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Notes on Leaving Facebook

The first thing I know I won’t miss about Facebook are the “Memories.” It’s entirely typical of Facebook to assimilate a universal human capacity into its brand by means of a simple capital letter. The feature is simple enough: It ports algorithmically determined “memorable” moments onto your feed — grinning photos, particularly well-received bon mots — and implores you to share them, thus regurgitating what you’ve already fed into its sleek blue maw. In my case, as a recent divorcée after nearly a decade of partnership, the cheap rush Memories are meant to offer has lately been a torment instead. Remember (photo of the two of us at New Year’s, fireworks sizzling into life in the black air) when you were married? Remember (photo of the two of us cleaning a park in north Manhattan, with shovels and big grins in the long grass) when your life was full of love? Things are different now, and for so many reasons I no longer want to offer my life, free of charge, to the site. Leaving Facebook is a bit like leaving New York — while not yet a classic essay genre, it’s really about leaving a version of who you were.

I’m not the only one to make this decision over the past week; for longtime observers of cybersecurity, it must be bemusing to watch masses of people seemingly awaken all at once to the scale of the mining and sale of their data. No doubt for many, the tipping point was the revelation of Cambridge Analytica’s shady machinations — helmed by the comically evil-sounding “Dr. Aleksandr Spectre,” a second-rate Bond villain by both name and profession. But for me, at least, the decision to leave Facebook came after years of attrition, the slow accumulation of frustration. For ages I had willingly handed my joy and my sorrow, my debit card information and my family tree, my work and endless photos of my face, to a company that was selling it piece by piece all along.

Facebook makes it remarkably difficult to remove your page, a fact that might confound the thousands that took to Twitter to voice their desire to #deleteFacebook. A plethora of guides to what ought to be a simple maneuver have cropped up in recent days. The easiest option is to “deactivate” one’s account — leaving it suspended in digital amber until the next login, all its data retained by the company. When you choose to deactivate, the site displays photos of what it’s calculated are your closest friends: “Are you sure? Your friends will miss you.” To fully delete one’s account is far harder. It is almost impossible to do so through simple clicks (in fact, it is not even possible to achieve through your account settings). Just above the deactivation option, however, is the “Legacy” button, wherein you can ask Facebook to delete your page after you die. When Facebook adopted the Timeline in 2011, it allowed users to retroactively plug in events that occurred in their lives before Mark Zuckerberg arrived on the scene: The first option is birth, accompanied by a large, faceless silhouette of an infant. First you’re born, then you post, and then you die. Only then can you leave.

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My first status update was on September 9, 2006. I had just turned sixteen. Back then, each status was prefaced by “[Your name here] is” — before the status update evolved into a chaotic blank space for electoral musings and propaganda. On September 9, 2006, I was “electrified: deified: undenied.” I don’t know why, although my whole body was one electric charge that year: it was the first time I ever saw a penis, the first time I ever really, truly wanted to kill myself. My first kiss was still new. I adopted Facebook fairly early in the lifetime of the site for the same reason one starts frequenting a local café or takes up a hobby: My friends were there. Defenders of Facebook like to say that joining it is a choice, that the Terms of Service are readily available and transparent about the ways the company can help itself to your data. But this doesn’t consider the age of many adopters of the site. At the time, I might have been able to understand the terms of service, but I was not inclined to caution. The whole earth was ripe for me to bite; I wanted to fling myself into love and let it burn me alive. Sharing myself with a site was, if I saw it as a risk, one so mild I didn’t even think about it.

It’s ironic now to think that I entrusted Mark Zuckerberg with that degree of passion, and the language I used to convey it. The man has an almost stunning, rigid anti-charisma, like a wax doll cursed into life. In many ways, his public persona mirrors the way Facebook handles human sentiments: His smile seems like a simulacrum of a smile, just as Facebook traffics in slick but slightly unsettling approximations of, say, friendship, or celebration. In an age in which crisis communications have a lightning-fast turnaround, in no small part thanks to Facebook’s speedy delivery of information, it took him five days after the news broke to address the unwashed, profiled masses. In his post regarding the Cambridge Analytica crisis — which was, incidentally, nearly impossible to access unless you are an active user of Facebook — he neglected to use the words regret or apology or sorry. Instead, he blithely revealed the massive scale of the breach, both of data and of trust.

