Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor
In our newest column, CC2K’s Pop Culture Professor Anastasia Salter slices her soul on the cutting edge of what’s next, and distills what she finds for us here.
This week, she examines the phenomenon of the social network.
Every now and then, someone likes to declare that social media is a performance like it’s a revelation. Aaron Sorkin has succumbed to the temptation a few times during his press tour for his new move The Social Network, including while trading wisecracks with Stephen Colbert. “Socializing on the Internet is to socializing what Reality TV is to reality,” he explained, adding that he’s not one for these social networks himself. “I’ll call somebody and say I ate a good cupcake today,” he told Stephen, and I couldn’t help but wince at that–I tweeted about Mint Milano cookies the other day, and I’m pretty sure that’s just as bad. Was it a performance? Well, I suppose it sends a message to anyone who thinks I’m on a diet, or maybe I’m playing out the role of the overworked young professor who doesn’t have time to leave campus for lunch (It seems true, but maybe that’s not the point).
I confess that I adore Aaron Sorkin’s work, all of it, with the unconditional love I reserve for writers like Gore Vidal, Kevin Smith, or Joss Whedon–they are so often on target that I am inclined to turn a blind eye even when they miss the mark. And it would be easy to accuse Sorkin of missing the point of social media in his latest film. Several have joined the crusade already, explaining that Sorkin is anti-geek, anti-innovation, a voice of old media come to mock the children building the new. “I’m worried about an entire building full of people who know how to hack in to my hard drive and put child porn there”, Sorkin commented in response to Colbert’s suggestion that Zuckerberg might not be thrilled with his portrayal. After seeing the movie, I’m not sure Zuckerberg has much to complain about. There’s an allure to Sorkin’s version of Mark Zuckerberg, and I walked out of the theatre largely on his side. It wasn’t just that he was perfectly witty, staring down obnoxious lawyers and entitled well-to-do Harvard boys with trademark Sorkin dialogue at his command. It didn’t hurt that he was played by Jesse Eisenberg or that Justin Timberlake presented a beautiful foil in his over the top but charming portrayal of the Napster co-founder. (In fact, if anyone gets to be offended, Sean Parker probably has a point or two.)
There are some anti-geek elements even I’ll admit to–worst of all, why must Zuckerberg’s innovative ideas be reduced as merely a reaction to not being able to have the girl of his dreams? As the New Yorker profile on Zuckerberg notes, there is another girl in Zuckerberg’s life, his live-in girlfriend. Zuckerberg’s not the first victim of Hollywood lonely geek syndrome–the sequence where John Nash as played by Russell Crowe creates a new theory in mathematics to try to have success picking up girls at a bar is equally painful. But none of Zuckerberg’s moping over women undercuts the significance of what he invented: whether Aaron Sorkin likes Facebook or not, his film does not deny its significance. Of course, that significance may well be what people are afraid of.
Sorkin shows Zuckerberg’s embarrassing beginnings with Facemash, a Hot or Not esque site for ranking Harvard girls (and not, admittedly, a project that helps the desperate geek image much). He got his images through hacking into house “facebooks” where the images were already (somewhat) available, and ended up issuing an apology when Harvard didn’t find the whole thing funny. Sorkin’s movie suggests that was a night of mingled genius and shame: a drunken Zuckerberg blogs about a break-up in vicious terms in a space that feels private but is of course all-too public. When Harvard ordered the Facemash site taken down, the real life Zuckerberg apologized saying that “Issues about privacy don’t seem to be surmountable.” Of course, as any Facebook user who has checked their privacy settings lately knows, Zuckerberg of today seems to have found a way to surmount them.
Sorkin’s film was only one of the places where I found myself contemplating Facebook this weekend. I attended an unconference, Archiving Social Media, organized by George Mason University and the University of Mary Washington on Friday. It turned out to be a particularly bad weekend to be talking about social media and privacy, with the stories of YouTube caused teen suicide hitting the web and a side discussion on Twitter wondering about kids who are growing up leaving their marks all over the Internet in ways that might never fade away. A possible solution came up. Just change your name at 18. This, apparently, was the Google CEO’s bright idea:
“He predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.” Google CEO Eric Schmidt
I’m with those who disagree with the Google CEO–respectfully. Yes, I wrote plenty of silly things on the Internet when I was a kid, and they’re thankfully harder to tie to my name now thanks to an alias I used for such things. I’ve also probably written plenty of things in my twenties that I won’t love having come up on a Google search in my thirties. (And indeed, perhaps this will be one of them!) At 26, I’m a little less likely to commit career suicide via Facebook post than I was at 16, but still a long ways from infallible. There’s no magical age for becoming less stupid, and I’ve still lost my temper.
I’ve been a victim of my own–and other’s–social network stupidity before. Not as long ago as I’d like, when AIM was cool and I thought I’d be a lawyer, I got myself thrown off a team for posting an away message saying the coach could go to hell. I was an idiot–even if I had a right to be angry at the man. Mark Zuckerberg knows a few things about being that kind of idiot too, if the IMs the media has attributed to him of late mean anything. Here’s one of the highlights: “They ‘trust’ me. Dumb fucks.” Makes me proud to be a Facebook member.
Of course, Zuckerberg was young then. And now, he’s got a box-office topping Hollywood film to remind him of some of the things he did “back then”–now there’s a fate even worse than knowing a Tweet about Mint Milanos is in the Library of Congress forever. So perhaps what we all owe Mark Zuckerberg–and the kids with drunken pictures on their Facebook page, and the folks with tweets about hating their boss, and everyone else who’s ever been stupid on a social network–is a break. Because yes, Aaron Sorkin is right: social media is a performance.
And can any of us say we give our best performance 100% of the time?