Opinion: The Social Contract

I left The Social Network, aka the Facebook movie, feeling stunned and exhilarated. (Imagine if all of life were scripted by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher!) Maybe it’s analogous to bare toes shod in rubber flip-flops hitting virgin snow on a freezing Cambridge morning. After a night of coding. Drunk.

In the opening scene, set in a bar, our hero/anti-hero, the semi-humanoid, hoodie-wearing Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is being verbally brutal but super smart. His date, the beauty who got away, parries his remarks quip for quip. Her final line, which gives the movie its structure, is “You think that the reason women reject you is because you’re a nerd. It’s not. It’s because you’re an asshole.”

Is he or isn’t he? A female lawyer later tells the fictional Zuckerberg that he’s not an asshole, but “he’s trying so hard to be.” This sets up one of the story’s amazing ironies: a guy with no friends, impervious to cold (and human warmth) comes up with the world’s most powerful friend-ing technology. And, in turn, it allows users lives to be open books without ever having to meet any “friend” face to face.

Naturally, in this meta-media hall of mirrors, I raved about the Facebook movie on Facebook. To my surprise, I got a flurry of negative responses. It made my friends feel “dirty” to know that Zuckerberg was (allegedly) a crook. Seeing the movie made them want to get off Facebook.

What? Get off Facebook? There’s no getting off Facebook. Ever. None of the lying or cheating is proven in the  movie, by the way, which makes it so brilliant in its Rashomon-ishness (say that three times fast).

It really is a morality Rorschach. It’s not clear that Zuckerberg stole from the Winklevoss twins, although certainly he handled their interactions very badly.

He claims he never used a line of their code, came up with a social network that was simpler and more user friendly, and grew the business from school to school.

What’s clearer is that Eduardo Saverin, the original investor, who the movie shows to be Zuckerberg’s only friend—as well as the company’s CFO—was badly treated. (Saverin ended up with a considerable settlement, getting his name restored on the masthead and 5 percent of the company, which comes out to be a tidy billion-dollar sum.)

Many businesses are founded by people who become ruthless and cold-blooded. Yawn. What’s ironic is that once Zuckerberg is shown in the movie developing his man-crush on Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), Saverin, made to look awkward and uncool, is edged out because, get this, he wants to stay in New York and “monetize the site” (away from the connections and energy of Palo Alto and the East Coast-West Coast feud that is part of the movie’s tension).

“It’s cool now,” the movie Zuckerberg says of Facebook. “And if it’s filled with pop-ups for Mountain Dew, it won’t be.”

The Social Network shows Parker scathingly dismissive toward Saverin and his tiny ads. “I saw that ad for Gary’s Tuxedos and the Harvard Bartending School that you brought in,” he sneers.

Parker has access to venture capitalists and it was a no-brainer for them to throw money at a business that had a million college kids subscribing to it. Apparently, VCs only care about building scale so that they can sell the business to other VCs.

Zuckerberg is shown trying to adapt his Silicon Valley stance. There’s a painful scene in which Saverin drags Zuckerberg around to offices on Madison Avenue and Zuckerberg is clearly bored and tuned out. In one meeting, he keeps his mouth open, like a bird, and clucks the whole time that Saverin presents. After being questioned about it by the pissed-off ad exec, Zuckerberg explains that he’s making more of a “glottal sound.”

The glottal sound heard round the world. Call it, perhaps, Outlier Advertising. And here’s another irony: Despite all the magnificent image making now available, the only form of advertising that makes money on the Internet are targeted, postage stamp-size images above a line of text or a link to the right of every profile page ad. They’re devoid of creativity. It can be annoying that some R2D2 figures you’re interested in a grapefruit diet or a private investigator, but it doesn’t affect the experience.

On Facebook, brands have a way to reach consumers for almost no serious media outlay, have consumers willingly say they “like” them (or not) and offer their private information in exchange for coupons, discounts, etc. What’s privacy in the face of a dozen free bagels?

Facebook offers a neater, simpler user experience, which is part of what’s killing MySpace. Out-of-control advertising gummed up the site with ugly skins and flashy ads that take forever to load and make it ungainly.

By the way, ad revenue on Facebook is likely to exceed $1 billion this year. Brands are ceding their microsites to Facebook and then using targeted ads only to fan their fan pages. For those interested in aesthetically pleasing advertising that looks more like Fincher’s imagery (he’s directed some fantastic TV commercials) and less like direct mail, it’s cold comfort. In the end, Zuckerberg knows what he’s doing. In the process, he’s not only revolutionizing the idea of friendship, but also he’s revolutionizing the face of advertising.