Per Zuckerberg’s own words, Facebook enabled apps to access vast quantities of social data about its users in 2007; the Spectre data theft, which would later be exploited by Cambridge Analytica, occurred in 2013; and in 2014, Facebook initiated restrictions on what data third-party apps could access. The post further announced an audit of precisely what information these apps had retained since — eleven years after the company had created the problem; four years after it attempted to solve it. (My archive informs me that I used to play a match-three game called “Farm Heroes Saga” — “Switch and match the collectable Cropsies in this farmtastic adventure!” — and I wonder how much data it harvested from me, as I was busy harvesting tiny digital onions with humanoid faces.) “I want to thank all of you who continue to believe in our mission,” Zuckerberg concluded. According to Facebook’s investor FAQ page, that mission is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Facebook’s mission, in other words, is to get people to use Facebook, to remain in its close quarters, to give, and give, and give to these careless stewards of our tender hearts. It’s good at this mission; that’s why its market cap is still $463 billion, despite a brief dip last week.

Before you leave Facebook, the company gives you the option to download your archive — the sum total of all that you have posted, your messages and photos. In just over a decade, I accumulated 586.6 megabytes of curated life: enough for an hour of high-definition video, or an education, various youthful travels, a marriage, its shattering, and the slow, grim process of repair. I clicked through the photos: me during my first month at Harvard; in Yalta while it was still in Ukrainian hands; in Amsterdam, stoned and woozy on a canal boat; being proposed to, grinning wide as a cracked geode; nervous and bridal in the big white dress like a cruise ship; adopting a tortoise named Percy Shelly, et al.… What you give to Facebook is an accumulation of any number of tiny decisions, handing over the bright, irreplicable shards of your life in exchange for fleeting hits of dopamine. 

Let me not exaggerate my sacrifice: I post on Twitter to an astonishing and frankly irresponsible degree. But I deleted Facebook (and Instagram) with a twinge: I can no longer casually browse photos of my old friend Gahl’s two adorable daughters in Tel Aviv, or correspond with fellow writers for a women’s comedy outlet; I have excised passive consumption of the lives of people I know but don’t speak to daily, and I know myself too well to assume I will seek active knowledge of their whereabouts. In essence what is lost is not true connection but a sense of connectedness — the idea that we are all proximal in that sterile antechamber to life, that we could touch lives briefly if we so desired, even if we never, ever do. What won’t change, even if hordes flee, even if more depredations are revealed, is Facebook’s impact on the way we use language: so many words, flipped over like stones, have attained new meanings — timeline, status, like, memories, friendship, share, feed, heart. While I’m not one to quibble with the lexical laws of common usage, I would rather a heart be a muscle filled with the stuff of life; I would rather feed my companions steaming garlic bread and borscht on winter nights than watch from a distance as their lives scroll by.

 

The Harpy is a new column in which Talia Lavin examines the interplay between politics and pop culture in America.

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Terms and Conditions May Apply Chronicles the Death of Privacy

“There’s some definite movement in the yard!” If you imagine that line spoken by the pimply, squeaky-voiced teen who works every drive-through on The Simpsons, you get some sense of the awkward confrontation director Cullen Hoback has with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg during the riveting climax of his death-of-privacy documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply. Hoback locates Zuckerberg’s address through publicly available information and stakes out his house because, y’know, irony. At this point, Facebook’s disregard for user privacy and its exploitation of personal information are so well documented that this klutzy interaction between two vaguely embarrassed social maladroits brings some cringey originality to the table. Terms and Conditions May Apply uses the widespread deployment of end-user license agreements for software and websites as a springboard to launch a wide-ranging, if shallow, exploration of intrusive government surveillance practices. There’s nothing to disagree with here: Yes, Google’s Eric Schmidt is one of the creepiest executives in Silicon Valley. Yes, U.S. antiterrorism enforcement is often heavy-handed. No, governments shouldn’t spy on citizens’ phone conversations. Set to a wall of pensive, tonal music, the film intercuts broadcast news footage, film clips, and interviews with a range of subjects: typographers, inventors, futurist Ray Kurzweil, comedian Joe Lipari, and gigantic homophobe and National Organization for Marriage board member Orson Scott Card. When author Margaret Atwood quotes a headline from The Onion (“CIA’s ‘Facebook’ Program Dramatically Cut Agency’s Costs”), it’s like the coordinates of literature, national security, and Internet nerd culture cross in Zuckerberg’s front yard.

