Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Struggling with The Social Network

There is a point in The Social Network where Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, is correctly appraising the society we were embarking upon in the mid 2000s: “We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we will live on the internet!”

The distinction of Facebook when it first hit the public consciousness, the thing that distinguished it from things like MySpace and other networks, was that people on Facebook were real. You didn’t go onto Facebook and create an alter ego, or pretend to be someone famous. It was a place where people went to be real and to connect with the people who really were, or had been a part of their real life. People do—in a very real sense—live on the internet. Our relationships and lives have been unimaginably enriched through this medium of internet. For a mobile society, where people regularly move and move vast distances, Facebook allows us to stay connected with people across our entire lifetimes and across the whole world.

However, a movie about the creation of something as mundane as an internet application was greeted with skepticism. How interesting would it be to see a bunch of computer geeks sitting around for weeks, months, and even years writing code? The answer is that it is surprisingly compelling when you have a gifted writer supplying a gifted cast with a story of basic human motivations, all being captured by a gifted director.

The problem is that this story has a lot more in common with MySpace than Facebook. In much the same way that people went on MySpace with a fake name and a made up identity to be someone they were not; this story is a fabrication attempting to be more than it really was. Aaron Sorkin is a gifted writer. His dialogue is a joy to hear. (Incidentally, dialogue and interesting speech seems to be a theme this year: The King’s Speech, True Grit, and Winter’s Bone all rely on the interesting use of the English language as well.) The problem is that Sorkin wants to change history for his own purposes but still insist that the “reality” of the story is the draw.

2010 was a year of “documentaries” that explored the nature of truth. Movies like “Catfish,” “I’m Still Here,” and “Exit Through the Gift Shop” purported to be real documentaries but were obviously exercises in manipulating reality. The Social Network is biopic that is really more of a biofiction. With no disclaimers and an insistence on its historical roots, how much has public opinion been influenced by the wide sweeping lies upon which this story is built?

The themes here are real and important. The film itself is well made and compelling. Fictional stories are great for holding a mirror up to society and allowing us to analyze our culture. How much of a problem should our culture have with the fiction when it is presented as truth, and it makes real people out to be monsters that they aren’t?

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