Citizen Zuckerberg: Social Networks and Social Capital

Dear readers,

I’m delighted to announce my return to blogging, in honor of the release of The Social Network, and in collaboration with petitpoussin, who will also be blogging the film this week or else owes me six re-tweets.


Here’s a man who might have been President. He’s been loved and hated and talked about as much as any man in our time – but when he comes to die, he’s got something on his mind called “Rosebud.” What does that mean?
-Citizen Kane

[Bourdieu] defines social capital as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition.” His treatment of the concept is instrumental, focusing on the advantages to possessors of social capital and the “deliberate construction of sociability for the purpose of creating this resource.”
-Wikipedia, “Social Capital”


So Aaron Sorkin sat down to write the screenplay for The Social Network, and he accidentally wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane. It’s not really his fault — if he hadn’t imposed Welles’s structure on Mark Zuckerberg’s story, the film would have been so staggeringly undramatic in structure that audiences would have left the theaters utterly bewildered. By “undramatic,” I mean that this film is entirely about a group of Harvard students and how much each of them were paid in legal settlements or shares in Facebook. Andrew Garfield is cast as Eduardo Severin (playing Joseph Cotten playing Kane’s betrayed friend Jedediah Leland), and he was paid an “undisclosed amount” plus official recognition on the Facebook “About Us” page. The Winklevoss twins and a guy named Divya are paid $65 million for having come up with the idea for Facebook, which Zuckerberg then stole and implemented better than they could. Justin Timberlake, playing Sean Parker (a much more glamorous version of Kane’s business manager Bernstein), maintains a seven percent share of the company as his reward for securing investment capital and upping the site’s coolness quotient.

The “Rosebud” element of the plot is provided by Erica Albright, who (according to the film) was one of Zuckerberg’s few girlfriends and who dumps him in the film’s first couple minutes. In the last third of the movie, Sorkin suggests that Zuckerberg created Facebook in order to re-connect with Erica, and in the final scene he is plugged into a laptop at a law office, long past closing time, refreshing her Facebook page to see if she has accepted his friend request. (Apparently, he doesn’t have a working email account.) In other words, despite his fame and fortune, he is still trying to re-capture the vanished moment with Erica when he was truly happy.

This version of Zuckerberg’s story doesn’t fit with the story presented earlier in the same movie. At the beginning of the film, it’s obvious that from Zuckerberg’s point of view, Erica is the best he can do at that moment — she’s the best girlfriend he can buy with his existing amount of social capital, and actually he’s probably getting her at a bargain, which is why he’s sad when she breaks up with him. We don’t know for certain that Zuckerberg would dump her for Paris Hilton, but we do know that he expects her to follow him into the Harvard “social clubs” and anything else that will improve her station. Furthermore, although he later tells Sean that he created Facebook to impress Erica, he actually creates Facemash (a “hot or not” site that launches him on the Harvard Internet) in order to distract himself from melancholy thoughts about being dumped.

The reason, then, why Sorkin introduces this incongruous change-of-direction is to help build the case that Zuckerberg isn’t “an asshole.” After all, he can’t be an asshole if, deep down, he’s a hopeless romantic still pining for his freshman sweetheart. In addition, he’s not an asshole because, unlike Sean, he doesn’t commit statutory rape or gloat about Eduardo’s (temporary) downfall. If we’re still not convinced, Sorkin gives Rashida Jones a closing monologue in which she tells Zuckerberg he’s “not an asshole,” even though he’d really like to be one.

The word “asshole,” like the word “douchebag,” is one of those generic social epithets that is currently resonant with meanings, but that is also sort of elusive. It seems to refer, especially in this movie, to an amoral person who views other people in an instrumental and condescending way. This seems like a very bad thing, yet the movie demurs. Is Sean Parker an “asshole”? He sleeps with some random Stanford co-ed, but she shrieks like a Beatles fan when she finds out who he is. He invents Napster, without which all of us non-assholes would be forced to buy the entire Cee-Lo album, rather than just downloading his magnanimous new single “Fuck You (For Erica Albright)” for 99 cents. Parker also helps take Facebook into the stratosphere while Eduardo is still dicking around in the offices of New York ad execs.

Moreover, are the Winklevosses and Divyas of the world really assholes? Sure, they try to capitalize on Harvard’s prestige and exclusivity, and they enjoy the advantages of privilege, but they’re also smart enough to hire Zuckerberg and to offer him access to their world. They believe, at least to some extent, that the elite members of society should adhere to a code of noble conduct, which is probably why they settled for $65 million, a ridiculously small amount of money considering the stakes.

