31st October 2010: The Social Network (2010)

The most interesting stories about internet sites are about their internal politics.

Almost a decade ago, during a dinner with a co-researcher, I got introduced to a fan of the news site Disinformation. I was its site editor at the time. We chatted about the site, stories, the founding myths, and the recent Disinfo.con 2000. “What goes on within the production team in any site or magazine is different to what its readers may perceive,” I said. “The team has a different relationship to the material.” This conversation foreshadowed events that would occur four or five years later, which this single exchange foreshadowed.

David Fincher’s The Social Network gets many of these elements right. Fincher is helped by Aaron Sorkin’s witty script, and a dark, ethereal soundtrack from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. At its core The Social Network is less a generation or decade-defining film and more a case study in the hurdles that entrepreneurs and cultural creatives face to launch new ventures. The details are in scenes about fast prototypes and rapid development, court depositions, and venture capital negotiations over shares. Although Facebook is amongst the most prominent, the underlying story of The Social Network has probably played out in many deals and websites over the past 15 years.

Entrepreneurs can be motivated by hubristic emotions and real-life events. Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) launches the voting site FaceMash when Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) breaks up with him. When FaceMash crashes Harvard’s servers, Zuckerberg is interviewed by Harvard’s administration, profiled in The Harvard Crimson, and comes to the attention of entrepreneurs Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence). Zuckerberg agrees to develop Harvard Connection for the Winklevosses. Over several weeks, Zuckerberg then develops The Facebook as a ‘first-to-market’ competitor, funded by friend and investor Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield).

Zuckerberg and Saverin differ over The Facebook’s direction and how the early stage venture should earn revenues. Zuckerberg wants to grow the site and undermine the traditional ‘facebooks’ of Harvard’s elite colleges. Saverin opts for a New York internship and hunt for advertisers. When Zuckerberg meets Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) the ‘balance of power’ in the team shifts. Parker introduces Zuckerberg to Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel (Wallace Langham) who provides $US500,000 as an angel investor. Parker and Thiel then convince Zuckerberg to cut Saverin’s share from 34% to 0.03% in order to bring in other seed capital and early institutional capital investors. Saverin and the Winklevosses pursue Zuckerberg with federal court lawsuits.

Fincher’s eye for detail is on how others surround ‘players’ like Zuckerberg, Parker and Thiel. Harvard’s Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski) counters to the Winklevosses that their dispute with Zuckerberg is a private matter for the courts. Parker dresses up his Napster losses with a Victoria’s Secret model (Courtney Arndt), a ‘positive deviance’ story of taking on the music conglomerates, and throwaway lines on branding suggestions. Zuckerberg is praised by Harvard students, courted by sorority admirers, and circled by lawyers. Meanwhile, Harvard’s elite clubs, teaching, and administrative hearings continue, oblivious to Zuckerberg and Saverin’s ‘small team’ juggernaut until the re-named Facebook cascades to other universities, and later to the general public.

The Social Network captures several business truths that makes it perhaps the best film about .com business since Jehane Noujaim’s Startup.com (2001) and Ondi Timoner’s We Live In Public (2009). Find a wedge topic — such as a choice over the direction and structure of a business — and you can isolate and split a creative team. Play to the ‘halo effects’ and ‘positive illusions’ of people and you can entrance them and restructure a deal to your favour. The real story lies in what happens behind the spin-doctored public image and talking points — in what people actually do when the pressure is on. Put a lot of money on the table – or the valuation promise thereof – and your friends may ‘throw you under the bus’ out of self-interest at a strategic inflection point. Online social networks may promise connection and influence yet can also play to narcissism and sound-bite exchanges over substance. Similar dynamics played out during Evan Williams’ CEO tenure at Blogger and Twitter, and in Hollywood films about entrepreneurship.

Fincher closes The Social Network on a haunting image: Zuckerburg alone in a legal office with a laptop, hovering over the profile of his college ex-girlfriend Erica Albright. It’s haunting because Fincher evokes the simultaneous loneliness and yearning for connection that can drive social network ‘chatter’ and traffic. Zuckerberg pauses on ‘send request’, hesitates and stops, and the camera pans away. Some of the most important, past people in my life either don’t have Facebook or Twitter accounts, or don’t visit them often. The Social Network then is a timely reminder of the individual and one-to-one bonds at the heart of social network sites, and how easily they may become frayed.