You Can't Handle the Veritas
What Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher get wrong about Harvard—and Facebook.
Also in Slate, Dana Stevens reviews The Social Network. Luke O'Brien details the factual inaccuracies in The Social Network's depiction of Zuckerberg and Facebook's history. Plus: Predict how much the movie will earn at the box office.
In Sorkin-Fincher Land, where character is mostly a function of vector and velocity, this is no mean problem. The movie dwells at length on the university's so-called final clubs, essentially long-standing nonresidential fraternities that style themselves as faux-patrician, culturally retrograde social spaces. (They are unrecognized by the university after refusing to go coeducational in the 1980s.) In Sorkin's script, the final clubs are a necessary gateway to proper social life and influence in college—which lets the movie throw itself in line with, and fall back on, decades of cinematic ideation about the social exclusivity of the Ivy League. In truth, those clubs were seen as basically vestigial curios, removed from the main artery of the school's cultural life: The notion that a crack Web programmer in 2003 would find his future blocked off by their fusty gatekeeping is risible. So, for that matter, is the movie's much more general implication that the Georgian halls, the snooty clubs, and the frequent semiformal wear composed an earnest ecosystem that Zuckerberg's own "social network" was vying with.
In point of fact, those old-Ivy brocades felt, to those of us who sometimes took them up, posed and false. Suites in dormitories that had once been built to house a single well-heeled Harvard man had long since been reapportioned to hold as many kids as possible. Students based in these dowdy halls would sometimes explain, between cockroach plagues, that living there made them feel part of the tradition of "old Harvard." It has long been the university's business to cultivate a nostalgic impulse toward this Elysian place, "old Harvard," and my generation of students was by no means the first to land on campus with a fixed and highly cinematic notion about what the Ivy League entailed. We may have been among the first, though, to have felt not much more than a summer-stock performer's intimacy with the script at hand.
Facebook, in those days called the Facebook, didn't rise as a scrappy force trying to conquer a patrician culture. That culture was already dead. Its rituals were theater. Any paths that may once have existed were now overgrown or paved and clotted with pedestrians all headed to the promised land. "Where is this old-boy network everyone is always talking about?" I once heard a socially adept and pristinely credentialed senior, trying for an internship, cry in a now-fluorescent-lit room in a hallowed building. The implication was that where it really mattered (mattered, at least, to the kind of hyperambitious upstart whose identity is predicated on a plan to, for instance, enter the White House), Harvard's cinematic Ivy League-dom was a hollow promise. A young person in 2002 did not, I suspect, have to attend a fancy East Coast college to come of age with a looming terror that the rites of high achievement were becoming far more sacramental than significant. Attending a school like Harvard did, however, make certain things stand in relief. One thing that stood out for me, that first fall of 2002, was that the song most often playing at the parties, the apparent soundtrack of our generation's independence, was a hit released 13 and a half years earlier, as a 7-inch single, by Madonna.
There was a sense in 2002 and 2003, in other words, that as a group of people on the verge of cultural maturity, we had little of our own with which to lay claim to the moment—besides, maybe, the social bonds and shorthand that arose from all being in this place together. That is the real beginning of Facebook's rise and the useful measure of Mark Zuckerberg's brilliance. What's often overlooked in recent talk of the Facebook founder's "robot" stiffness or bizarre, officious ideas about online privacy is what a canny and receptive cultural reader he was. Zuckerberg visited many of those Madonna-scored parties, too. Zuckerberg always seemed to be interested when you talked to him. Zuckerberg once told a mutual friend that he was not, and would never be, the best programmer around but that he had a knack for coming up with ideas that fit the moment and could carry. Which is to say that, in a class of some 1,600 students largely trying to follow dutifully the paths of alumni who'd grown into great men and women,Zuckerberg was one of a few among us actually thinking like an intellectually mature, creative person in his moment.
Sorkin and Fincher get this at a surface level, but beyond that surface, their account of Facebook's origins and rise is maddeningly generic. We seem to be meant to think that Zuckerberg grew and administered a global communications network in order to prove his power to a couple of blazer-wearing kids who cold-shouldered him once during college (or else, maybe, to get with the hot babes who, in the movie, frequent Cambridge and the tech industry as if a Miller High Life ad might break out any moment). We are told that people liked Facebook because it took "the entire experience of college," especially the exclusive final clubs, and transferred it online. This is a bit like saying books caught on because they put the whole experience of talking onto paper. What Facebook really gave us, for better or worse, was a new social and intellectual culture that we could claim, finally, as our own. During its early rise, the site allowed the social flavor of the Ivy League to include more than just playing dress-up and pretend. (We now played those games online, as our own.) These days, it's helped open a large, uncharted territory for a generation whose world first seemed, in many ways, competitively tighter and more predetermined than ever. There is the story of a kind of revolution here. It's just a shame The Social Network tells it in the style of the old regime.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.
Still from The Social Network by Merrick Morton © 2009 Columbia Tristar Marketing Group. All rights reserved.