 

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THE SOCIAL ARTIST

Queens native Jesse Eisenberg has had quite the couple of years—from a doubleshot Golden Globe/Oscar nomination for “Best Actor” in The Social Network, where he made good use of his uncanny resemblance to Internet mogul Mark Zuckerberg, to a quiet but successful foray into playwriting Off-Broadway (Asuncion). Now Eisenberg is returning to the Cherry Lane Theatre with his second drama, The Revisionist, in which he’ll portray a struggling science fiction writer who travels to Poland and meets his 75-year-old Holocaust survivor cousin, played by the legend herself, Vanessa Redgrave. Tonight, he sits down with novelist Thane Rosenbaum to discuss his career, upcoming projects, and, really, whatever you want—questions can be submitted online before the Q&A.

Mon., Feb. 11, 8:15 p.m., 2013

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BRINGING UP BABY

Now that Facebook has decided to publish a timeline that includes all of our online goings-on since birth, we wonder what a tangible chronicle of this would look like. Enter the very pregnant artist Marni Kotak who is transforming the Microscope Gallery into a home-birth center where she will turn the birth of her baby into a work of art. Her exhibit The Birth of Baby X kicks off her long-term project “Raising Baby X,” which will document her child’s upbringing “from birth through attending college and developing an independent life,” according to her website. Starting today, she’ll be making the gallery her home as she waits for the contractions to start. Then, she’ll have her baby right there with the assistance of a midwife and a doula. As Kotak tells us, “I know it will be challenging, but I think if people give birth in the completely inhospitable environment of hospitals, hooked up to IVs and monitors, and strapped with stirrups into a bed, I can give birth in an art gallery.” We dare Mark Zuckerberg to top that!

Mondays-Sundays, 6 p.m. Starts: Oct. 8. Continues through Nov. 7, 2011

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SOCIAL ARTWORK

Jesse Eisenberg did a stellar job portraying the nerdy Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg in Social Network, perhaps because he, too, is shy and awkward. Also like Zuckerberg, Eisenberg is very charitable. Tonight, he’ll give a reading along with actress Lili Taylor at Now Showing, the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers’s fundraiser for creative scholarships. The night of lit, music, and art also includes a silent auction and the sounds of Rasputina, Max Vernon, and DJ Gilles Wasserman. We’re going simply to see if Eisenberg will showcase some more of that charming pizzazz we saw on Saturday Night Live.

Wed., March 9, 8:30 p.m., 2011

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Justin Bieber, Twitter Casanova

In 2010, the Most Popular Boy in the World floated above little-girl throngs in a metal heart. He serenaded them with love songs, danced, strummed an acoustic guitar to show he was deep, and played drums to show he was hard. At 16, he defined, as so many of these quivering admirers testified, an adolescent’s idea of “cute”: a softly symmetrical face of cushiony lips and Proactiv skin and chocolate bon-bon eyes. And he had seemingly accessible style, a multiplex-date costume of hooded sweatshirts (pristinely laundered) and matching sneakers (often deadstock-condition high-tops). The cherry on top of this dreamboat sundae was his haircut—his swoopy modern-mod-shag reverse-mullet hair!—which was such a sculptural masterpiece that cameramen would drive for miles to film him blow-drying it into shape. But what really made this particular Most Popular Boy in the World extraordinary—different from even his superlative ancestors, whom Mom and Nana still sometimes recall wistfully—was that this one didn’t come from somewhere foreign (Liverpool), domestically remote (Gary, Indiana), or supernatural (The Mickey Mouse Club). In 2010, the Most Popular Boy in the World came from somewhere close by: your computer.

