Times are tough for the world's youngest-ever billionaire. An unflattering biopic, David Fincher's The Social Network—which portrays Mark Zuckerberg as a socially awkward, pathologically jealous loser and backstabber—opens this Friday, Oct. 1, ushering in another round of press debating Facebook's controversial origins and even more controversial effect on our social relations.
Facebook hates this film, just as it hates the book on which it was based, Ben Mezrich's novelistic The Accidental Billionaires, and according to The New York Times lobbied unsuccessfully for substantial changes to the film. But what can you do about a film whose first scene ends with the CEO of your billion-dollar company being called an "asshole" by the woman dumping him, and whose entire two-hour plot seems devoted to proving her right?
The buzz around The Social Network is huge. The film's screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), and two cast members, including Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Zuckerberg, recently came through the Triangle to promote the film on college campuses. Promotional tours never hurt, but in this case, it may not be necessary: The Social Network debuted to a rare "100 percent fresh" rating at RottenTomatoes.com, with comparisons to such epoch-defining films as All the President's Men, Network, The Graduate and even Citizen Kane and The Godfather. The film is, in fact, good—though surely not Godfather good—and I'd suggest that at least some of these reviewers are just happy to see a film that can begin to explain the radically transformed social relations of Facebook America.
It's gotten so big that Zuckerberg's had to go on Oprah to announce a $100 million donation to Newark public schools just to get some good press. Even Greenpeace has gotten into the act, recently releasing a video criticizing Facebook for relying on coal to power its Oregon data center and asking us to "unfriend" coal.
All this comes in the context of increasingly worrying Facebook "privacy" policies and new applications that reveal more and more about your profile to third parties than ever before. Forget embarrassing photographs and drunken late-night status updates that go out to everyone you know—that's the least of your worries. Last December, and then again in the spring, Facebook reset its privacy policies, making your information public and Google-searchable by default; these days actually making your information stay private takes multiple attempts in hidden settings, which seem to periodically reset themselves again to "public" without your consent or knowledge. When Facebook Places—a location-sharing service similar to foursquare—went live last spring, my newsfeed was quickly filled with links to ways to shut it off. It seems that half the Web now quietly accesses your profile through the Facebook Connect application to "personalize" your browsing experience.
In one widely distributed column, Ryan Singel of Wired suggested that "Facebook's gone rogue" and called for an open-source alternative; sadly, the one serious attempt at an open-source alternative I know about, Diaspora, seems to be mostly vaporware, and in any event is no match for Facebook, which, with 600 million users, now counts roughly one-tenth of the world's population as its membership (and shows no sign of slowing down).
These so-called privacy fails, when they erupt every few months, lead to widespread threats to quit the service—though, it should be said, I'm not aware of a single person from my friend list who has actually done so. Even calling these moments "fails" misrepresents the basic commercial relationship between the Facebook user and Facebook, Inc.; as was the case with radio and broadcast television and free alt-weekly newspapers, you are not Facebook's customer but Facebook's product. You—your attention, your "likes" and dislikes, your social network, your inner life—are what Facebook sells to make its money.
Facebook's efforts to mitigate the effects of The Social Network with its own public relations initiative have, at times, backfired. In an interview with The New Yorker widely linked all over the Internet, Zuckerberg confirmed, among other things, the following IM exchange from 2004, when he was just starting out in his Harvard dorm room:
ZUCK: yea so if you ever need info about anyone at harvard
ZUCK: just ask
ZUCK: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns
FRIEND: what!? how'd you manage that one?
ZUCK: people just submitted it
ZUCK: i don't know why
ZUCK: they "trust me"
ZUCK: dumb fucks
Another story, this one in Business Insider, details how Zuckerberg used the prototype Facebook site he developed at Harvard, TheFacebook.com, to hack into the e-mail addresses of several Harvard Crimson reporters and editors.
Surely we've picked the right man to entrust with the most intimate details of our lives.
But Facebook's massive transformative effect is much larger than just the fear that Mark Zuckerberg is right about how dumb we are to trust him. I don't think anyone has fully processed how fundamentally strange it is that I know what a person I didn't especially like when I was in fourth grade, who now lives on the other side of the world, had for breakfast this morning, as well as what they're watching on TV and whether or not they're currently attached. Or how strange it is for me to have a permanent open window into the lives not just of close friends but everyone, all the time, including the person I met once at a conference three years ago, my brother's ex, and the second cousin I don't like to see at weddings.
Of course, there's something wonderful about this digital network, but there's also something deeply terrible: Our lives have become a high-school reunion that never ends, and never even moves past that awkward "So, what are you doing now?" stage of catching up. It's a strange thing, knowing on a superficial level what everyone else is up to all the time—and sharing the same sorts of things yourself, without meaning to, without even really questioning if you want to or if you should.
For my former students and my younger cousins this all seems perfectly natural. There are media reports that for some high schoolers, Facebook works like AOL did back in the 1990s, as e-mail, as browser, as instant-message service and as search engine. That is, many younger people don't use Facebook on the Internet so much as they use the Internet on Facebook. My 16-year-old cousin has 513 friends, 33 more than me, and probably something close to every person she has ever met. Some days she posts deeply personal information about her boyfriend or parents or just her angst-y feelings about school that I feel embarrassed to admit I've read.
I wonder, in the end, if there isn't something to Google chief executive Eric Schmidt's half-serious idea that everyone be given a new name when they turn 18, to keep their youthful indiscretions youthful and discreet. But even that won't be much help when your mom, your former co-worker and your fifth-grade crush have been reading all along, can see just what sort of party you were at last night, just what you think about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and each can leave a comment if they want. We've forgotten why we invented blinds for windows, why peepholes on doors look out, not in.
Weird as it is, warts and all, I find the strange new intimacies of Facebook impossible to resist. Maybe what keeps us signing on and beaming our status updates out into the cloud is precisely that exhibitionist thrill of never being quite alone. In The Social Network, the fictional Mark Zuckerberg describes Facebook as the digital extension of the undergraduate social experience, the best of busy dormitory life distilled into computer code. On his Facebook page, in the box labeled "Write something about yourself," the real Mark Zuckerberg describes himself this way: "I'm trying to make the world a more open place by helping people connect and share." Among his personal interests he lists "openness" and "making things that help people connect and share what's important to them."
In those probably-focus-tested terms, Facebook doesn't seem so bad at all—it sounds a bit like Utopia, like a high-tech return to the intimacies of village life (or, for that matter, the intimacies of the college dorm). That's the paradox, I think, at the heart of Facebook America: The nation that for the last 50 years has defined its "dream" as a house in the suburbs where no one can bother you is now, unexpectedly, spending more and more of its spare time letting everybody back in.