The Social Network: It's all about character

Last week an 18-year old Rutgers University student, Tyler Clementi, took his own life after two students videotaped him having a sexual encounter with another male, then posting it on the Internet. I was listening to NPR on the way home from the theater today and the talk was about privacy issues in the age of the Internet. Perhaps we are all guilty of hurtful gossip as children and teenagers, saying things about people, that even if true, we have no right to say. Perhaps we failed to think of the consequences of our actions, or maybe we were curious, jealous, or angry at some infraction. Most of all, perhaps we didn’t think before we acted.

In the last 15 or so years, since the Internet was opened up to the public for e-mail and commercialized, passing notes or gossiping about others -- enabled by digital technology -- has reached unbelievable proportions, with tragic consequences. Tyler Clementi is the most recent victim of an epidemic of an incredible lack of empathy, according to one NPR caller.

Empathy, that ability to walk in another person’s shoes, to feel their pain, to ask oneself, “How would I feel if someone did this to me?” is usually taught from an early age. It is the basic building block of character education. And the lack of empathy is one of the strongest driving forces in the saga of “The Social Network”.

Director David Fincher (“Fight Club”; “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) does not disappoint in his latest film about Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and the creation of the world’s largest social networking site Facebook. Facebook, according to some, is Google’s strongest competitor as the top web property. Facebook claims to have 500 million registered users worldwide and adds 125,000 daily (although critics are quick to point out that not all of these members are active).

In 2003 Zuckerberg was a socially inept computer genius at Harvard. According to the film’s account, one night after he insulted his date, he went to his room, got drunk and proceeded to denigrate the girl publically on the Internet. He then went on to write code that would capture the photos of female students from the face books of various Harvard residences and let people choose the hottest. It was mean and it was cruel.

Identical twin brothers Cameron (Armie Hammer) and Tyler Winklevoss (Josh Pence) and their friend Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) soon approached Zuckerman to write the complicated code for a social networking site for Harvard students. Zuckerberg told them he was in. No papers were signed and Zuckerberg said later he never saw their code.

However, Zuckerberg asked his friend, his only friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) for an algorithm he had written that would enable him to develop a site beyond the scope of the twins. They brought in another friend, Justin Moskovitz (Joseph Mazzello), and incorporated in early 2004. Zuckerberg was the CEO and Savarin the CFO of “The Facebook.” Saverin invested the initial few thousand dollars capital to begin. It was an instant success, with Zuckerberg hacking into universities' sites and sending out invitations to students to join.

Soon Sean Parker (Justin Timblerlake), co-founder of Napster, the music-sharing site that changed the music recording industry, discovers “The Facebook” and meets with Zuckerberg and Saverin. Zuckerberg falls under Parker’s spell but Saverin, a business major, wants to sponsor the site through advertising. Parker advises them to drop “The” from Facebook and strongly encourages them to move to Silicon Valley, which Zuckerberg does. The rift between partners has begun.

Aaron Sorkin, the gifted writer of “A Few Good Men” and several seasons of “The West Wing” is at his best here because no one does crisp, direct dialogue like he does. Jesse Eisenstein delivers his lines like a savant, indeed, one wonders if Zuckerberg’s seeming inability to move outside his own mental zone to care about the consequences of his actions on others, is due to some kind of personality or developmental disorder or is a form of terminal nerdity characterized by naïveté and gross immaturity. While other key characters in the film have families or refer to them, Zuckerberg never does. One friend told me, “It’s like he was dropped in from outer space.”

Aaron Sorkin also seems most at home framing stories within a legal proceeding. He uses depositions between the Winklevoss twins and Zuckerberg over stealing their idea, and between Saverin and Zuckerberg, essentially for breach of contract, to tell this story that I found riveting. The performances of Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg and Justin Timberlake as the Napster shyster Sean Parker are award-worthy. Andrew Garfield as Ernest Saverin, also gives an impressive performance.

The film is based on the 2009 book The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal by Ben Mezrich and for which Ernesto Saverin consulted, as he did for the film. It isn’t possible to tell what is true or more or less accurate in the film. After all, it is not a documentary. And it is up to university students and Internet nerds to judge if the film represents their partying, boozed, drugged and oversexed cultures accurately or are just stereotypes. Despite all these vices, no one smokes a cigarette in the film, the one story’s one virtue.

Zuckerberg did want to belong to elite clubs or fraternities but he was never invited. So he created a universe of his own that was totally cool.

Today, Zuckerberg is the world’s youngest billionaire.

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” won at the box office last week, and I think “The Social Network” will this week and beyond unless a new 3-D film comes out to trounce it. The themes are surprisingly similar: to live together in harmony takes people of character, who make choices that first consider the consequences of their actions on other people. Greed, ambition, and unlimited power are ugly traits.

The ending of the film is small and anticlimactic and probably didn’t happen, but it is poignant in its loneliness and poses the strongest moral challenge of all.

This past week Mark Zuckerberg donated a challenge grant to the city of Newark, N.J., for public education. Some say this was a move to save his reputation. Perhaps it was. But if this is all it was, a public relations gesture, then Zuckerberg needs to watch this film.

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