If I speak in HTML, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of social networking, master Facebook’s privacy settings, and accept 5,000 friend requests, but have not love, I am nothing.
—1 Corinthians 13:1 (paraphrase)
In the prologue of David Fincher’s film The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is on what you might call a “date.” But he isn’t enjoying it. Neither is his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend Erica.
Zuckerberg, a Harvard student with his eyes set on privilege and status, is griping about how his perfect SAT scores have failed to earn him access to the school’s most elite clubs. As he rants, his vanity exposes his disrespect for the rest of the world—including Erica. She storms off, refusing to feed his ego’s voracious appetite.
Like both of my housecats, Zuckerberg finds closed doors to be intolerable. If the cool kids won’t roll out the red carpet, and if he can’t have the girl he wants on his own terms, he’ll strike back.
So he gets online and tells the world that Erica’s a bitch. Then, to punish those who deny his greatness, he invents a new social environment—one in which everybody can make their own decisions about who’s in and who’s out, who’s hot and who’s not. In the end, he governs his Facebook empire as a temperamental, but lonely, deity.
Let’s call The Social Network what it is—fiction based on a few scattered historical details. The Internet is buzzing with arguments about the film’s historical accuracy (or lack of it). But Aaron Sorkin scripted this film for maximum intrigue. It’s as fictional as any episode of his three compelling television series: SportsNight, The West Wing, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
I’m interested in considering it as a piece of theatre, not a historical text. And I’m especially intrigued—and horrified—by the complex character of Zuckerberg. He’s a visionary, an imaginative genius of digital architecture. But what motivates him? Jealousy. A sense of entitlement. Outrage that things aren’t going his way. So, he remakes the world the way he wants it, strangely insensitive to the hurt he’s inflicting along the way.
Director David Fincher seems drawn to these stories of misguided rebels who become monsters in their attempts to reorder the world. Se7en was about a criminal who, outraged by human depravity, took matters of judgment into his own hands and became a monster. Zodiac was about a serial killer whose perverse spirit compelled him to cast a shadow of fear and insecurity over a whole society. In Fight Club, cultural rebels fought against corporate culture with violence and vandalism.
The Social Network is about how one disgruntled nobody stole power from the privileged and established a new social environment.
When I hear people scorning Facebook as a total waste of time, my response is this: Facebook is what you make it. If we fill it with thoughtless words, trivialities, and self-absorption, we’ll waste each other’s time. But if we use it to cultivate substantial conversation, treating people generously, we may be surprised at what grows there.
Facebook gives us a lot of useful tools for creative expression and community development. But with power comes responsibility. Zuckerberg’s empire-building efforts are fueled by envy and a lust for power. As a result, he gets a lot done, but feels empty at the end of it.
I can relate. I’ve written many an article in a spirit of anger, responding to opinions or reviews that offended me. Those opinions have sometimes earned cheers and sparked worthwhile discussions. But that doesn’t change the fact that I hurt people along the way, injured my integrity, and felt hollow about the result.
A friend of mine, one of the finest vocalists I’ve ever heard, recently got a tattoo that reads “Comparison is the thief of joy.” When I look around at the privileges and opportunities bestowed on others, I start flinching—especially if I lack respect for them and their work. This poisons my attitude, warps my creative process, and taints the outcome.
This desire to remake the world to satisfy ourselves is as old as the oldest story. When the serpent in the garden appealed to our vanity, inviting us to become “like God,” we became insecure. We doubted our worthiness. We accepted a poisonous vision of power games and competition.
For our sins, God revoked our access to the garden. He offered us grace and reconciliation, but what have we done? We’ve gone about building gardens of our own design, setting ourselves up as judge and jury.
The conclusion of Christ’s parable of the prodigal son is revelatory. Who is the only one absent from the feast? The prodigal’s older brother. He has access to all of his father’s blessings, but he can’t enjoy them because he is upset that blessings aren’t being dealt out to his liking.
In his commentary on The Social Network, David Brooks writes, “I was reminded of the famous last scene in The Searchers, in which the John Wayne character is unable to join the social bliss he has created. The character gaps that propel some people to do something remarkable can’t be overcome simply because they have managed to change the world.”
Despite his grand achievements and their rewards—money, fame, power—Zuckerberg ends up lonely and dissatisfied. His pride has cost him his only friends. Demanding love on his own terms, he’s made meaningful relationship impossible.
If you build it, they will come. And they may even find blessings in your work. But will you? What does it gain a man if he wins a world of Facebook friends but loses his soul?
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.