The Social Network was a movie of its time, for its time – and as it turns out, for our time, too. Adapted from Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction novel The Accidental Billionaires, this 2010 drama recast the founding of Facebook as a modern-day tragedy, with the social media giant’s controversial co-founder Mark Zuckerberg serving as its flawed protagonist.
But screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher did more than just add a Shakespearean spin to the events depicted in The Social Network. Crucially, they also used Facebook’s origin story – and Zuckerberg’s character arc – to explore the paradox at the heart of all social media that was only just starting to emerge at the time: the more connected we become, the more isolated we feel.
Along the way, Fincher and Sorkin also touched on everything from the rapid growth of the tech start-up industry, the ugly side of unchecked entrepreneurial drive and even toxic masculinity and class warfare. In short: they didn’t just make a film that spoke to audiences in 2010 – they created the perfect parable (and geeky anti-hero) for today, as well.
Why The Social Network is more relevant than ever
It’s easy to miss The Social Network’s deeper themes and enduring relevance. Between Sorkin’s signature snappy dialogue – delivered with relish by stars Jessie Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake, all on career-best form – Fincher’s virtuoso directing and the twitchy, abrasive, paranoid melancholia of that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score, the flick offers more than enough superficial charms to keep us entertained.
Yet The Social Network is more than just a well-crafted cinematic snapshot of life in 2010; it’s a time telescope – a viewfinder through which Fincher and Sorkin allowed audiences to glimpse the Millennial generation’s whole future a decade early.
Think about it: everything The Social Network deals with is more relevant now than it was then.
In 2010, Zuckerberg was still thought of as trailblazer when the film arrived in theatres. Now? Tech start-ups are a dime a dozen – heck, The Social Network is directly responsible for some of them even existing in the first place!
The idea of tech entrepreneurs enjoying rock star status has also never been more credible, while the movie’s depiction of Facebook’s evolution from a (relatively) well-intentioned start-up into a decidedly less benign corporate animal foreshadows contemporary concerns around the influence exerted by social media giants on the world stage so accurately it’s uncanny.
The ineffable tension arising from this last point – the growing vibe that the ascent of Zuckerberg and Facebook will have untold, potentially dangerous ramifications – gradually builds over the course of The Social Network’s 120-minute runtime, before finally paying off during the film’s low-key denouement.
Here, we realise that it doesn’t matter if Zuckerberg wins any of the lawsuits that have ostensibly been the focus of the entire narrative. He’s amassed so much wealth and influence that there are no consequences for him (and by extension, Facebook), now or – most chillingly of all – ever again.
Mark Zuckerberg: an anti-hero for our times
All of which brings us neatly to Zuckerberg himself, who – as envisioned by Fincher and Sorkin, and played by Eisenberg – is arguably the perfect anti-hero for 2020; an enfant terrible who embodies the best and worst of who we are and what we aspire to.
And make no mistake: there’s plenty to admire about The Social Network’s take on Zuckerberg. Blessed with prodigious brainpower and near-superhuman self-motivation, he’s the poster child for the current crop of entrepreneurs and how they hope to change their world.
An upstart rule-breaker out of step with (and openly contemptuous of) established social norms, Zuckerberg also reflects the current anti-establishment, “question everything” zeitgeist among today’s young people.
Then there’s his jaw-dropping accomplishments. By the time the credits roll, Zuckerberg is famous, filthy rich, and free to do whatever he wants; in a nutshell, he’s living the Millennial Dream.
At the same time, as befits the lead part in an epic tragedy, the Zuckerberg presented by Fincher and Sorkin is hobbled by a fatal flaw: his crippling insecurity.
Ironically, this all-consuming need to prove that he’s good enough – to business partners Eduardo Saverin and Sean Parker, to upper crust rivals the Winklevoss twins, and most of all, to ex-girlfriend Erica Albright – is both the key to his ongoing material success and the cause of his eventual emotional and spiritual downfall. What’s more, how this need expresses itself reflects the darker aspects of the post-social media era.
See, Zuckerberg’s insecurity is itself laced with simmering rage over his feelings of inadequacy and (figurative) impotence. He doesn’t just need to show the world how worthy he is – true to form where toxic masculinity is concerned, he has to tear down any individual or institution who challenges this worthiness, no matter how unwittingly.
In other words, he’s a stand-in for online trolls and demagogues, his reflexive, acid-tongued responses to any potential threat to his fragile male ego symbolic of the vitriolic invective that dominates every major social media platform these days.
And like these venomous online commentators, when you get right down to it, the Zuckerberg of The Social Network is a guy railing against the very outsider status he actively cultivates for himself. He desperately craves the power and popularity of the very people and elite establishments he claims to disdain, and secretly longs for the kind of intimate relationships he’s not emotionally equipped to sustain.
Ultimately, then, Zuckerberg is emblematic of more than just our digital dreams and nightmares in 2010 – he’s the personification of what happens now that they’ve all come true, and he carries the emotional scars to prove it.
The Social Network 2.0 – the end is nigh?
Sorkin recently reiterated his interest in reteaming with Fincher to develop a sequel to The Social Network that would dive headfirst into something that (as mentioned earlier) lurks on the fringes of film’s narrative: the unexpected consequences of Facebook’s prosperity.
To hear Sorkin talk, he and Fincher underestimated the dangers presented by the social networking giant’s global reach – specifically, the very real threat it poses to democracy itself – something he’s eager to rectify, if he can only cajole his director buddy into taking part.
Could The Social Network 2.0 have the same impact as its predecessor, though – could Fincher and Sorkin prove equally prophetic the second time around? Will they make a movie that doesn’t just reflect the world as it is today, but also predicts how it will look tomorrow, like they did with The Social Network? That seems like a tall order.
But then, if the outlook really is as bad as Sorkin says it is, humanity might not last long enough to find out anyway…