David Fincher's The Social Network, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake and Andrew Garfield, turns 10 this autumn. In its focus on the origins of Facebook it seems rather quaint and dated; yet, in its depiction of the new meritocracy and the peculiar character formation of the techie world, it is perhaps more relevant today than it was in 2010.
Aaron Sorkin's clinical and cynical script highlights the motives of envy and anger, the absence of love and friendship, and the naked ambition for influence, impact, money and fame. In myriad ways, the film exemplifies what Pope Francis calls the "throwaway culture" – a culture that sees knowledge and human relationships in nothing more than instrumental terms.
The film, which received eight Oscar nominations and won three (adapted screenplay, original score and editing), traces the beginnings of Facebook to a group of male Harvard students, including Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) and Eduardo Saverin (Garfield), later joined by Sean Parker (Timberlake), the creator of Napster. Born in an act of drunken spite, Zuckerberg's Facebook, or Facemash as it is initially known, is a site for ranking the physical appearance of female students. Sensing the popularity of the site and its potential for connecting students at college campuses, Zuckerberg plots and builds a national site with Saverin, as well as the picture-perfect Harvard duo, the Winklevoss twins.
Zuckerberg is presented as a socially awkward and spiteful techie who is willing to add or subtract friends as they serve or fail to serve the realisation of his ambitions to create the world's largest social network. He embodies some of the worst behaviour traits of social media devotees. Some lines in the film seem more apt today than they were a decade ago: "You think every thought that tumbles through your head is so clever it would be a crime for it not to be shared." Or: "You write snide **** from a dark room because that's what the angry do these days."
Perhaps the most creative and instructive feature of the script is its organisation: it is structured around a series of legal proceedings arising from lawsuits brought against Zuckerberg. The unarticulated insight of the film is that in a world where human connection is tenuous and ambition dominates, any difficulty in human relationships quickly becomes a matter for legal resolution. As political philosophers have taught since Plato, where civic friendship declines, litigiousness increases. In one of those proceedings, Eduardo sits across the table from Zuckerberg, who (in the film's plot at least) has cruelly double-crossed him, and says with a mixture of accusation and regret, "I was your only friend."
The hollowness of the characters in the film might seem merely a cautionary tale were it not for the fact that these character types are now among America's most influential leaders. The class meritocracy of Harvard, with its elitist final clubs, embodies a notion of education as merely instrumental, as all about seeking and achieving money, fame, and privileged access.
Facebook and other social media sites would seem, on the surface, to be about the opposite human instincts: the desire for human connectedness and universal democratic access. Yet these sites have become arenas for the expression of wrathful animosity, for the identification of anyone who disagrees with me as both fatuous and malicious, and for the controlling of speech along ideological lines.
It is too bad that the characters in the film are almost all despicable. One can imagine decent people being caught up in the same culture: in theory, it has a morally neutral focus on the creation of more efficient and more expansive applications of technology. But human nature abhors a moral vacuum. Moral relativism or pure neutrality will never abide for long at the centre of any culture. Some conception of morality will inevitably fill the void. It is easy to see how a well-intentioned and allegedly morally neutral social media enterprise could suddenly become a mechanism of the thought police.
How could the perpetually adolescent geniuses who are reshaping human interaction resist the temptation to become our moral overlords? How could their education and cultural formation even lead them to identify that as a temptation? At one point, Parker proclaims, "We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we're going to live on the internet!"
The Social Network is a scorching presentation of the education and character formation of the unelected leaders of that new world. Seen in this context, the ironic Rolling Stone assessment of what it ranks as the second-best film of the last decade (a "deliciously re-watchable preview of the apocalypse") communicates a sobering, even chilling, message.