Technically, Justin Bieber hails from Canada, but it hardly matters. Even the tourist alliance from his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, knows where their most famous native was actually conceived: On a map of pre-fame JB landmarks, the #1 spot is the local theater steps “where Justin used to busk (as seen on YouTube).” YouTube is hardly a parenthetical, of course. It’s the central figure in his origin story, a homespun search-engine abyss where drunken music-management bro-dude Scooter Braun discovered a clip of the then-13-year-old performing, a happy accident that snowballed into this uvula-waggling avalanche. In turn, YouTube is also Justin Bieber’s personal talent agency (where his management claims they discovered his back-up singers, Legaci), his cable station (where his videos have amassed more than one billion views), and a virtual trophy wall (where his Drake-cameo, Ludacris-abetted, bowling-party clip for mega-smash “Baby” holds the record for Most Viewed Video of All Time). The broadcast channel is also a hysterical fan-club convention, where you can see the mere thought of Justin Bieber’s existence cause a three-year-old toddler named Cody to blubber on camera—audibly boo-hoo, sniffle, shake like a mini-drunk with the DTs, etc.—which strangers have watched again and again, and in various edits, 40.3 million more agains.

In 2010, the Most Popular Boy in the World had to emerge this way. In 2006, Time magazine’s Person of the Year was the deeply lame choice “YOU,” a second-person shorthand for the seismic potential offered by user-generated portals like Wikipedia, YouTube, MySpace. But four years later, Time‘s Person of the Year is Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, an online innovator singled out not for his social-experiment invention or behemoth network, but for his overarching insight. Which is to say that it’s not simply the tools or their user mobs that ultimately alter Life As We Know It, but rather the visionaries creatively manipulating them both. And so not only is “YOUTUBE” thanked in the liner notes of Justin Bieber’s iTunes juggernaut My World 2.0, along with tributes to his 35-year-old mom, Chuck Norris, and Jesus, but so is anyone who “ever watched a video, posted a Facebook comment, a twitter [sic] or just told a friend.” In other words, literal word-of-mouth is still appreciated, but it’s a far less valuable introduction.

With 18 million Facebook fans and 6.6 million Twitter followers, Justin Bieber is the first teen idol you can stalk in real-time. The teenager announces when it’s time for bed on Twitter, ignites hormonal fires by reporting on his new suntan, and even presents a façade of accountability. (Like when @spoonswaggering demands, “Where have u been?” @JustinBieber responds, “16 year old kid on vacation. I was sleeping in. FELT AWESOME :)”) He also flirts with Raven-Symoné and schools rougher boys in Chivalry 101 (“Treat a woman right fellas. It’s about her not u”). But he never loses sight that this is a very public space, even warning a potential make-out partner on My World 2.0 bonus track “Kiss and Tell” to keep her mouth shut and her thumbs idle. (“I don’t want to see Tweet about J.B.” he warns. Oh, and “Stay off that Facebook.”) Zuckerberg has his storied Aquarium conference room; Bieber’s fishbowl is Twitter, where the Most Popular Boy in the World convenes with the Most Critically Adored Musician in the World—this year’s big Pazz & Jop winner, Kanye West, of course—to discuss the year’s Most Likely Unlikely Collaboration, West’s Raekwon-assisted remix of J.B.’s “Runaway Love.”

Time identifies Zuckerberg as “part of the last generation of human beings who will remember life before the Internet.” But Bieber’s generation won’t even remember life before social media. Which is perhaps why, according to Klout, a site that measures online influence, the Canadian teenager wields more social-media power than Barack Obama or the Dalai Lama. Yet however improbably, social media simultaneously humanizes the kid: No matter how many times “God’s greatest creation” (in the words of an actual fan-made T-shirt) performs at the White House or has middle-aged ladies tossing over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders at him in Jersey, he, too, stares into the same empty 140-character space as his fans; he, too, employs those very same @ signs to communicate. Even Mom and Nana don’t do that.

