Look who was waiting for me outside the theater when I saw The Social Network my first night in Seattle:
|Who's stalking whom, Gyllenhaal?|
It's no secret to anyone who has read my book/talked to me online/met me in real life for more than 5 seconds that I don't like Facebook. I haven't liked it since I joined in mid-2005, at a time when its "exclusivity" was a major part of its appeal. I had to wait three weeks before I was given permission to create a profile, and in the 5+ years since (my bookmark is so old that it actually reads "Welcome to the Facebook"), Facebook has done nothing but change all the things that made it unique to begin with.
We, the users, are not Facebook's customers. We don't pay them to use their services. We are a data mine. Nothing we put on Facebook is safe from being culled and given to corporations and advertisers - not our pictures (which are entering a phase where faces can be recognized even when they haven't been tagged), not our private messages (check that privacy statement again; they're not private), and certainly not our list of "Likes" which is little more than a digitalized bastardization of "word-of-mouth" advertising (that said, please go "Like" the Official Love & Other Drugs page if you haven't already because ISJ's page will be taken down today as we begin to collaborate with the official people).
And yet (as the last set of parentheses illustrates) Facebook has positioned itself as a necessary evil. It is so pervasive that to not participate is to miss out on a major part of our culture. I've had serious misgivings about it for years, and yet my profile remains, I have three (soon to be two) separate "pages" to promote myself, and I fully acknowledge that what minor success I've had with this blog and my book so far has been greatly aided by the exposure that Facebook affords.
The question for me has always been "How did we get to this point?" Why Facebook? And when did a site designed for college kids become a site for advertisers to market to the masses (watch any television channel for half an hour and count the number of ads that tell you to find their company/movie/product on Facebook)? And why do we all just go along with it?
And what must it be like to be the guy who created it?
That last question is at the center of The Social Network, the highly-anticipated if somewhat-ignored-by-the-Facebook-crowd movie that tells the (slightly fictionalized) behind-the-scenes story of the site's creation by Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg.
Mark (whom I will refer to as "Zuck" for the duration of this entry) was recently quoted as saying he didn't really care what the film said about him. He all but mocked it, as if a mere movie couldn't possibly have any impact in an era in which 1 out of every 14 people on Earth has a Facebook account. Zuck is 26 years old and a jerk. Anyone who's sat through 2 seconds of him on 60 Minutes or Oprah could tell you that. Anyone who joined Facebook in 2005 and watched the rules change without warning could tell you that. But what the movie makes clear is that he's not only a jerk, he's a socially inept one at that.
Socially inept and he created the world's foremost social networking site.
The larger question then becomes what Facebook says about us, as a society. What does it mean that we spend our time trying to replicate real life on our computers - through the sharing of information and photos, through "friendships" with people we (likely for good reason) never talk to "in real life" - and do we even register that what we're doing on Facebook is not actual socializing, but subscribing to Zuck's idea of what socializing should be like?
This is not to say that Facebook is malicious, merely that in a lot of ways it's sad.
In fact, that almost identical thing was said in a different context in another Facebook movie that's out right now. It's called Catfish, and it's documentary posing as a story of deception, full of Facebook profiles and even some phone calls thrown in for good measure (to make it seem like the story has greater scope than it does... "See?" the filmmakers seem to be telling us, "It's not just an online story!")
But isn't it just an online story? The filmmakers (two hot twentysomethings) and the star (one really hot twentysomething) rush through the "deception" part of the movie and charge straight ahead to the big reveal, spending lots of time talking amongst themselves about how their Facebook interactions were lies.
But the movie misses its own point. The point isn't that these guys were duped or that people on Facebook (or anywhere on the internet) aren't always who they say they are, it's that the filmmakers documented the entire thing to begin with. Social networking sites are programming us to think that our every move is entertaining. We change our Facebook statuses or Twitter feeds to say "going to the store" or "got a speeding ticket" or "I don't feel well" and other people respond, as if this is interesting. It's not interesting. It's life. And like so much of life, these things aren't worthy of being broadcast. Weird as the story of Catfish is, it's not very remarkable. What is interesting is watching these guys think that it's interesting.
Zuck comments in The Social Network that Facebook is a way to put the entire college experience online. But you can't put the entire college experience online. You can't put any whole real life experience online, and beyond that, why would you want to? What are you losing with that time you're spending documenting? Or, maybe more importantly, what are you distracting yourself from?
Facebook is inescapable. It's how people contact each other, how they advertise, how they network, but The Social Network and Catfish both make it very clear that it's not how they connect. Connection is still saved for the real world. And a common theme in both movies is that even after the illusion of connection online, the real life equivalent is an entirely different skill set.
The problem, I fear, is that we're losing sight of the fact that there's even a difference, especially in my generation, the generation of the Catfish guys and Zuck himself. Both movies make strong, albeit very different, arguments for the return of self-awareness. I left the theater uneasy after Catfish...not because I was offended by it. But because I could see myself in similar situations. (In fact, I wrote about a few in the book.)
But the whole reason I wrote this was to say that everyone should see The Social Network. It's a fantastic movie.
And if you have a few bucks left in your pocket afterward, eh, at least the Catfish guys are hot.