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The Social Network: Communicating in code

"When an individual enters the presence of others, they commonly seek to acquire information about him already possessed. They will be interested in his general socio-economic status, his conception of self, his attitude toward them, his competence, his trustworthiness, etc. Although some of this information seems to be sought almost as an end in itself, there are usually quite practical reasons for acquiring it. Information about the individual helps to define the situation, enabling others to know in advance what he will expect from them and what they may expect from him. Informed in these ways, the others will know how best to act in order to call forth a desired response from him." -- from "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life" by Erving Goffman (1959)

Relationship status: Interested in: -- Facebook (2004)

The actual Mark Zuckerberg is said to have taken fencing when he was at Harvard. That's what the movie Mark Zuckerberg is doing in the opening scene of David Fincher's "The Social Network" -- only he's doing it with words and attitude, over a beer at the Thirsty Scholar, with his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend. The verbal thrusts and parries, feints and ripostes, zip by at 4x fast-forward. It's like a compressed version of an Aaron Sorkin screwball comedy dialog scene, written as self-parody. Only not quite. The speed and affectlessness is part of Mark's code, and part of his character's DNA.

Once you adjust to its breakneck tempo, the scene becomes a fascinating back-and-forth about communication in code, and the infinite ways it can misfire. "The Social Network" is about a lot of things -- notably the American social and economic system, built on class privilege, money, networking, sex, entrepreneurialism, self-presentation/self-promotion; and the age-old patterns of friendship, misunderstanding and betrayal between collaborators in any creative or business enterprise -- all of them forms of code, understood by insiders and incomprehensible to outsiders. Mark has a valuable insider's understanding of computer code, but is an outsider when it comes to most of these other areas. And yet he has an acute analytical intelligence that allows him to deconstruct these codes and notice elements that others who are closer to them might take for granted.

In another sense the conversation between Mark and Erica (Rooney Mara) resembles a rapid-fire, out-of-synch e-mail or text thread -- without emoticons. What's utterly missing from their dialog -- from Mark's side, anyway -- is an awareness of tone, mainly because the perpetually unsmiling Mark is tone-deaf when it comes to social interaction. He has no internal filter and he does not talk to people; he talks to himself in the presence of others (physically, or virtually on his LiveJournal blog -- this being 2003), because nobody else commands his full attention, including anyone who happens to be right in front of his face. Interactions with him tend to feel as if he's simultaneously ahead of and behind where you think the conversation is at any given moment.

As Erica puts it: "Sometimes, Mark -- seriously -- you say two things at once and I'm not sure which one I'm supposed to be aiming at.... It's exhausting. Going out with you is like dating a Stairmaster."

An excerpt:

MARK

It's about exclusivity.

ERICA God... what is?

MARK The final clubs. And that's how you distinguish yourself. The Phoenix is the most diverse. The Fly Club, Roosevelt punched the Porc.

ERICA Which one?

MARK The Porcellian, the Porc, it's the best of the best.

ERICA I actually meant which Roosevelt.

MARK Theodore.

ERICA Okay, well, which is the easiest one to get into?

MARK Hm.

ERICA What?

MARK Why would you ask me that?

ERICA I was just asking.

[...]

MARK You asked me which one was the easiest to get into because you think that's where I have the best chance.

ERICA The one that's easiest to get into would be the one where anybody had the best chance.

MARK I just think you asked -- the placement of where you asked the question --

ERICA I was honestly just asking. OK? I was asking just to ask. Mark, I'm not speaking in code.

But of course she is. They both are. We all are, all the time, and Facebook is just one more (online) face that we display to our social network of contacts, family, friends and "friends." To quote from another passage (by William I. Thomas) quoted by Goffman in "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life":

It is also highly important for us to realize that we do not as a matter of fact lead our lives, make our decisions, and reach our goals in everyday life either statistically or scientifically. We live by inference. I am, let us say, your guest. You do not know, you cannot determine scientifically, that I will not steal your money or your spoons. But inferentially I will not, and inferentially you have me as a guest.

What is a code? It's any structure with rules (grammatical, mathematical, social), and "The Social Network" looks at the codes we live by, old and new -- academic codes of conduct, legal codes, ethical codes, codes of honor between friends, entrenched hierarchical social codes of the Eastern aristocracy, and of course the kinds of binary codes that developers can command -- to examine social life as theater, which now includes an online dimension of showmanship. The movie is constructed out of party scenes, legal hearings and depositions, meetings, e-mails, newspaper and magazine articles, bar and restaurant conversations -- each of which has its own rules and conventions -- and is constantly examining how these codes are followed or broken, and weighing the consequences of these transactions. That includes questioning what kind of behavior (and attire) are necessary or appropriate, and what meanings, literal and inferred, are really being sent and received in each of these milieux.

You probably know people who say they have lots of friends (and, if they're on Facebook, are "friended" by lots of other people on Facebook). Some of these people actually have a lot of acquaintances and virtually nobody with whom they are intimately acquainted. They don't really know anybody, either because they don't want to or don't know how, and nobody really gets close enough to know them.

Usually, these kinds of people are superficially gregarious -- but not Mark Zuckerberg. (Again, I'm referring to the movie character.) When I worked at Microsoft and other technology companies and start-ups during the original dot-com boom-and-bust years of the 1990s, I encountered a number of people like Mark -- and they were more likely to be marketing drones than software engineers.