Otherwise, Bieber’s approach is all textbook pop-star seduction. Like Elvis, he makes eternal promises. Like the Beatles, money can’t buy him love. Like his hero Michael Jackson, he wants you back, oh, baby—he thought you’d always be his. And though it’s creepy to hear the Biebs adulterate females who’ve just sucked on sippy cups from their moms’ purses—”How many of you out there are single?” he sometimes asks during shows—it’s not his fault. There’s no relationship status on Facebook that reads “too young.” It was Zuckerberg who created a reality where children are single.

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Year in Film: The 2010 Voice Film Critics’ Poll

And the winner of the 11th annual Village Voice Film Critics’ Poll is . . . The Ghost Writer, Black Swan, Greenberg, Bluebeard, Mother, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Enter the Void.

Just kidding. There’s only one movie of the moment: The Social Network.

Listed on 52 of 85 ballots cast (the largest percentage of any poll-topping movie since Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven won in 2002), David Fincher’s Birth of a Cyber Nation, directed from Aaron Sorkin’s script, took the Voice poll, just as it captured critics’ awards in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston. Old media acknowledges new. The last time a newly anointed Time “Person of the Year” like Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg got the simultaneous Hollywood treatment was back in 1943 (Joe Stalin, Mission to Moscow).

Truly, 2010 was the year of the globalistic rogue—runner-up to the Zuckerberg story was Carlos, Olivier Assayas’s five-and-a-half-hour saga of the most notorious international terrorist of the 1970s, while Exit Through the Gift Shop by art-world mystery-man prankster Banksy handily won both Best Documentary (or “documentary”) and Best First Film. Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg defeated Édgar Ramírez’s Carlos for Best Actor (although in the real world, both their Google numbers combined—plus Banksy’s—are but a ridiculous fraction of the 131 million citations for global rogue Julian Assange, whose biopic is surely TK).

The poll’s top three movies all but swept the table. Sorkin overwhelmingly won for Best Screenplay; Assayas edged Fincher for Best Director. Meanwhile, third-place Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik’s indie backwoods thriller, collected a pair of awards: Feisty teenager Jennifer Lawrence pirouetted past Black Swan’s Natalie Portman for Best Actress and John Hawkes out-blustered The Fighter’s Christian Bale for Best Supporting Actor, although in the battle for Best Supporting (lowlife) Actress, Bone’s Dale Dickey lost to Animal Kingdom’s Jacki Weaver. The rest of the top 10 are a decidedly mixed bag: Roman Polanski’s absurdist political thriller The Ghost Writer finished fourth, followed by a couple of surprise foreign films, Maren Ade’s acerbic relationship comedy Everyone Else and Giorgos Lanthimos’s allegorical family drama Dogtooth. Darren Aronofsky’s madcap Black Swan came in seventh, just ahead of Alain Resnais’s even madder Wild Grass and Bong Joon-ho’s Hitchcockian murder mystery Mother, all followed by the year’s top grossing movie Toy Story 3.

The poll has a few anomalies. Three critics named movies as the year’s best that figured on no one else’s ballots: Nicholas Winding Refn’s viking fest Valhalla Rising, the documentary The Tillman Story, and Rodrigo García’s adoption drama Mother and Child. But these are proudly declared individual statements. Movies are more generally a collective art and social phenomenon. As box-office receipts measure popularity, polls manifest consensus. What’s really fascinating is intensity of feeling. Each poll has a hidden story, revealing those movies that are not only liked but really liked or even passionately lurved. Carlos may have appeared on significantly fewer ballots than The Social Network, but it garnered more first-place votes and had a higher average score. To quantify this sort of intensity, we’ve derived a primitive algorithm (factoring a movie’s average score with the percentage of voters listing it first or second) known as the Passiondex™.

