One Way The Social Network Got Facebook Right

Over the 15 years since its founding, Facebook has marketed itself—and tried to justify itself—through a misleadingly humanistic premise.

Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (Merrick Morton / Columbia Pictures / Courtesy of Everett Collection / Gabriel Bouys / AFP / Getty / The Atlantic)

Because it is the 15th birthday of Facebook, and because that span seems both an extremely short and an extremely long amount of time for Facebook to have existed, I recently rewatched The Social Network, David Fincher’s 2010 film about the founding of the website that would reshape the world.

Here’s one thing that’s striking today about the movie: how efficiently this work of mythmaking, with its claustrophobic settings and taut instrumentals and don’t-go-through-that-door ironies, doubles as a work of horror. In the years that have passed since Mark Zuckerberg built the site that became TheFacebook (from his Harvard dorm room, the myth pretty much requires its contributors to add), the hacker’s ethos, move fast and break things, has steadily hacked its way into people’s lives. So much has been moved. So much has been broken. And The Social Network, written by Aaron Sorkin and featuring Jesse Eisenberg as the shuffling, shower-shoe-wearing founder, anticipated some of the fallout. The movie’s trailer is set to a choral version of Radiohead’s “Creep,” a song that sings of longing and belonging and perfect bodies and perfect souls, and that choice tells you a lot about the lessons espoused by this particular fable.

The Social Network is in many ways a flawed movie; it got one of the biggest things, however, right: It knew enough to ironize the Great Man breathlessness that typically defines the biopic. Its heady historical revisionism (“I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth,” Sorkin said; “I want it to be to storytelling”) finally warns, through metaphor, of the future: what it will mean for people to live lives that are conducted, at least in part, online. Sorkin’s twist on Luddism was to question not the march of technological progress, but rather the Mark of it—the historical figure who drove things forward, nearly by accident. Zuckerberg, the person, is famously a fan of ancient epics (he quoted The Aeneid, via instant message, in a New Yorker profile timed to The Social Network’s release); the journey his likeness takes through the movie, though, is the path of the antihero. This is an indictment at feature length.

That’s clearest when the movie mocks one of the ideas that, from the beginning and definitely in the nearly 10 years since The Social Network premiered, has become one of Facebook’s own dearest myths: connection. Connection as origin; connection as mission; connection as justification. “He uses the word ‘connect,’” Zadie Smith wrote in a 2010 New York Review of Books essay about the film, “as believers use the word ‘Jesus,’ as if it were sacred in and of itself.”

The usage makes for very good marketing. “Connection,” after all, both as an aim and as a gauzy brand, is pretty much incontrovertible. (What monster would object to a goal of human connection?) And that is precisely how Facebook has treated it: as an argument that answers itself. Here is the message of a TV ad, “Here Together,” that Facebook ran in 2018—yet another pseudo-apology issued by the company, this time not for violating individual users’ privacy, but rather for transgressions of a more sweeping sort:

We came here for the friends. We got to know the friends of our friends. Then our old friends from middle school, our mom, our ex, and our boss joined forces to wish us a happy birthday. Then we discovered our uncle used to play in a band, and realized he was young once too. And we found others just like us. And just like that, felt a little less alone. But then something happened. We had to deal with spam, clickbait, fake news, and data misuse. That’s going to change. From now on, Facebook will do more to keep you safe and protect your privacy, so we can all get back to what made Facebook good in the first place: friends. Because when this place does what it was built for, then we all get a little closer.

It’s sly and sort of genius, what the company did there. We. Our. But then. Facebook. Friends. We all get a little closer. “Connection,” in this epic in miniature, is merely implied, but it is implied so thoroughly—so tautologically—that Facebook and we become indistinguishable. And spam, clickbait, fake news, data misuse: These become, in the alchemy of the ad, problems not for a business to solve on behalf of its customers but instead vague challenges, devoid of agent or origin, that unfortunately—inconveniently—“we had to deal with.” (“Genocidal rhetoric” is another such problem, but that tends not to play well on TV.)

