Entertainment

Facebook Has Gotten So Much Worse Since ‘The Social Network’

The movie depicting Facebook's rocky origins premiered ten years ago. We revisit the film, and Netflix's new ‘The Social Dilemma,’ to see what’s changed.
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, United States
October 2, 2020, 2:00pm
Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in 'The Social Network' and Mark Zuckerberg
Image via Netflix and Getty

The world was different ten years ago, when The Social Network premiered in theaters. For starters, on the film's opening night, Facebook had 1,700 employees, and was valued at $25 billion. Today, there are 15,000 people working on Facebook content moderation alone, with the company's full-time employees exceeding 52,000. Its market capitalization is $744 billion at the time of this writing.

In 2010, the public understanding of Facebook's role in the world was different, too. Before major concerns about the platform's spread of misinformation or ability to sway political opinion, its central conflict seemed to be the injustices of its business handlings for those who contributed to its runaway success—the problem of who deserved credit for such a great idea. Based on Ben Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires, The Social Network, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher, illustrated these interpersonal conflicts brilliantly in both dialogue and cinematography. The book and film are deeply critical of Mark Zuckerberg, and rely heavily on the account of Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, played by Andrew Garfield in the film. Perhaps for this reason, he is portrayed as its most charitable character—the best friend, the financier, a sad man standing in the rain, and in one of his last scenes, a tough guy who makes Justin Timberlake (as tech entrepreneur Sean Parker) flinch before he's escorted out of Facebook's offices by security. The film did not set out to explore Facebook's effect on the public, but the effect of a rapidly growing enterprise on its founders, alleged co-founders, and friends-turned-colleagues-turned-enemies.

Revisiting the movie in 2020, the movie's version of Zuckerberg—portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg, channeling a robot trained to speak with a Gilmore Girls dialogue dataset—is not meant to mirror the actual Zuckerberg, whose slower and more robotic mannerisms have received the most attention on Facebook Live and in his Congressional testimony. Sorkin's depiction—derived from Mezrich's writing, and filtered through Eisenberg's acting and Saverin's feelings of betrayal—was merely that of an awkward and obsessed nerd fixated on a growing project, but he was still not within swiping distance of the most powerful people in the world when the film was made. By the end of the story, Sorkin told TIME in 2010, "I kind of want to give him a hug, and I think that people are going to feel that way too."

In many ways, The Social Network is a relic of simpler times, both in our understanding of Facebook's global influence and in movie-making. It was a time when non-Indian actors could take Indian roles, like Winklevoss collaborator Divya Narendra being portrayed onscreen by Max Minghella. (The Winklevii, who claim Zuckerberg stole their idea for Harvard Connection to make The Facebook, turned their $65 million settlement with Facebook into a billion-dollar cryptocurrency fortune.) The soundtrack, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, does an excellent job of manipulating the user into the intended emotional mindstate. The music influenced Mac Quayle's beep-boop soundtrack of Mr. Robot, with Quayle remarking that  Reznor and Ross "broke a lot of amazing ground with regards to the scoring world and electronic music.”

Sorkin's fast, snappy style of dialogue has also proven influential. His writing in The Social Network largely introduced the public to the snippy and emotionally distant affect we've come to expect from our Silicon Valley and hacker archetypes, from Silicon Valley to Mr. Robot. Sorkin's influence on popular media can't be overstated; his hit series The West Wing, which ran from 1999 to 2006, seeped into the real world in such a way that politicians across the globe studied the show to learn American politics; in 2012, Vanity Fair published a story documenting the Sorkinization of politics. In The Social Network, he did the same for the tech world. Throughout the film, there are lines so specific one would assume they are direct quotes from actual legal proceedings, while in reality, many of these quips are merely Sorkinisms. A threat from Zuck, for example, to turn a Harvard social club into his ping-pong room, is so specific it's unforgettable—but that ping-pong line is adapted from another scene in Sorkin's series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. In retrospect, much of the story's drama is from the chemistry between Fincher's eye and Sorkin's pen.