Application of the Passiondex™ to movies listed by at least three critics yields a somewhat different crop of winners headed by the bleak, violent Red Riding Trilogy (#26). Substantially trailing that critical cult winner are Manoel de Oliveira’s blandly eccentric Strange Case of Angelica (#29); Carlos; Lee Chang-dong’s epic crime drama Secret Sunshine (#16); Todd Solondz’s dark comedy Life During Wartime (#34); Jessica Hausner’s deadpan religious satire Lourdes (#24); Miguel Gomes’s not-quite music doc Our Beloved Month of August (#20); Toy Story 3; and Dogtooth. (That Lourdes, Dogtooth, and Life During Wartime all received votes as the year’s worst film enhances their cult status.) Tied with Dogtooth, and just ahead of Greenberg (#18) on the pash list—The Social Network.

For the 2010 film poll results, go to villagevoice.com/filmpoll

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WHEN LIFE WAS GOOD

In 1999, Mark Zuckerberg was only 15 and still had yet to think up his Internet plan to nuke face-to-face communication while Britney Spears had everyone in a zombie trance with her “ . . . Baby One More Time” music video. Yeah, we lived in innocent times back then—so, could you really blame us for wanting to Party Like It’s 1999? The Bell House hosts the ’90s-inspired dance party, featuring the sounds of TLC, Pearl Jam, Destiny’s Child, and other nostalgic jams. Bring a photo of yourself from that era (big hair, grunge flannel, and all) and enter to win tickets to “My So Called Prom,” which is happening in February. Who knows? You just might meet your future Jordan Catalano or Angela Chase.

Thu., Dec. 30, 8 p.m., 2010

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According to The Social Network, You Are Definitely Not the Only Asshole on Facebook

The Social Network is a wonderful title, at once Olympian in its detachment and self-descriptive in its buzz. Everyone will opine (and Tweet) on this Scott Rudin–produced, Aaron Sorkin–scripted, David Fincher–directed, universally anticipated tale of Facebook’s genesis and founding genius—at least until something sexier comes along.

The main talking point is the movie’s unlovable protagonist. As written by Sorkin and played by Jesse Eisenberg, Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg is a character far more compelling than his story. Insensitive, paranoid, humorless, and implacably driven, Zuckerberg may not be the year’s most irritatingly arrogant cine sad sack, but he is the most formidable—however grandiose, neither Ben Stiller’s Greenberg nor Ron Bronstein’s Daddy Longlegs became a billionaire at age 25.

A sort of mildly autistic Sammy Glick with a grim 1,000-yard glare, Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg as the dog in the manger, keeping the audience at arm’s length while ferociously guarding his screen space against all comers. The first thing we learn about the ungainly Harvard sophomore, yammering away at his date (Rooney Mara) while hunched over a table in a crowded Boston bar, is that he scored a perfect 1600 on his SATs. The next thing is that he’s obsessed with gaining entrance into one of Harvard’s ultra-exclusive final clubs.

This pre-credit scene ends with Zuckerberg driving the fresh-faced co-ed to break up with him then and there: “You’re going to be successful and rich. But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a tech geek. I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that won’t be true: It’ll be because you’re an asshole.” Her name is “Erica,” but in the context of The Social Network, it should be “Rosebud.” Wounded Zuckerberg retreats to his dorm room and, after insulting the girl personally on his blog, avenges himself on her gender by instantly (and drunkenly) devising a website to rate all Harvard women by hotness. The site draws so much traffic from his fellow students (visualized in party-down mode as Zuck programs) that it crashes the Harvard computer system.

Erica is not impressed. (When Zuckerberg attempts a maladroit apology, she sarcastically wishes him “good luck with your video game.”) But others are, notably a supercilious pair of upper-class upperclassmen, the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer). The golden boys invite Zuckerberg into the foyer of their finalist of final clubs and enlist him in their scheme to create a Harvard-only version of then-reigning social network sites like MySpace and Friendster (“Girls want to go with guys who go to Harvard”); outsider Zuck appreciates the appeal of Crimson exclusivity and, funded by his dorm-mate, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), runs with it. Facebook is born.

