This weekend, The Social Network — Facebook's new creation myth — opened in theaters. The story pits the American idea that individuals can move from rags to riches against European notions that tie social status to birth. The American idea wins, of course.
The movie's lead character is Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg), a brilliant Harvard undergraduate whose main flaw is his lack of social grace. Viewers learn that the original idea for Facebook comes from Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss — elitist WASP twin brothers who are on Harvard's crew team — and their pal Divya Narendra. They intend to create an online network — HarvardConnection — that is accessible only to those with a Harvard e-mail account. Banking on people's desire for exclusivity, they hope that HarvardConnection will bring them fame and fortune. To bring the network to life, they need a computer geek, and so they enlist Zuckerberg as their master coder.
Or so they think.
Instead of cooperating with the twins, Zuckerberg seizes their idea but loses their phone numbers. While the Winklevosses leave him voicemail message after voicemail, Zuckerberg codes away, aided by his friend, Eduardo Saverin, who comes up with seed money.
Thus Facebook is born. Generating momentum, Zuckerberg opens the network to college campus after campus. Then he meets Sean Parker, a West Coast entrepreneur and hustler whose music file-sharing system, Napster, almost brought the music industry to its knees. The two expand Facebook across the rest of the world. By the end of the movie, it has 500 million subscribers, and Zuckerberg is the world's youngest billionaire.
The film, directed by David Fincher and based on the book The Accidental Billionaires, a book by Harvard summa cum laude grad Ben Mezrich, will no doubt draw fire from feminists for its portrayal of women is overwhelmingly negative. (But that may reflect the "sexism that often pervades Internet culture," as some reviewers suggest.) Rather than being the bright young intellects that one would expect to find at an Ivy League university, the female students who surround Zuckerberg and his friends are oversexed jealous vixens, ready to bare all and open up for ambitious young men. Just as moths gather around bright light, these women congregate around males with a bright future. Consequently, they amount to little more than measures of male power.
The two exceptions — Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), the girlfriend who ditched Zuckerberg in the opening scene, and the nurturing lawyer of the closing scene who assures Zuckerberg that he is not a despicable jerk — do little to negate this impression.
What redeems The Social Network is its wonderful irreverence toward the elitism of Harvard and the Protestant old-moneyed elite of America's East Coast. The Winklevoss twins personify these values. Scions of a businessman and former professor of the Wharton Business School, they enroll at the nation's oldest and most prestigious university and gain admission to its inner circle, the exclusive Harvard Porcellian Club. While 90 percent of Americans struggle to make ends meet, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss are being positioned on the cusp of greatness and entitlement. They hold tickets to a lifelong inside game.
Since they are the beneficiaries of social privilege, the twins have naturally embraced the view that a person's value is determined by the background from which he or she comes. For Tyler and Cameron, entering Harvard is therefore a birthright, although one of which they must prove themselves worthy by engaging in conduct that dignifies and perpetuates the university's hierarchical tradition.
The value system the Winklevosses represent is thoroughly European. In fact, as I watched Tyler and Cameron discuss conduct that befits a "Harvard man," I could not help but think of my own alma mater, the University of Freiburg in Germany. Founded in the 15th century by the Habsburg dynasty, it boasts Burschenschaften, tradition-heavy, all-male student clubs that in earlier centuries were beacons of political progress but have since morphed into bastions of reactionary conservatism.
In the film, the Winklevosses wear purple blazers that make sense only as a tribute to history. Similarly, members of the Burschenschaften wear caps that are outmoded but fulfill the function of setting them apart as club members. To celebrate the tradition of German masculinity, these men engage in ritualized sword fights. Such fights tend to result in facial scars (Schmisse). Club members wear them with great pride, because they signify honor and heroism. Some even manipulate their wounds to increase the scar tissue and make their Schmisse more visible.
Miller-McCune on Facebook
Take a look at some of our past stories about the uber-popular social networking site:
Wonking Week: Facebook and Fedflix Edition
Facebook Friendships Based on Assumptions
On Facebook, You Are Who You Know
What's With the Media's Twitter and Facebook Obsession?
And just like Harvard's Porcellian Club, Burschenschaften house old-boy networks. From the standpoint of tradition, it makes sense that the Winkelvosses feel at home on the other side of the Atlantic, where they row in the Henley Royal Regatta.
Enter Mark Zuckerberg. He is Jewish, nerdy and devoid of athletic ambition. In a world where heritage matters, he has little of it. But this does not deter him. While the Winklevosses celebrate the norms that bestow privilege, Zuckerberg despises the hierarchy these rules produce and undermines them whenever an opportunity presents itself.
True, he wants recognition from the elite, but it must be on his own terms. Endowed with brilliance, he pulls it off: He hacks his way into Harvard's computer system and extracts the university's list of students. When his bold actions attract the attention of the administrative board, he demands gratitude for having shown them how easy it is to break into the university's digital fortress.
In his view, embarrassing the administrative board is a feat. In the eyes of the Winklevosses, it is a faux pas for which a Harvard man must seek redemption. Since they need a programmer, they offer Zuckerberg an opportunity to atone by transposing Harvard's hierarchy into cyberspace.
They call Zuckerberg into the Porcellian Club house. Its code of conduct allows only club members to proceed into the building's inner sanctum. All others must stop at the Bicycle Room. Obedient to the club's code, the Winklevosses meet Zuckerberg in the Bicycle Room, thereby exposing him to the full extent of the club's condescension. It takes Zuckerberg a mere second to realize that he is nothing but hired help, a yardman allowed to have a lunch on the back porch.
When he tells the twins, "I'm in," they infer that he is in on the deal and will get to work on HarvardConnection. What he means, however, is, "I am in your system." He is a hacker, after all.
He proceeds to invent the network that we know as Facebook. Instead of confining it to an exclusive circle of Ivy Leaguers, he un-exclusively offers accounts to students nationwide and then - as we all know - to anyone in the world with a valid e-mail address.
Zuckerberg is not an angel. The movie shows that he betrays Eduardo, his business partner and only real friend. And even though he invites the world into his social network, he profits handsomely by harvesting user data and selling it to marketers. One may also ask how ethical it is for one person to own billions of dollars while large parts of humanity live on the brink of starvation.
But all that is beside the point. What matters is one thing: Zuckerberg snubbed the East Coast aristocracy.