David Fincher’s The Social Network explores a side of college life not usually seen in movies, and scrutinizes the ones that usually are.
College-centric films. The phrase brings to mind a very particular imagery. Sorority houses. All-nighter raves. Hungover in class. Infinite horniness. Romance drama. Study groups. Over-the-top sports competitions. Unnecessary inter-college rivalry. And, of course, debauchery of the highest form. However, that’s just a picture Hollywood has painted over the years, to entice audiences, and increase viewership. Because picture a completely different visual, and you can still be in a college. Brilliant students. Brainstorming sessions. Passion projects. Infinite enthusiasm. Academic competition. Inter-college collaboration. Ambitious start-ups. Career-driven networking. That’s also college life, but is decidedly more serious and mundane for every viewer to enjoy watching. That’s where The Social Network comes into play.
The film tells the story of how Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) created a website to rate women students at his college after his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) dumped him, and how that set the ball rolling on a venture that would become Facebook. It engagingly covers the most defining moments of the journey. Eduardo Saverin’s (Andrew Garfield) equation on the window, Sean Parker’s (Justin Timberlake) involvement when Facebook was in its latter stages of development, and also the trial with the Winklevosses (both played by Armie Hammer) and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), along with the lawsuit by Saverin, the two forming a major part of the film as a legal drama. However, the origin story part of the film is essentially that of a college-centric film.
For those who aren’t aware, Eduardo Saverin is Facebook’s CFO, Zuckerberg’s best friend in the early college years, and the first person to ever invest in ‘The Facebook,’ as it was called then. Tyler Winklevoss, Cameron Winklevoss, and Divya Narendra were the minds behind social networking website ‘The Harvard Connection,’ which they had approached Zuckerberg to help them with, and which they alleged was conceptually too similar to Facebook for it to not be a theft of intellectual property. And finally, Sean Parker was the founder of Napster and many other entrepreneurial ventures, who joined Facebook’s team as a shareholder in the latter formative years, months before Facebook’s millionth member joined the platform. He’s the man credited with having the idea of renaming ‘The Facebook’ into ‘Facebook’.
Dorm rooms, computer labs, and hotel rooms, filled with enthusiastic college students of varying degrees of passion, drive, and intelligence. Each clinically delivering meticulously developed fast-paced dialogue written by Aaron Sorkin. The Social Network doesn’t traditionally fall under college-centric cinema, but this side of college life is beautifully expressed through Sorkin’s writing, well complemented by Fincher’s brilliant direction. The excitement is palpable, at every step as these brilliant people slowly develop the software that is so integrated into our lives. It hits deep inside the soul, this thirst for excellence, the undying quest for the ultimate life-changing invention.
The film opens with a very familiar college experience – relationship drama. To be precise, Erica Albright breaks up with Mark Zuckerberg. This is possibly my favourite scene in the entire film, because it basically sets the tone for what’s to come. Very cold-bloodedly, Erica tells Mark that he’s unlikeable and a jerk. The fact that the film is honest, and not necessarily a glorification of the person, is possibly foreshadowed right from here. Also, the dialogue is extremely fast, with Mark talking at a rapid pace about his interests and why he thinks Erica should be paying more attention to him. This also sets a precedent for the fast-paced dialogue flow that’s to follow for the whole movie. And of course, it’s a very good place to start a college-centric narrative, because as Mark runs back to his dorm, we’re introduced to the campus, with a video collage of scenes in the college, while the Academy Award winning score plays, and the credits appear on screen.
And immediately after, the commentary begins. Sure, it’s not narrated, but the structure of the scene where Mark designs the despicable FaceMash, alternated with scenes of debauchery at the frat house, definitely feels intended to comment on the social scenario of the college. The air of importance of the frat houses, the egotistical attitude of Ivy League students about their colleges, and of course, the casual sexism that’s basically normalized: it’s not a very celebratory atmosphere. In fact, the fast editing and the obnoxious attitude of both the creator of the website and the participants just makes it uncomfortable. As a successor to the scrutiny about how he clearly considers his IQ to be a point of looking down on others, this scene makes it even clearer that Mark’s not going to be the centre of sympathy in this narrative.
Another side of college life that’s very widely covered incovered in films, TV shows and web series is sports, and there isn’t a lack of that in The Social Network either. However, it’s a little different because, more often than not, it’s mainly an exploration of jock-culture and the boys’ locker room thing which is found in mass media. This shows the healthier side of college sports, though, through Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss. The Winklevoss twins are amazing rowers, who are even on their way to play in the Olympics. Now, the toxic angle covered here is the privilege. They’re very clearly members of a wealthy family, and they also have accolades in rowing. This gives rise to a frankly intimidating extent of ego from them. At one point, one of the twins even claims they have a right to visit the busiest man in college administration for any claim, no matter how big or small, because they pay tuition, they’re promising students, and they’re going to represent Harvard at the Olympics.
In fact, the commentary on entitlement never stops. And that’s precisely what sets The Social Network’s exploration of college life apart from other college-centric films. It focuses on some of the most portrayed elements of college life, but through the lens of disapproval, while also exploring a lesser-seen side. The lesser-seen side is the studious hard work. It’s not a major part of the film, but there are quite a few inspirational moments of brainstorming, like the very first time when they were creating FaceMash and Saverin wrote a formula on the dorm window. There’s also scenes of teamwork, like in the apartment in California where quite a few coders are ‘wired in’, or in the zone with their work, while Mark and Sean fool around with a couple of women.
The presentation of the hard work is definitely a refreshing approach as compared to the usual fun ride that college is shown to be, at least in terms of academics or work. Another moment that comes to mind is the coding tournament to see who joins Facebook. Yes, it’s a drinking game, but it’s a show of sheer passion and interest in work, and at least it feels intoxicating to me, because it seems to be acknowledging the fact that there are more fun attributes to college than drinking and sleeping around with other students.
And when it comes to scrutinizing normalized behaviour that should be questioned, the best example is possibly the haughtiness and exclusivity of fraternities. It’s downright disturbing, the ritual of standing semi-nude in the snow while being bullied by a group of seniors. And the entitlement that comes from being a member is shown in Mark’s own attitude when speaking to Erica in the beginning. It’s like a rite of passage, to be considered seriously by future recruiters and others, but the fact is, the culture is more of getting away with actions that non-members wouldn’t. For example brining a bus full of women or female students as ‘entertainment’ is a common practice amongst them, and instead of revelling in the toxic masculinity on display, the film actually paints an honest picture.
Most of the commentary in the film is unfortunately subtle, and if you’re not scornful of the despicable practices, you may not pick up on it, but at least the film chooses to be neutral, by presenting enough counterpoints about why this behaviour is not necessarily one to be endorsed. For example, the unnecessary rivalry between Saverin and Mark is purely triggered by the former’s getting punched by The Phoenix. This is not the fraternity’s fault, of course, but it’s kind of unnecessary competition which students in a cut-throat atmosphere of needing to keep up grades can do without.
As a film, The Social Network is very influential. It manages to intrigue and motivate you while simultaneously making you weary and cautious. The hackathons and the coding sessions are truly inspiring, lighting an undying fire for discovery and invention. The trial scenes are just as heavy, and make you realize the darkness that lies underneath the pomp that surrounds such cultural phenomena. The film exposes the hidden bitterness within the apparently healthy competition that defines the experience within academic circles in college, that we assume help further the cause by pushing the candidates towards more meaningful pursuits. However, it’s also extremely endearing in the moments where it depicts how exactly scientific pursuit develops, and could leave a long-lasting impression on an aspiring viewer.