Debating Harvard's Role in the Founding of Facebook

Do artistocrats still dominate the social scene?

This article is from the archive of our partner .

The movie of the moment seems to be The Social Network, the David Fincher-Aaron Sorkin film presenting a fictionalized account of the creation of Facebook. Already there have been rave reviews and a discussion of whether or not the movie paints a fair portrait of founder Mark Zuckerberg. (In the movie, he comes across as something of a misanthropic, if sympathetic, nerd driven by bitterness and ambition.) One writer has raised questions about the film's portrayal of women.

Now, one stream of debate is grappling with the movie's portrayal of a key setting in the story: Harvard College. A number of Harvard alumni in the media are wrestling with the film's depiction of class tension within the school, which serves to propel both Zuckerberg and the film's narrative. Does The Social Network play up an anachronistic version of the university--with blueblooded finals clubs dominating the social scene, and nerds and renegades below--for the sake of the story? In other words, Facebook's launch may shed some light on elite foibles and pathologies, but does the film identify the wrong ones?

  • For Starters, Was Harvard Square Ever This 'Boho'?  Elizabeth Nicholas at The Huffington Post remarks on the dive bar of the movie's opening scene. She goes on to voice her suspicion that the true message of the movie is about the ambition it takes to succeed in modern society. "The Social Network as such is a testament to the power of ambition of all stripes -- the ambition to create something noteworthy, yes, but also that to walk with the swagger you envy in others. If what we as a society generally laud is the end result of ambition, the movie is fascinating for laying bare the ugly and insecure process to such a polished end product."

  • Set in Harvard, but the Harvard of 1970  "Sorkin and Fincher's 2003 Harvard," writes Slate's Nathan Heller, "is a citadel of old money, regatta blazers, and (if I am not misreading the implication here) a Jewish underclass striving beneath the heel of a WASP-centric, socially draconian culture." But Heller was in Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's class--they met as freshman--and, as he recalls, "the kids entering Harvard in 2002 came largely from pressure-cooker public schools, dorm-room entrepreneurships, the cutthroat upper echelon of prep institutions, or, in my case, the all-weather-fleece-wearing wilds of San Francisco." The cachet of the final clubs was long gone. Facebook "didn't rise as a scrappy force trying to conquer a patrician culture." Rather, it rose among a cohort of folks who had "little of [their] own with which to lay claim to the moment." Thus, argues Heller:
What Facebook really gave us, for better or worse, was a new social and intellectual culture that we could claim, finally, as our own. During its early rise, the site allowed the social flavor of the Ivy League to include more than just playing dress-up and pretend. (We now played those games online, as our own.)
  • Got One Thing Right  Harvard alum Matt Yglesias remarks on the "verisimilitude in depicting the atmosphere at Harvard circa 2003 where pathologically competitive people were thick on the ground." As if to prove his point, Yglesias cites some of the people who passed though "the real Kirkland House (a house is basically a dorm) which is also home to such internet pioneers as Yours Truly and Dylan Matthews along with luminaries such as Pat Toomey and Thomas Sowell."
  • It's About Modern Meritocracy, agrees The New York Times' Ross Douthat (also a Harvard alum) in one of two posts on the subject. If anything, he thinks the final clubs in the movie show this: they have--both in real life and the movie--modernized to become yet another meritocratic hurdle, "a status symbol that even Jewish computer geeks can aspire to claim." In The Social Network, "it's clear that worldly success rather than inherited status is the real coin of Harvard's realm, and that the clubs only persist because they’ve found a way to play that game as well, and open their ranks to upstarts." Case in point: the blue-blooded final club-approved Winkelvoss twins being "pathetically eager to co-found a dating website." This is the secret heart of the upper levels of our meritocratic system, argues Douthat:
The fact that ... the minute-seeming status differences on a campus where everyone is by definition privileged beyond measure can spur so much competition, angst, anxiety and intrigue--that's the aspect of Ivy League culture the movie really captures, and it’s why I think its story, however embellished, ultimately rings so true. The dark genius of the meritocracy is that it can take a kid like Mark Zuckerberg, someone who grew up in Westchester and went to an exclusive prep school and generally had things pretty easy by any reasonable standard, and--by surrounding him with other hyper-competitive alpha students--make him feel like he's an underdog, an outsider ... Whether the flesh-and-blood Zuckerberg felt this way or not, I don't pretend to know. But the phenomenon is real, and crucial to understanding the psychology of the American elite.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.