The Social Network’s first act is its best—a hellishly precise youth movie rattling along on a clamor of computer jargon. Applying a Zodiac-level love of detail and subtly expressionist lighting to another sort of petri dish, Fincher produces a rich, gaseous atmosphere. His Harvard is at once cold and cozy, electric with possibility and oppressively organized according to arcane internal castes—although I have to wonder at what temperature an actual alum like Andrew Bujalski would have served this material. Suffering through “Caribbean Night” at his déclassé Jewish frat, Zuckerberg tells Saverin that they’re taking “the entire social experience of college online.” Facebook.com will be a virtual final club with them as presidents.

Difficult not to root for this graceless parvenu to overturn the system, especially since the self-entitled Winklevoss lads make even Harvard’s then-president, the execrable Larry Summers (played to the hilt by Rush Limbaugh fill-in Douglas Urbanski), look good; it’s additionally enjoyable to see Zuck blithely confound a succession of high-powered lawyers once the bamboozled Winklevosses file suit. But here, the narrative stumbles. Saverin eventually sued Zuckerberg as well and, drawing on Ben Mezrich’s novelistic history The Accidental Billionaires, itself largely dependent on Saverin’s story, Sorkin flashes forward to the discovery processes of both suits. The depositions prompt a succession of clumsy chronological, legally approved flashbacks: Zuckerberg leaves Harvard for New York and then, under the Mephistophelean influence of Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), Palo Alto. It’s there that Zuckerberg takes Facebook galactic—half a billion users, and potential movie-ticket buyers—but once the charismatic Parker appears, Fincher and Sorkin cede the film to him, along with his patsy, the pathetically duped Saverin. (“I was your only friend,” he whines as silent Zuckerberg scrunches further into his private void, wondering what it was he did.)

While Zuckerberg grows increasingly enigmatic, Parker gets to make the flashy pronouncements—“Private life is a relic of a bygone time. . . . Now we’re going to live on the Internet”—and is even credited with giving Zuckerberg the idea for his notorious business card (“I’m CEO . . . bitch”). Parker confesses that, back when he was a high school hacker, he invented Napster to impress a girl—but it’s asserted throughout the film that Zuckerberg is driven by something more than a desire for money or sex or even a monstrous sense of spite. He thinks he wants to be cool, but, like everyone else, he just wants to be loved (though he doesn’t know it). Corny as that is, the film’s nadir comes when Zuckerberg’s pretty young lawyer comforts him (or us) with the mealy-mouthed observation, “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be one.”

As dramatized in The Social Network, the story of Facebook’s founding is not unlike that of any large corporation—megalomania rewarded, sweethearts trampled, partners buggered. Zuckerberg’s real achievement, however, was something more mysterious than a 21st-century MGM or Standard Oil; he manufactured intimacy through the creation of a parallel, personalized Internet offering an ongoing second life in a virtual gated community. True to its moment, The Social Network is less interested in mapping this new system of human interaction than psychoanalyzing it through its quintessential user: Zuckerberg.

Like any form of entertainment, Facebook succeeds to the degree that it compensates people for something missing in their lives—a lost sense of neighborhood or extended family or workplace solidarity. The key insight in The Social Network is that Zuckerberg—not particularly friendly and not at all prone to sharing—created his virtual community for the same reason Kafka’s self-starved Hunger Artist found his métier: because there was never any food he liked to eat.

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The Medium Is the Message in David Fincher’s Present-Tense Social Network

Is the world moving so fast that we’re actually memorializing, in movie form, the year 2003? The events of The Social Network, the opening-night film of this year’s New York Film Festival (which we’ll review in next week’s issue), begin during the fall of that year and bring us up to the present day. Recounting the rocky rise to world domination of Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network is so of-the-moment that the White Stripes counts as a period signifier.

Fetishizing scraps of facts as if a greater truth can be found in the minute, rather than the metaphor, director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin approach the zeitgeist as a beast that’s left fresh tracks: to talk about “the way we live now,” they retrace, step by step, just how we arrived here. With actual journalism in transition—some would say in peril—dramatic films like The Social Network are in a sense filling a void left by the demolition of investigative news, taking a journalistic approach to fictionalized entertainment, constructing stories that lay out evidence, reveal sources, and respect chronology. It’s moviemaking as a magazine cover story. Like in the 1970s, another time of financial crisis and protracted military engagement, it seems things have gotten so tangled that many filmmakers can’t wait to start the untying. (See: The Queen, The Battle for Haditha, even The Hurt Locker.)