Connection is so easy to talk about. It’s so easy to celebrate, and validate, and strive for. But it is also, like so much else, a construction: a manufactured good, made by people as well as for them. Facebook, for its part, has built a series of very specific beliefs into its version of “connection,” and those beliefs are an element of the product that the company exports, every moment, from Menlo Park. Connection branding, you could call it, minimizes all that work in favor of a hazier way of humanism. Deployed as messaging and as marketing, “connection” allows Facebook, the powerful company, always to be changing the subject, from it to us—the users who are also, as it happens, its product. Facebook isn’t really doing the connecting, it demurs; you are. We are. And therefore the structural unsoundness that has been built by Facebook, into Facebook, is not strictly the problem of Facebook. It is the problem of all of us, collectively. The tragedy of the commons, except these commons come with a board of directors.

The Social Network, as horror by another means, explores the human dimensions of the tragedy. It’s interested in misalignments of interest between the good of the network and the good of the people who populate it. It cares about the costs of industrialized connection. It insists, for example, that an intimate element of Facebook’s founding mythology is Facemash, the Hot or Not–style site that Zuckerberg built in 2003, just before he built TheFacebook: The site posted pictures of Harvard women—only women—and asked users to judge which one was more attractive. The whole thing was sexist and juvenile and cruel, and it nearly got Zuckerberg kicked out of Harvard long before he chose to kick himself out. Zuckerberg, today, downplays Facemash’s significance, to Facebook’s story and his own; in the commencement speech he delivered at Harvard in 2017, he referred to the site as merely a “prank.”

Facemash lives on, however, in The Social Network—not as a joke, but rather as an omen. The site comes to life haphazardly (Zuckerberg, bitter at being rejected by a woman he’s been dating, decides to get his revenge), and that, in turn, distills the film’s defining concern: Figuratively and sometimes literally, slightly beer-drunk college sophomores are deciding for the rest of us what, and who, matters. A few people, with all their quirks and contingencies, are shaping the spaces that summon us. Physical infrastructures—bridges, skyscrapers, freeways, subway entrances—have their own biases, of course; but digital worlds pervade. And so do the assumptions that are built into them. The defining aesthetic of Facebook, its accent color of dusky indigo, was selected because Zuckerberg, save for certain shades of blue, is color-blind. Which is a small thing that hints at a much bigger one—Miranda Priestly’s insights about the trickle-down effects of cerulean, made even more acute: Here, consumers end up with the specific shade not through calculations of capitalism, but instead through an arbitrary fact of one person’s life, steadily scaled into communal truth.

Critics often wonder about the moral interplay of the art and the artist; many questions get flattened, however, when the art is also the space people live in, and the artist is also an industrialist. By virtue of his status as a digital architect, Mark Zuckerberg also defines what constitutes “abuse,” and what does not. What constitutes hate speech, and what does not. What constitutes a threat—to real people, with real lives—and what does not.

That is another element of the gospel of connection: Those who espouse it most loudly are often blithely disconnected from the people whose pliant realities they mold. Jack Dorsey, the co-creator and current CEO of Twitter, tweeted about the mental benefits of fasting just after a partial government shutdown that found masses of federal workers unable to pay for food. Howard Schultz, the billionaire founder of Starbucks, is waging a presidential campaign with a current constituency of pretty much nobody, premised almost entirely on bland assumptions that accompany the blunt facts of wealth. Companies run by men flood the market with digital assistants—always cheerful, always responsive—that are named after women. Otherwise educated people insist that algorithms can’t be racist (they can), based on the truncated logic that algorithms are written by data, not people. Connection is a beautiful thing; it can also be a dangerous thing.

Mark Zuckerberg, in that 2017 Harvard commencement speech, defined the Millennial generation like this: “We understand the great arc of human history bends towards people coming together in ever greater numbers—from tribes to cities to nations—to achieve things we couldn’t on our own.” Later in the speech—an address so full of willful optimism that it made people wonder whether he was planning his own presidential run—Zuckerberg pointed to graduates in the crowd who had done exceptional work for the cause of connection. “And this is my story, too,” he said: “Connecting one community at a time, and keeping at it until one day we can connect the whole world.”

You have to ask, again: Who is the “we” in that formulation? What is “the whole world”? There are reflections of the Gilded Age in this era of digital expansion—extreme wealth, restive people, new structures being grafted onto the ones that were already there. How fitting, then, that one of the moment’s great myths is also one of its great anxieties: We. Our. But then. A small collection of people, appointed first by chance and then by themselves, attempting to decide for the rest of us what it means, finally, to connect.