For a gargantuan corporation that continues to grow, shift, and absorb other billion-dollar companies, there wasn't—and still isn't—a good time to yell "Cut!" on the story of Facebook. (Doing so now might have a different connotation.) But if shooting for The Social Network had wrapped just a few months later, Sorkin would have had much more material from which to build his Zuckerberg, and he may have been even less sympathetic to him. Five months before the movie premiere, Business Insider revealed that a real-life Zuckerberg privately called Harvard students "dumb fucks" for trusting him with their data, back when he had a paltry 4,000 email addresses. Zuckerberg's company now has 2.7 billion users, but, ever reassuring, he told the New Yorker in 2010 that he "absolutely regretted" calling his users "dumb fucks" as a budding college entrepreneur.

There are some other aspects of the movie that have only grown more relevant to the present day over the course of the decade. For instance, in Sorkin and Fincher's retelling, Zuckerberg invents Facebook as an act of revenge after being rejected by a love interest named Erica Albright. Later in the film, after encountering Zuckerberg at a time of his success, Albright's character clarifies that she didn't find him unlikeable because he's a nerd, but because he's an asshole. Now, after a decade of ethically irresponsible and downright insidious behavior from Zuckerberg, Thiel, and an entire class of men that have overrun the Bay Area following the Tech Boom 2.0 venture capital gold rush, we are all reckoning with the immense influence of cold, robotic-seeming geeks and their various financial ventures.

The movie is worth revisiting if only for the side-quest of Googling minor characters to see what they're up to now—which, as it turns out, is a lot. This week, two related companies went public on the New York Stock Exchange: Asana, a project management tool that has been billed as an "anti-Facebook," and was created by Facebook co-founder and former Mark Zuckerberg roommate Dustin Moscowitz; and Palantir, a comically evil company best-known for its work assisting in ICE deportations, which was created by Facebook's first outside investor, Peter Thiel.

Scrolling to present-day 2020, the Facebook universe is clearly still very active, though now the conversation often centers around how we're "so buried in our phones." This is the thrust of the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, which approaches social media from an entirely different vantage point than its 2010 precursor. As it turns out, we were not just dumb fucks for handing over our data, but also our attention, as a group of former tech VPs and engineers—including former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris—explains in the documentary.

The Social Dilemma centers around observations and warnings from early employees at companies like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram (acquired by Facebook), who talk about how, by their very design, these companies are selling users of these social media problems to advertisers at the cost of our privacy, autonomy, and possibly sanity. Sean Parker returns, but this time played by Sean Parker.

At points, the documentary feels like a high-production version of the Oopsie Circuit, in which regretful tech employees and investors speak out about the harms of their own actions, and reflect on how their former employers stand on top of a mountain of wealth accrued by manipulating the public. Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff, who authored The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, describes how companies like Facebook have created a new market that "trades on human futures" by closely monitoring and monetizing our behavior. In The Social Network, Sean Parker's character unintentionally alludes to this, stating "private behavior is a relic of a time gone by,"—though that film does little to meaningfully address it. Both films are cautionary tales about capitalism, but The Social Network focuses on a fight for intellectual property and capital, while The Social Dilemma zooms out to show the larger societal effects of these money-printing companies gone haywire—or working exactly as they intended.

There is a race towards the bottom, The Social Dilemma states: not of Big Tech companies cutting costs to compete—many of these services are "free," after all—but a race down the brainstem of the customer, building in desired behaviors that amount to better engagement and retention metrics, all to make money at any cost.

Since The Social Network, Facebook has been used to steer elections, "substantially contribute" to genocide, and become a bullhorn for hate speech. Just as Facebook has wreaked havoc on the globe, the film adaptation of its story, has also allowed us to believe what we want to believe, whether or not it's the truth. Ten years later, we are forced to reflect on what we gave up for all of those tagged photos, Likes, and friend requests, and the reality is staggering.

Toward the end of The Social Dilemma: Harris poses a question. "How can you wake up from the Matrix when you don't know you're in the Matrix?"

That question is answered in The Matrix (guns, leather, and pills), but it's more entertaining to go back to The Social Network. You can see a man who, after being dumped by his girlfriend, drunkenly sets in motion the events that would create this world, only to end with him longingly sending her a friend request.