The Social Network


At the end of their 1979 ode-to-nihilism, The Wall, Pink Floyd, after dismissing most of the things we turn to for comfort—school, work, love, sex, politics—as “just another brick in the wall,” gave themselves an out in the album’s last cut, “Outside the Wall”:

All alone, or in twos, the ones who really love you walk up and down outside the wall. Some hand in hand and some gathered together in bands, the bleeding hearts and artists make their stand. And when they've given you their all, some stagger and fall. After all it's not easy banging your heart against some mad bugger's wall.”

Yes, I’m afraid even mainstream nihilists cannot be trusted. Bless them, they need something to live for as much as the rest of us do, and what better refuge from the pointlessness of it all than humanity itself? Whatever else may happen to disappoint you, there will always be someone to love you, someone you can trust, someone to rely on.

Or will there be?

In perhaps the best-made of last year’s films, The Social Network turns the cynical eye of reason on the last refuge of the meaningless: human relationships.

No matter what you may have heard, Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay isn’t about Mark Zuckerberg, who refused to take part in the project, nor is it about the advent of Facebook, the internet phenomenon that, according to its devotees, has changed the world. It’s about relationships, or perhaps, more precisely, what relationships are about.

No, I’m not suggesting that reason per se is inherently cynical. Most Americans I know would benefit greatly from a little disciplined thought about themselves and the word they live in. Thinking doesn’t produce cynicism; failing to think clearly does. But when the cynic turns reason towards relationships, his conclusions are predictable.

Relationships are about sex.
In his book Accidental Billionaires, on which The Social Network is based, Ben Mezrich writes, “The impetus of everything in college, I think, is to get laid… I know that was my whole purpose in becoming a writer.” I don’t know Mark Zuckerberg; perhaps he and Ben Mezrich are really alike at this point, or perhaps Mezrich is guilty of creating TSN’s Zuckerberg in his own image. Either way, sex is the cheapest commodity that is traded for in The Social Network, and thus, the most easily obtained.

Relationships are about social standing.
In TSN’s first and most painful scene, Mark is busily engaged in destroying his relationship with his girlfriend, Erica. He’s blind to this fact, of course, but no one else is.

Mark: “I want to try to be straightforward with you and tell you that I think you might want to be a little more supportive. If I get in [to the Phoenix Club, an elite Harvard social club]I will be taking you to the events, and the gatherings, and you’ll be meeting a lot of people you wouldn’t ordinarily meet.”

Erica:  “You would do that for me?”

Of course there’s really no safe answer to the “why do you love me?’ question, but “because you enhance my social standing” may be the all-time worst.

Relationships are about money. Or not.
The Social Network flits back and forth between Mark’s story and his depositions, given for the lawsuits filed against him by former classmates and his best friend, Eduardo Saverin. When the opposing attorney accuses him of starting Facebook so he could gain admittance to the Phoenix club, Mark replies,

Ma’am, I know you’ve done your homework and so you know that money isn’t a big part of my life, but at the moment I could buy Mt Auburn Street, take the Phoenix Club, and turn it into my ping-pong room.”

It’s a quote that perfectly captures a central TSN dilemma: having money isn’t a worthy goal. That’s old school. But what money can do for you creatively, socially, relationally? That’s cool. Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, makes a brief appearance in The Social Network in the person of Justin Timberlake, and explains it like this:

Sean:            “ A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool?

Eduardo:       “You?”

Sean:            “A billion dollars.”

Of course, there’s just enough truth in Sorkin’s snapshots of love to make them believable. Anyone who watches The Social Network and can’t relate to the pain of Mark’s failed relationships is either a liar or has led a charmed life. None of us are immune to the lure of sex, money or social standing; all of us struggle with the power they exert over us and our relationships. The cynic is right in admitting that even the best of our relationships are flawed, just as all of us are. But he’s dishonest in pretending that once we’ve seen the faults, there’s nothing left to see.

C.S. Lewis put it like this in The Four Loves:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

The Social Network begins with Mark in a room full of people, talking with Erica face-to-face. It ends with Mark alone with his computer, sending her a friend request via Facebook, waiting for her reply. How do you think she answers? There’s a sad irony evident in this ending: while Facebook may allow you a “yes” here, The Social Network does not.