The Social Network

The most telling scene in The Social Network was between Eduardo Saverin (Zuckerberg’s best friend and CFO) and his unhinged girlfriend. She confronts him after his return from a business trip, and demands why his Facebook status still lists him as “single.”

He confesses that he actually doesn’t know how to update his relationship status. His girlfriend believes it must be a lie… after all, as how could the CFO of Facebook not know how to update his status?

Rather than acknowledge the reality of being in a relationship, she resides in the “image” of reality. Rather than have an actual relationship with Eduardo, it’s not real until the image shows others it’s real.

For me, this is the true zeitgeist of our times.

Social networking has given us the ability to live our entire lives through the projections we show to the world. The sheer volume of “friends” that most people connect with online is far greater than the authentic connections we could hope to sustain face-to-face. Some of these friends we will meet occasionally, while most, never at all.

In effect, “you” ceases to exist. In your place is the “image of you” – constructed by status updates, photos, quiz results, movie clips, quotes, and of course, your friends.

This phenomenon is not new. We do the same thing with language, science, and religion. A Zen parable warns against becoming lost in the abstract: it’s like eating the menu instead of the food.

Similarly, Alan Watts argues in The Book, that this abstraction is not a problem in itself. After all, we have no other way of apprehending reality, other than through our interpretations:

There is no alternative to the use of conceptions and images, and no harm in it so long as we realize what we are doing. Idolatry is not the use of images, but confusing them with what they represent, and in this respect mental images and lofty abstractions can be more insidious than bronze idols.

Another example. The opening scene of The Social Network reveals Mark Zuckerberg and his soon-to-be ex girlfriend at the pub. After a rapid-fire argument, she tells him, “Even though you’ll likely be a success someday, you’ll think people will hate you because you’re a nerd. But in fact, they’ll hate you because you’re an asshole.”

Zuckerberg proceeds to become obsessed not with examining his own misperceptions about himself and others – but instead, about altering the perception that others have of him. Likewise, he flips the exclusion he faced from the top fraternity’s at Harvard by creating the most popular network in the world. Suddenly, everyone wants to be his friend – or more accurately, be “seen” as his friend.

The irony is Zuckerberg (at least as portrayed in the film) becomes so lost in the trappings of abstract relationships, that he failed to cultivate the one real friend he had – Eduardo Saverin. Their bond ends in bitter litigation and settlement.

Alan Watts continues:

“It is difficult not to feel the force of the image, because images sway our emotions more deeply than conceptions. When we realize that this form of identity is no more than a social institution, and one which has ceased to be a workable life-game, the sharp division between oneself and the ultimate reality is no longer relevant.”

The final scenes of the film return Zuckerberg to his ex-girlfriend scorned. Rather than resolve to mend their relationship in person, he reaches out the only way he knows how: he adds her on Facebook.

And refreshes the page…continuously…awaiting her response.

5 Comments

  1. Indeed. But I have to admit I was cracking up at that “relationship status” scene, wondering how often real arguments like that occur. How would we measure our own self-worth if we just cut ourselves off from Facebook, Twitter and blogging?

  2. @turner – well, like we actually did before social media: through conspicuous consumption, friend spheres, etc. Social media has just extended this ability to project ten-fold.

  3. Awesome post Ian. Your comments on the construct of “image” are very insightful.

    What I find interesting, and maybe it’s the “business” me is the relationship with Eduardo. Was he really a true friend? He seemed to know little about the actual product, and took off back to Harvard to live out the popularity of the image as co-founder of facebook and to be part of the finals club. He was looking after his own self interest and not that of Mark’s. Mark had stated that he was against advertising and did not want to move in that direction,and in business- that is the CEO’s call not the CFO. He saw Sean as a threat, regardless of what Sean could offer. And… despite the drama brought in with Sean- in the business world, I firmly believe Mark made the right decision- he needed the right intro to get the investment facebook required. Where was his best friend to stand by his decision? Or did business and striving to portray a new “image” get in the way of the connection they had?

    Mark is extremely smart- which in essence, has history has proven with some of our greatest scientists, isolates you. Few can keep up with your thoughts and feelings and rarely will you find the right connection. Eduardo may have been a true friend in the beginning, but as the success of facebook grew, he too started to become opportunistic. Remember, in the board room when he could have given up shares like Mark did 65% to 51% – he did not. I actually believe, if he would have dropped his share percentage and stayed to help Facebook- that perhaps he would have been able to keep his shares.

    To reiterate one of your points, it is incredibly important to know who “you” are, and not the “image” of you – this is the only way to build and create real authentic relationships with people.

  4. @nicole – agreed, Eduardo could have made some better business decisions. but their relationship (at least as portrayed in the film) was based more on the ambitions of Zuckerberg, who failed to communicate his side very well – subconsciously perhaps, as a way to get back at his friend for ditching him earlier for the Phoenix club.

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