When Facebook Friends Fall Out

Justin Timberlake and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network

The day after I saw David Fincher’s new film about the birth of Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network, I bowed to what can only be described as niggling peer pressure and joined the 500 million people already globally connected. I put down the bare bones of a profile and within a week or so, I’d registered 80 “friends” without exerting any greater energy than a few clicks on the keyboard. This number, as you might know if you’re a user, is very small beer, pathetic in fact. Real friends and colleagues, people I’d hitherto thought of as not especially social or particularly clubbable, seemed to have amassed hundreds, indeed thousands. For a few days, I checked in regularly. Interest ebbed and now my profile just lies there, out in the ether, doing nothing, a silent wallflower at what is, we’re told, a gigantic worldwide networking event.  

I get the impression that I’ve joined the party too late. Like the EU, the more Facebook expands, the more pointless it seems. Certainly, it is easy to see why it must have been exciting at the beginning — or at least, exciting to teenagers and college kids eager to “hook up” (as Tom Wolfe euphemistically put it) and play the popularity game. Still, this is hardly the stuff of revolutions, whatever the hype machine says. It has made people feel busier, and more preoccupied, and there’s talk, talk, talk. But it is hard to come up with ways in which it has truly changed forever how we socialise, let alone revolutionised relationships.

The Social Network is a busy film, and certainly talky. I can’t recall a recent movie with so much dialogue. And it is smart-written by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame, it is thorough, intelligent and well-structured. It moves back and forth between two moments: the genesis of the idea in the halls of Harvard and the later legal wrangling which came when Zuckerberg’s best friend Eduardo Saverin and classmates the Winklevoss twins, feeling they’d been done over, made separate claims on his exponentially growing fortune (it now stands at around $6.5 billion). It takes place mostly inside, appropriately enough for the subject matter, in claustrophobic places such as college dorms, parties and legal offices. There’s a great stage play here waiting to get out. The various personalities and the social context are well-drawn, and most importantly perhaps, the film is highly skilful in leaving things open: you can decide for yourself whether Zuckerberg acted alone. 

So it is altogether an accomplished film. David Fincher (director of Fight Club, Zodiac and the brilliant Se7en) is one of the best people working in Hollywood today. And yet I found it a relief when the lights went up. It meant I didn’t have to spend any more time with a cast of characters who, with the exception of Saverin (Andrew Garfield), are uniformly unpleasant and, for all their talk, essentially uninteresting.

Chief among these is the visionary himself. As portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg, Zuckerberg is creepy, cold and underhand, motivated by a grudge at being excluded by the in-crowd and ditched by girls who (quite understandably) can’t get behind his dead little eyes. Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the mover and shaker who got the venture capitalists on board, has some kind of flashy flair, but is at base intensely unlikable. The Winklevoss twins, who went on to row for Oxford in the Boat Race this year, embody to the point of caricature a snobbish Wasp entitlement. Whether they were right or wrong in pursuing Zuckerberg, it’s impossible to want them to succeed. 

None of these people have any hinterland — not surprisingly perhaps, as they are all so young. They take themselves and their potential very seriously, in the way clever young Americans uniquely do. The world outside is just there to be manipulated. There is not, as I recall, an ounce of humour to be had. Nor is there style. The Social Network is being hailed as an emblematic movie for our times, much in the same way that Wall Street (the sequel to which has just appeared) was in the Eighties. Oliver Stone’s film unwittingly became a celebration of that now much-reviled decade: it had a layer of interest supplied not just by the cut-glass clothes but by Michael Douglas’s swaggering, colourful, even witty villain. People ended up wanting to be him. Other than dreaming of his billions, nobody surely could want to be Zuckerberg or any of these other utilitarian characters.        

When Wall Street appeared, the real party was already drawing to a close. Perhaps, too, Facebook has peaked? Maybe movies such as these are markers in the sand. Meanwhile, I’m left with emails informing me that somebody has just messaged me on Facebook, which in different times would have been like receiving a telegram from somebody saying they would be calling you in five minutes. 

Perhaps it’s time to put the computer in sleep mode and leave the Tower of Babble behind.

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