Privacy Rights. But that's perhaps another topic, for another post.

What I am interested in asking here is this: How serious of an ethics problem is it, when a movie projects a highly stylized, and for that matter very unflattering, interpretation onto a person--public figure or not--in their own lifetime? The last line of the movie features one of the legal team saying to Zuckerberg, before walking out the door: "You're not an asshole, Mark. You're just trying so hard to be."


paperweight said...

Alas sadly I must say I have not seen said movie, however, the question you raise has an applicability that transcends so much more than you ellude to here. Indeed we only have to think about the recent politicos that have responded (rather not responded) to the outlandish, and even slanderous, beliefs constructed about the president: a Muslim, possibly not an American by birth, a hater and executed of the old and so on.....

Furthermore, just consider the relentless fascination with anyone famous & mire to the point, 25 minutes of fame had been reduced to nanoseconds by virtue o social networking!!

My tangent must end as soon as it began to putthe lightweights down!!

solon said...

I saw the movie a few weeks back. The more I thought about it, the more I disliked the movie. But that is what you get when you try and turn a legal question of intellectual property rights (did Zuckerberg steal the concept of Facebook) in to a two hour movie.

I was more interested in wondering whether or not that was a realist portrayal of Harvard.

I do not think it is a problem, in this case, to make a movie about a public figure. Zuckerberg, in the movie or real life, doesn't care too much about people but rather making money and being known. It seems quite socially inept if not worse.

More importantly, the man has dinner with POTUS and, before the movie was released, got air time on Oprah to say, maybe if New Jersey raises $100 million for their schools I will match those funds.

This movie if fiction. It is fantasy. It should be classified as Sci-Fi. It is not an invasion of privacy.

Now, you might have a case about the novel that discusses the life of former First Lady Laura Bush.

harrogate said...

I, too, wonder about the portrayal of Harvard. Although something tells me, that on that level it is pretty freakin realistic.

And just for clarity's sake, I am not saying it is a problem, I am only asking how people think about it, on ethical lines. Certainly the novel with LB in it is in the same ballpark as far as I'm concerned.

I guess if pressed I'd have to say, they are very wealthy and high profile people--er, public figures, I suppose--and so fuck it, really there's no problem representing them, however the producer wants to.