At Microsoft people used to say that the real purpose of any meeting with Bill Gates was to allow Bill Gates to establish that he was the smartest person in the room. Any other "take-away" was incidental, no matter how important it was to the project at hand. When Mark is forced to be somewhere he doesn't want to be, and someone is distracting him from his focus on Facebook, he can be kind of like that.

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As a super-smart but not super-wealthy Jewish computer geek at Harvard Mark is obsessed with status, recognition, acceptance -- but is either unwilling or unable to tone down or warm up his personality as a means toward those ends. He does it His Way. He's a prickly, opaque character (Erica tells him he's a genuine asshole; a lawyer who admits she would never put him in front of a jury says he just tries awfully hard to be one), but I think two of the movie's key insights into his psyche come in moments that are almost throwaways: When he tracks down his one-and-only friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield) at a Jewish fraternity's sad-sack "Caribbean Night" function, he insists he has to talk outside in the freezing cold because he can't stand to look at the video loop of Niagra Falls playing behind the band, since it has absolutely nothing to do with the Caribbean.

And then there's his insistence, throughout the film, that neither he nor anyone else knows what Facebook is yet. It's still taking shape, in the process of becoming, and its users will largely determine its evolution. So, he's both a literal-minded stickler for detail and the kind of network nerd who understands that software is an endless feedback loop between developers and users. (He's not exactly open source, but his method is the precise opposite of the Microsoft mindset, built on the old monolithic model that says: We Will Tell You What To Do And How To Do It. He mentions getting lucrative offers from Microsoft for projects he's designed, and refusing them.)

In fact, all of Mark's motivations appear to be old-fashioned, personal, emotional ones -- whether he's self-aware enough to notice or not. He's not presented as an Internet visionary with a grand scheme to transform the way we communicate. As we've seen, he can barely function outside his own head. He builds Facemash in an all-night drinking and hacking binge to get back at the girl who just dumped him. He strings along the (digitally created and possibly cloned) Winklevoss twins (strapping, impossibly handsome Olympic rowers and children of wealth, privilege and entitlement) because they have the germ of a good idea (an online face book exclusive to Harvard students) that they don't have a clue how to develop into something worthwhile.

Mark says: "The Winklevii aren't suing me for intellectual property theft. They're suing me because for the first time in their lives the world didn't work the way it was supposed to for them." He's not wrong about that, but the Winkelvii do genuinely believe his behavior violates various ethical policies and principles, even though Mark uses not a single line of their code.

He went to his best friend Eduardo for start-up money because he wanted to partner with his best friend. He screwed his best friend out of his share of the company because Eduardo got accepted into a final club and then preferred to stay back East rather than come to Silicon Valley where the real action was -- and because he thought Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) had a bigger, better version for the future of Facebook. And because he wanted to be like Parker, a bad-boy rebel as angry as Mark over how he has been mistreated and misunderstood, and who knows how to play both insider and outsider. Which is cool.

That's not to say that "The Social Network" takes sides. It's not interested in pretending to know who is right and who is wrong -- because its point of view is that those distinctions are subjective, and not always possible to make. Mark is a creature of the age of pastiche: he takes his experience with Facemash, the idea of putting face books online (an idea that did not originate with the Winklevii), a fellow student's question about whether a girl in one of his classes is interested in dating, his own interest in exclusive clubs and sex and social connections, the upwardly mobile love of voyeurism and competition (information is power)... and turns them into web applications that people want to use.

Perhaps those who don't know from algorithms and Emacs and perl scripts won't understand how much depends on the ability to translate ideas into executable code (and I doubt Sorkin does, either), but as I've detailed above, the movie isn't about that any more than "Citizen Kane" is about how Charles Foster Kane was a great newspaper innovator. I haven't read what others have to say about the movie yet, but I wonder how many will fail to see the ambivalence with which the film views Mark -- just as "Fight Club" was so deeply ambivalent about Tyler Durden.

"The Social Network" can be seen as the digital flip-side of "Zodiac" (a movie set in an analog era) in which geographical location is still important (Harvard, Kirkland House, the Porcellian bike room, Henley, New York, Palo Alto) but information is widely disseminated (even if actual communication is no easier than it ever was). A stunt like Facemash, allowing users to compare ID photos of girls in various residence halls and vote on which is hottest, or a site like Facebook, can become a phenomenon overnight. A girl assumes she's being dumped when she sees her boyfriend's relationship status is set to "single." But maybe he just never changed it. Is that worse? And with all these means for electronic communication at their disposal, people still don't answer e-mails, or return texts, or pick up their cell phones...

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After the breakup with his analog girlfriend, Mark makes a long, long analog trek across campus to his dorm room, where he stays up all night, blogging and hacking to get back at her. The movie is the journey from that opening conversation, face-to-face in the bar, to the repetition of two shots -- a close-up of Mark's face, and a close-up of Erica's Facebook page on his laptop screen -- as he keeps hitting "refresh" to see if she will respond to his attempt to "friend" her. The physical/emotional becomes digital. As Mark says, "I want to take the entire social experience of college and put it online." At least, in that form, it's something he can manage. Facebook is a great tool for keeping in touch and maintaining distance.

If Mark had been a little more social to begin with, people might not have had to sue him to get his attention. Then again, if he'd been more social, he probably wouldn't have been motivated to invent Facebook.

"We lived in farms, then we lived in cities, and now we're gonna live on the Internet." -- Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), "The Social Network"

UPDATE (10/4/01): I've been unable to shake "The Social Network" since I saw it this weekend. It's like a nightmare from which I haven't been fully able to recover (no wonder it's so dark). Matt Zoller Seitz has a very good idea why that is: it's a horror film.

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