The Lonely Network

Adam Golub
Image via CrunchBase

The great irony of the Oscar-nominated film The Social Network is that its central theme is not connectivity but disconnection – a film about the genesis of a technology designed to bring people closer together features a main character who experiences the painful dissolution of social bonds.

The plot is driven by protagonist Mark Zuckerberg’s exclusion from social groups, the end of his romantic relationship, and the collapse of his close friendship. This sense of disconnection is pervasive despite the fact that The Social Network is a crowded movie: characters are almost never seen alone (only when they are individually “wired in” to their computer screens), and certainly never seen enjoying a moment of quiet solitude. Instead, the characters are regularly packed together in small places—a legal office, a dorm room—or in big, loud impersonal places—a nightclub, a drunken party. But these spaces, despite their capacities, are repeatedly portrayed as lonely and alienating.

While the characters may inhabit a decidedly unsocial non-network beneath a façade of constant social interaction, the film itself serves as a remarkably vibrant cultural network. For the student of American culture, The Social Network is a fountainhead of intertextuality. Perhaps appropriate for a film about Facebook, The Social Network functions as a busy crossroads of cultural referents, many readily recognizable, others unstated but nevertheless present. The movie obviously plays on our familiarity with Facebook, but it is also features appearances by Bill Gates and the creator of Napster (as portrayed by actors), a musical score by industrial rock luminary Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and a Harvard setting (even though campus scenes were mostly filmed at The Johns Hopkins University). It is also directed by David “Fight Club” Fincher and written by Aaron “West Wing” Sorkin. One of the students on Zuckerberg’s Facebook team is portrayed by Joseph Mazzello, the actor who starred as the little boy Tim Murphy in Jurassic Park. In other words, what is really “social” about The Social Network is the way in which it serves as a pulsating intersection for a range of icons, myths, and expressive forms that circulate in the audience’s collective imagination. It is populated by cultural detritus and ephemera with which we are friendly, if you will.

I imagine these multiple and varied cultural associations may in part explain the source of the film’s pleasure for viewers. The experience of viewing The Social Network is akin to data-mining. It rewards a 21st century audience accustomed to scanning mounds of digital information and quickly categorizing that information into familiar frames of reference. For example, the brief appearance of Bill Gates evokes our Horatio Alger myth of success and the American dream. The presence of Sean Parker of Napster infamy conjures associations with the lone rebel, hacking the system and sticking it to the man. And Zuckerberg himself comes across as a nerd pulling one over on the Olympic jocks.

Reznor’s musical score triggers memories of his earlier work on such Nine Inch Nails albums as Pretty Hate Machine (1989). That record opens with the line, “god money I’ll do anything for you/god money just tell me what you want me to,” and builds to the chorus, “head like a hole/black as your soul/I’d rather die/than give you control.” Pretty Hate Machine, with its loud synthesizers, drum machines, and vocal wails, is not unlike The Social Network: an expression of male adolescent angst and rage confined inside an electronic world.

And there are still other resonances: Fincher’s directorship reminds us of his previous explorations of masculinity and antisocial behavior in Fight Club, The Game and Zodiac. Sorkin’s dialogue echoes the brainy loquaciousness of the political characters he developed for the television show The West Wing. Nearly twenty years ago, in Jurassic Park, actor Mazzello played a child victimized by a technology abused and gone awry.

As I watched The Social Network, I even found correspondences with The Lonely Crowd (1950), the sociological study of “other-directed” social character that became a bestseller in postwar America. Co-authored by David Riesman and his team, the book argues that Americans are increasingly motivated by the need for peer acceptance. More and more, our “inner gyroscope” is set in motion not by individualistic self-reliance, but by the drive to win approval and fit in. Consequently, our time is spent trying to decode what is popular and adjust our personalities accordingly: “The other-directed person acquires an intense interest in the ephemeral tastes of ‘the others’… the other-directed child is concerned with learning from these interchanges whether his radar equipment is in proper order” (74). What is The Social Network if not a depiction of a lonely crowd? Indeed, isn’t Facebook itself a kind of lonely crowd?

I can’t help but wonder if this way of reading the movie—this pleasurable scanning of its cultural allusions—in some way works to conceal its underlying critique of 21st century connectivity. The film’s central theme of social dissolution is undercut by its teeming network of familiar, friendly signifiers. Its “ephemeral tastes.” Yet we are “friends” with these signifiers in as much as we are “friends” with hundreds of people on Facebook—another text, by the way, that we scan with the same data-mining mindset. As portrayed in The Social Network, Facebook doesn’t really bring people closer together in any meaningful way; it facilitates casual hook-ups in bar bathrooms, or it breeds addiction, as one character confesses, or it quickly delivers trivial information like the results of a crew boat race. You would think The Social Network, with its depiction of Zuckerberg and his creation, would compel a mass exodus from Facebook, or at least spark critical public reflection on our complicity with this technology of the lonely crowd. But instead it rewards and reinforces our ways of reading: our ingrained habits of consuming images, scanning information, reducing human experience to pannable nuggets of gold.