One of my High School English teachers once asserted that one cannot compose an “epic” about the Beatles. He was, of course, quite wrong – on both counts. He was wrong, first of all, because (contrary to what he was trying to claim) the Beatles were a major musical and creative cultural phenomenon, eminently suitable for an “epic.” Secondly, he was wrong because even events and people of less than world-historical significance can be the subject of an epic-quality story. The new film about the founding of Facebook and the unraveling of the relationships among that story’s protagonists does indeed tap into universal human themes. Other than the obscenely enormous amount of money involved, however, the players in the drama are hardly epic-level heroes. The movie that has been made about them, however, is certainly up there - quite apart from the degree to which it may have (as has been widely alleged) distorted the actual story .
Full disclosure: I am personally a fan of Facebook. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is a legitimate question, but a subject for another discussion. Not only do I enjoy checking Facebook and have over time gradually gotten over my initial reticence about posting on it, I even administer a Facebook “Business Page, the latest weekly report for which appeared on my Blackberry as I was walking back from the movie theater!
The movie is very well made and the acting is great. The film finally succeeds, however, I believe, because of how (like any “epic”) it taps into important and universal human themes. Greed, obviously, is one such theme. But money wasn’t what Facebook was about at the outset and was never (at least as he is portrayed in the movie) what Zuckerberg was fundamentally interested in. What he was looking for, rather, was “coolness” – something everyone else in the story also seems to want (including those who already are - or think they are - very "cool" indeed). The pursuit of “coolness” is essentially a contemporary variation on the perennial pursuit of popularity, status, friendship, and, of course, sex. If The Social Network is to be believed, people never get – or never think they get – enough of those primordial social goods.
The story is told through the prism of two legal actions against Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg – one on the part of the Winklevoss twins and the other on the part of Zuckerberg’s putative best friend and founding partner, Eduardo Saverin. The Winklevoss twins are everything Zuckerberg (as portrayed in the movie) isn’t but would like to be. They are rich, well-connected, good-looking jocks, who belong to one of the best clubs on campus. (When Zuckerberg goes to their club to meet with them, he cannot cross the threshold of privilege and is only allowed into the “bike room”). The Winklevosses are attractive and hence have already more than their fair share of the good things this world has to offer. Of course, they want more, which is why they seek Zuckerberg’s assistance in the first place. Perhaps one of Zuckerberg’s best lines in the movie is when he observes that the twins are angry at him because for the first time something hasn’t gone their way, hasn’t gone the way everything in their social reality has conditioned them to expect. That line alone ought to redeem the nerdy, socially awkward Zuckerberg from some of the opprobrium his character (as portrayed in the film) otherwise deserves. Having met and known any number of Winklevoss-types in my lifetime, I couldn’t help but root for Zuckerberg against them.
Eduardo Saverin is a different story. Although, unlike Zuckerberg, Savarin has real access to money (although presumably less than the Winklevosses), he comes across as a largely sympathetic figure. He really is Zuckerberg’s friend and remains loyal a lot longer than he probably should. That’s what being a friend means, of course; and it is obvious that when the friendship does break up, it is experienced as a serious loss by both men. An attractive, ambitious undegraduate, Savarin wants what everyone else in the story wants -popularity and status (including membership in one of Harvard’s exclusive clubs), friendship (with Zuckerberg), and, of course, sex. Still, as a serious business student, Savarin offers an alternative reality – and an alternative path to success which he vainly tries to get Zuckerberg to follow. Zuckerberg, however, is seduced by a “cooler” model of success – personified by Napster founder, Sean Parker (the tempter in the Garden, perfectly played in all his attractiveness and dangerousness by Justin Timberlake).
The Trojan War was undoubtedly an important event in its own right and deserves the interest of historians. The reason The Iliad remains so interesting and important to us today, however, has to do with its insightful portrayal of fundamental human emotions, for which the Trojan War simply serves as a stage. The Social Network is not The Iliad. That stipulated, The Social Network has an element of “epic” quality about it, for which this fictionalized story of Facebook’s founding serves as a splendid stage. It is the perennial story of “coolness” and its discontents.