Fightbook: “Gnōthi seauton, Zuckerberg”

So, I’ve finally seen the latest David Fincher film, The Social Network, about the founding of Facebook. I thought it was an excellent film, and not only because of the relevance of its central topic. Beneath the compelling acting and tight film composition are some interesting comments about its director, insight into our society, but also some lacunae, too.

First, was it just me, or does this film have surprising resonances with Fincher’s 1999 cult hit Fight Club? Consider: the neurotic, fast-talking intuitively perceptive main character (Jack the Narrator/Mark Zuckerberg), the struggle between a devil-on-his-shoulder idealized self (Tyler Durden/Sean Parker) and an angel-on-his-shoulder voice of compassion (Marla/Eduardo Saverin), and the emergence of a powerful, even cultic, social movement (Project Mayhem/Facebook).

The inner processes and effects of identity and innovation, to say nothing of their outward manifestations as charisma and social engineering, seem to be one of the major motifs of Fincher’s work and includes the terror of the serial killer (the fictional Seven killer/the real-life Zodiac killer) and the (quite literal) descent of the alpha figure into themselves (Ripley from Alien 3/Van Orton from The Game). However, Fincher explores this motif in a very deconstructive manner, especially in Fight Club and The Social Network — the ecstatic uplift of, say, The Game, is not to be found in the oddly deflative destruction of Wilmington or Zuckerberg sadly hitting refresh on his laptop. In Fincher’s world, there’s often a high price to pay for gnōthi seauton.

As for what this film says about our society, that’s obvious from the get-go: it’s a morality tale for business, technology, and friendship in the early Twenty-First Century. With the exception of the paranoid Parker, all the other central characters seem motivated not so much by profit as social success — Saverin to impress his father, the Winkelvoss twins to strengthen their position within Harvard, and so on, with Zuckerberg seeking to outmaneuver and conquer the entire American way of elitism. That they all both succeed and fail, one way or another, represents the duality intrinsic to online social media and the society it’s wiring together: we are closer yet farther, farther yet closer, and the power and might of the digital remains the servant of the banality and tragedy of the analog.

But what about what the film doesn’t say? The real-life Zuckerberg is a much more complex person than Fincher’s character. For example, despite being worth billions of dollars, he still lives in a rented house with his girlfriend of many years — just a regular guy ultimately, or a true revolutionary, interested in real power and thus disdainful of its outward trappings? “It’s not because of the amount of money. For me and my colleagues, the most important thing is that we create an open information flow for people,” he’s told us. “Having media corporations owned by conglomerates is just not an attractive idea to me,” which is why he’s kept Facebook private rather than going public. Like WikiLeaks, then, Facebook is the cypherpunk libertarian ideal, after decades of gestation, finally manifesting.

But think about that: Facebook is private. Of all people, the comedian Stephen Colbert got it right when he awarded Zuckerberg a “Medal of Fear” “because he values his privacy much more than he values yours.” He presents us with precisely the same conundrum as Julian Assange in that we are asked to trust someone who is actually quite secretive about their own lives, and more to the point, whether by desire or necessity, is in a very untrustworthy position of centrality in our lives. Yet, as with Assange, remarkably I find that I am willing to trust Zuckerberg within a certain amount of reason. Not only this, but as with Obama before them, find myself in a duality, simultaneously troubled about the long-term consequences just as much as dazzled and excited by the positive possibilities and already-accomplished achievements.

What a remarkable era we live in, in which single individuals can influence the mass of society so powerfully — and we go along, for better and for worse, to enable their influence! That’s the real story that The Social Network should be telling (and perhaps tacitly, unconsciously, it is): know the people who you’ve made your leaders, and in doing so, come to know yourselves. In this sense, the massive effulgence of photographs, videos, and status updates on Facebook is symbolic of our species trying to do just that — sometimes narcissistically, sometimes meaningfully, and even sometimes outwardly and constructively, too, as the digitized uprisings in Iran, Kyrgyzstan, and Egypt have demonstrated. But let’s just hope that Fincher isn’t a prophet and that there isn’t a high price to pay at the end of this process, that we aren’t left hitting the refresh button of history, doing so much to accomplish what were really, all along, the simplest of things.

Update, 4 February 18:00: A great post by my colleague at RFE/RL, Luke Allnutt, entitled, For Activists, Facebook Is A Reluctant Platform. Some choice excerpts:

Whether Facebook likes it or not, it is now being used as a platform for activism, as the recent uprising in Egypt has shown. But that doesn’t mean that Facebook is necessarily happy about it.

[…] There is a legitimate dilemma for Facebook here and I think it’s about more than just it endeavoring to protect its market share. The dilemma also concerns the downside of Western tech companies promoting themselves as a platform for activism.

[…] Digital activism could be more effective and covert when it’s wrapped up in fluff: the pokes, the Farmville updates, and Lolcat videos.

Update, 5 February 2:00: Hear it from the man himself…

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2 thoughts on “Fightbook: “Gnōthi seauton, Zuckerberg”

  1. Hello Christopher, It is good that you have showed us similarities between “Social Network” and other films directed by David Fincher. However, this time around Fincher has disappointed many a loyal fan as “Social Network” does not have neither suspense of his previous film nor any kind of palpable energy. One look at the title is enough to tell that it is a film about a social network.Thus, there is not much of any hint of creativity. Gnōthi seauton, Zuckerberg is a great way of questioning MZ but one doubts whether he knows anything about it.

    • Thanks Lalit. Actually, apparently he’s quite knowledgeable about the Greek Classics, even quoting them during business meetings. As for the film, I think what’s happened with Fincher is that he’s matured, so he’s not as rough around the edges anymore. Part of the process unfortunately means also producing sentimentalism like “Benjamin Button” (which is also the most inconsistent of his films in terms of his body of work), but also making films that are simply more traditionally structured. Since “Zodiac”, he’s been moving in the direction of the steady biopic. C’est la vie.

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