As I go through my morning ritual of scanning several online newspapers, the sheer number of references to Facebook or its founder Mark Zuckerberg leaves me nonplussed. There is Richard Harper’s Guardian piece on Facebook’s revamping of age-old email technology, and another in the Age that compares Kevin Rudd to Zuckerberg, proclaiming that his eccentric genius has been prematurely discarded by the Labor Party.
We are all familiar with powerful politicians and political coups being described in mythical, almost Biblical ways, but what do we make of this kind of reference to Zuckerberg? Then there is the growing sense that Facebook, an unprecedented online social ‘phenomenon’ which has amassed 500 million users since its launch in 2004, is a new worldwide cult, whether you see it as it the mobile-friendly religion of Generation Y, the bane of real-time interaction, or even the free publicity device of conservatives and liberals alike.
I go on to read David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz’s review of The Social Network (directed by David Fincher, of Fight Club fame) after watching it on an overpowering ExiMax screen. They rate it highly, with Stratton giving it five stars despite claiming little interest in the Facebook phenomenon itself. Hence, there is the cinematic feat that is the film itself, loosely based on a non-fiction book called The Accidental Billionaires. However, I would refrain from labelling the film a ‘documentary’. It is more like a docu-drama, an increasingly popular hybrid genre that can best be described as facts sculpted to look like a good yarn.
Then there is the character of Zuckerberg (played in the film by a very convincing Jesse Eisenberg) who epitomises the flawed-yet-sympathetic postmodern protagonist. Don’t you dare call him a ‘hero’ – that is so not cool! His almost-undecipherable geek speak, irreverence in the classroom, and detached disposition towards one and all make him not just antisocial, but difficult for audiences to relate (or aspire) to.
According to Stratton and Pomeranz, it is Zuckerberg’s once best friend and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) who emerges as the victimised-yet-triumphant hero. Aren’t Brazilians in fashion these days? I am sure Elizabeth Gilbert helped the trend, but not so sure that the younger Facebook community would choose Saverin over Zuckerberg. It’s like the difference between a Mac and a PC. While Saverin’s suits, financial resources, and better sociability make him more apparently likeable, it is Zuckerberg’s casual genius that reminds me of denim-clad Steve Jobs (and by inference, the sense of chic associated with the Apple brand). With or without lawsuits, plus or minus real friends, risk-takers might just be the ones having the last laugh in the film, as in this era of social media.
The film’s narrative is marked by the distinct absence of strong, well-rounded female characters. It begins with Zuckerberg being dumped by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and channeling his frustration into a misogynistic initiative called facemash.com, subsequently getting a lot of female attention as Facebook founder, and finally adding the very same ex as a Facebook friend. Other female characters include a needy girlfriend, a Victoria’s Secret model, a blonde intern and a somewhat interesting lawyer. Agreed that Information Technology tends to be a male-dominated industry, but there are women who can code, and invest, and be entrepreneurial. I wonder why director David Fincher chose to represent clichés, rather than interpret them and offer us alternatives. Was there any need to waste a cinema screen on yet another episode of Beauty and the Geek? Perhaps the state of affairs, when it comes to women in science and technology, is too deeply embedded in social structures to try and undo with a single feature film. Nonetheless, given the contemporary impact of social networking, especially on youth culture, the film could have at least tried to begin to undo gender stereotypes.
There is a lot of food for thought when considering some of the social themes presented in the film, such as the ongoing intellectual property litigation involving Zuckerberg and Facebook. I won’t go into the technical details of these cases here, but it is fascinating that so many parties are claiming ownership of a successful idea rather than a product or service. An idea now worth billions, but also an experiment in ‘openness and connection’. Monetising human emotions is certainly not news in a capitalist culture, but the irony with Facebook is that a man portrayed as having few friends invented a social networking platform. Zuckerberg’s media omnipresence prevents me from analysing the film or the Facebook phenomenon without regard to its origins and development. Shakespeare, Dickens and even ‘God’ may be dead, but Zuckerberg is literally alive and figuratively hovering over our online/offline interactions, as well as our self-perceptions.
There has been endless analysis of Facebook’s privacy and addiction issues, and some attention paid to its merits for education, entertainment and social well-being. Some new media scholars and social networking strategists are also beginning to research its impact in specific societies and cross-cultural contexts. However, I worry if the idea of seeking attention (not merely the altruistic belief in ‘openness’) continues to colour its present. Perhaps Zuckerberg is tasting his own medicine with his young life being put under greater scrutiny and much earlier than he might have bargained for. But does anyone need/want all our personal blemishes magnified under such a useful-yet-superfluous microscope?
The potential of social networking possibly lies elsewhere. Social activism and political lobbying anyone? Given that social media played a crucial role in garnering grassroots and youth support for US President Barack Obama’s electoral campaign and Twitter continues to be the medium of choice for dissenters in Iran and Burma, there is hope yet. Let’s not ‘like’ Zuckerberg or the film, but consider adding them as friends. This way, we will know what the genius and his representations are up to.
Sukhmani Khorana holds a PhD in Media from the University of Adelaide. She teaches and conducts research in film, cultural studies and digital storytelling.