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The Social Network Movie You Won’t See

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A major theme emerging from otherwise favorable reviews of The Social Network is the relationship between sexism and film gender relations and technology:

Beth Accomando:

The underlying message in the film seems to be that if these guys just got laid more often we would never have had innovations like Napster and Facebook.

Bob Grimm:

We have Facebook because some dude got dumped. I can believe that.

My favorite post on this theme comes from Laurie Penny:

The Social Network is an expertly crafted and exhaustively modern film, and one of its more pertinent flashpoints is the reminder that a resource that redefined the human interactions of 500 million people across the globe was germinated in an act of vengeful misogyny. Woman-hating is the background noise of this story. Aaron Sorkin’s dazzlingly scripted showdown between awkward, ambitious young men desperate for wealth and respect phrases women and girls as glorified sexual extras, lovely assistants in the grand trick whose reveal is the future of human business and communication.

The narrative whereby the nerdy loner makes a sack of cash and gets all the hot pussy he can handle is becoming a fundamental part of free-market folklore. It crops up in films from Transformers to Scott Pilgrim; it’s the story of Bill Gates, of Steve Jobs, and now of Mark Zuckerberg. It’s a story about power and about how alienation and obsessive persistence are rewarded with social, sexual and financial power.

The protagonist is invariably white and rich and always male — Hollywood cannot countenance female nerds, other than as minor characters who transform into pliant sexbots as soon as they remove their glasses — but these privileges are as naught compared to the injustice life has served him by making him shy, spotty and interested in Star Trek. He has been wronged, and he has every right to use his l33t skills to bend the engine of humanity to his purpose…

The only roles for women in this drama are dancing naked on tables at exclusive fraternity clubs, inspiring men to genius by spurning their carnal advances and giving appreciative blowjobs in bathroom stalls. This is no reflection on the personal moral compass of Sorkin, who is no misogynist, but who understands that in rarefied American circles of power and privilege, women are still stage-hands, and objectification is hard currency.

Penny makes a sophisticated argument, but from what I know of FB’s origin story, I do think she gets that last bit wrong. He has his faults, but this deeply gendered script is very much the doing of Aaron Sorkin and David Finscher rather than Zuckerberg himself.

I haven’t read The Accidental Billionaires on which the movie was supposedly based, but peruse the first five chapters of David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect and this narrative of unmitigated misogyny falls apart. FaceMash included hot or not lists for both sexes, not just women; and though it offended women’s groups on campus, Zuckerberg mended fences with the Association of Harvard Black Women by assisting them with their website – not quite the unrepentant jerk of the film version. Far from being a lonely nerd, Zuckerberg “was rarely without a girlfriend.” And the company culture was not completely hostile to strong, smart women: at least one who influenced the company from the start, Tricia Black, was written out of the story deliberately by the screenwriters.

Irin Carnon at Jezebel has more on the truthiness of these portrayals.

I’m not the first to point out that writers took license with the actual history, though this is irrelevant to most critics; nor will I dwell on whether or not this matters. But I will say it was a disappointment that such a finely written and produced film was so brazenly fixated on interpersonal relationships when its subject matter lent itself to so much greater political depth. Sure the emphasis on lawsuits makes for good drama. But the producers could have gone in several more interesting directions had they wanted viewers to really think about the relationship between technology, politics and society. I would have liked to see a version of this film that focused more on either one of the following:

1) The development and expansion of the ideology behind Facebook. Zuckerberg is not just the world’s youngest billionaire, he has at the forefront of a growing movement that includes other social entrepreneurs like Julian Assange. Its goal: to promote transparency and remove artificial barriers beween people; its motto: information should be freely available to all. His job description on the FB Site (“Founder, Master and Commander and Enemy of the State”) is at least as much about political ideology as it is about the sexual frustrations of high geekdom. The Facemash incident read through this lens become not a spasm of misogynistic creativity but an early signal of Zuckerberg’s disregard for extant privacy norms, mainstream institutions, and 20th century authority structures. This insistence on the company as a platform for spreading his message, through the architecture, to the ever-expanding user community explains Zuckerberg’s preference for being “cool” over being solvent. And his zeal for the message partly explains why he and Sean Parker insisted on and succeeded at maintaining absolute control over the company – rare among start-ups who obtain venture capital.

Yet to what extent did Zuckerberg start out with this view, and to what extent did he construct it through interacting with the global information economy through his platform? It’s not a little paradoxical that Facebook was, according to Kirkpatrick, originally designed as the anti-MySpace:

Where that service was wide-open, florid and unconstrained, Thefacebook was minimal, with limited flexibility and no decorative freedom. MySpace was unconcerned with who you really were. Thefacebook authenticated you with your university email, and you had no choice but to identify yourself accurately. On MySpace, the deault setting was the you could see anybody’s profile. On Thefacebook, the default allwed you only to see profiles of those who had explicitly accepted you as a friend. A degree of privacy was built in.”

Zuckerberg has said that if he could go back in time, public settings would have been the default. What does he understand how that he didn’t understand then? There are fascinating questions here both for those who love and those who love to hate what Facebook stands for. Yet the relationship between ideology, strategy and outcome is pitifully under-explored in this story.

2) The technology itself. Besides women, programmers and programming choices were completely eclipsed in the film. In my limited experience observing software startups, this is completely untrue to life. Design choices are path-dependent and intimately connected to both the social identity of the company and the interpersonal relationships between the programmers. In fact in real life Eduardo Saverin’s disconnect from the other founders was apparently based largely on their perception that he didn’t get this: as David Kirkpatrick writes in The Facebook Effect: “The product as it is engineered and programmed and designed is the business for an Internet company.” Yet we learn almost nothing about Dustin Moskowitz’s character or his pivotal role in the development of the platform by watching The Social Network. And although an occasional scene provides a social context for one or another Facebook utility – the relationship-status tool, for example – there is precious little emphasis on the evolution of the platform itself. As an admitted nerd, I am more interested in the genealogy of the Wall and news-feed, the original social meaning of the ‘poke’ or what factors the founders considered in settling on their peculiarly gendered range of “relationship status” choices than I am in whether or not Zuckerberg stole his ideas from some other, handsomer, better connected Ivy-League brats.

Of course, some would say that wouldn’t make good drama. Sorkin and Finscher dressed up a boring, nerdy story of hacking and coding algorithms with lies, law-suits and lap-dances in order to capture the non-nerd audience and win best film of the year – which they may yet if only for the film’s unstoppably stunning dialogue. But I would have liked to see them do better – because I think they could have succeeded at that as well. Writers who can make blogging look like an action scene have a shot at telling a compelling story about the extent to which new technologies are changing (or meant to be changing) our political and social worlds.

On this, Kirkpatrick is more forthcoming: “Facebook is bringing the world together.” And he believes this is a positive thing. In the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell is more sanguine.

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