The gold standard for factually constructed, present tense filmmaking is Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men. Thirty-four years after its release, the film has lost none of its experiential punch. Made in 1976, less than two years after President Nixon’s resignation, it captured America in a different maelstrom of the present, though also dazed and confused as to how it all turned out so badly. Pakula and screenwriter William Goldman, much like Fincher, broke up a puzzling reality and put it together one piece at a time. They looked closely, embraced the banality of the workplace as a baseline, and depicted the reporting process in what seems like real-time rather than reductive montage. Woodward and Bernstein spend as much time on the phone or pecking at a typewriter as they do sneaking out for shadowy meetings with Deep Throat. Despite the fact that its revelations are no longer a national secret, All the President’s Men still works in the moment even as it’s so clearly of a moment.

(This is not often the case. As with magazine features, most movies that trade in hot-button current events have a short shelf-life. Take Oliver Stone’s recent W. While ripped from the headlines and providing a quick-draw portrait of a sitting president, W. lacked a certain journalistic vigilance—having more in common with Stone’s historical fictions J.F.K. and Nixon, films not as interested in facts as they are in psychological conjecture.)

The contemporary films that The Social Network most closely recalls are Shattered Glass (2003)—the true story of another inscrutable, morally mercurial twentysomething upstart—and Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999). Mann’s film is a pre-millennial paranoid thriller about big tobacco, corporate malfeasance, legal maneuvering, and the degraded standards of a revered news show (60 Minutes). The Insider has a gossipy, mildly salacious, behind-the-scenes quality similar to Fincher’s film, with plot points that nevertheless arise from unsexy court injunctions, editorial redactions, and cell phone conversations. As a relevant piece of factual fiction, Mann’s film rang the alarm for its late-’90s era, warning of rampant corporate power that could, and did, ensnare employees, consumers, government officials, the judiciary, and the press, a sorry state that led millions of Americans to vote for Ralph Nader in the next year’s presidential election.

More than a decade later, The Social Network shows that it’s no longer corporate entitlement that keeps us up at night (though it still should), but rather a public-sphere busting Internet. So how does one make a drama of and about the information age—an age of physical inactivity and visual inertia—move? How can you get an exciting scene out of e-mail? The truth is that it’s not really a stretch. Film is, essentially, the advance of information at a speed faster than we can process, flipping forward by frames and edited together by design. Fincher uses the rapidity of film recording to articulate the speed of media. He shoots a telephone exchange as a standard shot/reverse shot, cutting between two characters to mirror and contrast, hastening cuts as the exchange becomes clipped, creating suspense through rhythm and by simply, materially riding the waves of conversation.

Not just chronicling the times but emulating them, Fincher barely ever lets Zuckerberg be alone. Though The Social Network takes an angle on the boy billionaire, it’s not really a character study or reflective biography—it provides no back-story or psychological skeletons upon which to flesh out a narrative. This is, both out of choice and necessity, an of-the-moment impression, without the traditional biopic over-reach. If anything, Zuckerberg is a composite hastily and self-servingly sketched, a model and martyr for the true present, a man without privacy and yet unknowable.
Without the luxury/constraints of hindsight or historical context, Fincher and Sorkin’s story builds power through distance, through a strictly objective eye, as if the film were capturing rather than making a reality. (Of course, it’s doing the latter: Just as our collective memory of Watergate includes Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, so will we look back on Generation Facebook with a vision of Jesse Eisenberg in a hoodie and shower shoes.) Like All the President’s Men, The Social Network doesn’t will meaning onto the material, but allows meaning to arise from accumulated circumstance. In other words, The Social Network succeeds, per journalism’s most basic directive, in showing not telling. And like great journalism, a great film can capture the reality of the present—and even make art out of it.