The film portrays both Erica and Eduardo as true “non-assholes,” which I have to question. Eduardo contributes absolutely nothing besides money to Facebook; he certainly deserves a return on his investment, but if the film’s facts are correct, he’s no more a “co-founder” than any of the later investors. It appears that he gets the settlement that rightfully belongs to the Winklevii, and vice versa. Even the algorithm he contributes to is just a version of the one used to produce rankings in chess.

More importantly, by the end of the film, Erica has apparently signed up for Facebook. This is the most outrageous action undertaken by any character in the film, and frankly I’m surprised that a caption didn’t appear to the effect of “Erica Albright also reached a settlement agreement with Zuckerberg whereby she would join his Facebook site when 63% of her friends had created profiles.” After all, Facebook represents everything, as a social technology, that Erica criticizes Zuckerberg for in person. Whether or not she accepts his friend request is irrelevant — even by not accepting his friend request, she is making an established move within the system that Facebook uses for ascribing social value to persons.

This is the real message of The Social Network. What matters is not whether you are an asshole, but how much symbolic social value you are capable of creating. This is a point best illustrated by the film’s (offhandedly misogynistic) treatment of women. At the beginning of the film, we learn from Zuckerberg’s LiveJournal that Erica only appears to have a C-cup because she’s getting “help from our friends at Victoria’s Secret.” What seems like a throwaway line returns with a vengeance near the end, when Zuckerberg tells Parker that his girlfriend seems very familiar. Parker replies that she seems familiar to a lot of people, because she’s a model for Victoria’s Secret. He follows this up with a monologue about how one man’s private desire to “buy thigh-highs” for his wife spawns an empire of lingerie stores, going public in every sense. Consider the chain reaction: not only is Parker, socially speaking, getting help from our friends at Victoria’s Secret, but even Zuckerberg is now clubbing with a guy who is dating a Victoria’s Secret model, something that becomes valuable as soon as he’s aware of it. It goes without saying that if she merely looked like some particular Victoria’s Secret model, but hadn’t herself appeared in the catalog, her value would be much less.

In many cases, the leap from the symbolic to the real never happens. At Harvard, to prove to us that the social clubs really do offer wicked delights, Fincher shows us college girls stripping down to their underwear and making out with each other on tables, a set-up based on (and foreshadowing) the go-go dancers atop platforms at the club where Sean and Zuckerberg discuss Victoria’s Secret. (The situation of the film’s audience is pretty hilarious: we’re vicarious observers of a scene played by actresses in which they pretend to be college students pretending to be strippers pretending to be lovers for the benefit of other college students pretending to be CEOs.) None of this is an actual romantic or sexual relationship, obviously. It’s the symbolic synthesis of money, sex, and power, and while it may seem a million miles away from today’s updates to your Facebook feed, those updates are your way of knowing how your stocks are doing. The precedent for the “Facebook feed” is the old chattering spool of ticker tape, and most of the updates there will be attempts by Facebook users to assure you that your investment is doing well.

In other words, the subtext of an update like “Made sixteen cubes of mint-infused butter brickle today. Yum! Excited to serve at the party tonight” is usually something like this: “Fun little informal gatherings are always going on around here. I have enough leisure for demanding cooking projects, and I’m a bit of a homebody, in a delightful and comforting way. I also am not immune to pleasure, and can appreciate the orgasms implicit in a well-made dessert.”

This truth was brought home to me when I discovered, earlier this week, that an old college friend had de-friended me on Facebook. The strangest thing about the discovery was how apparently meaningless it was. It doesn’t significantly affect my total number of friends. It doesn’t really affect my social life, since we haven’t talked very much in the past few years, and (out of politeness) I probably wouldn’t stay with him even if I traveled to the city where he lives. It carries some of the force of a denunciation, but since he never contacted me about it, the message is too vague to provoke much reflection on my part. In short, the only way to think about his move is as a cancellation, by him, of his investment in me, and a surrender of whatever dividends that investment might ultimately pay. This enables him to put more of his attention elsewhere.

Another way to think about it is this: I recently joined petitpoussin in playing a game called Echo Bazaar, which is basically a Web-based steampunk role-playing game. Your character’s available moves gradually refresh over time, but you can also refresh them instantly by purchasing actions or else by “echoing” something from the game on Twitter and Facebook. I’ve only “echoed a snippet” from the game once, because I’m keenly aware that doing so is bad for the character (a Level 6 Bohemian) called “Joseph Kugelmass” that I maintain on those two social networking sites. It’s just not very cool to let yourself be a shill, and I thought less of every friend who sent me a link to the Whole Foods Facebook page, even though I like both steampunk and whole foods. Accordingly, the site compensates me for this loss of value, and because you can purchase Echo Bazaar actions with real money, I now know exactly how much one of my tweets is worth.

Two dollars and fifty cents.

How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?
How often have you been there?
Often enough to know.
What did you see when you were there?
Nothing that doesn’t show.