After the release of The Social Network, the (co-)founder of Facebook has been the subject of much criticism, as viewers saw the movie persona as arrogant, aloof, inconstant, and ruthless. In fairness to the persona, other characters were presented with similar traits, (only with lesser results to show), and so critics should not overlook the context in which the protagonist was presented. But more importantly, it seems almost awkward that so much attention and criticism have been directed at a movie character, who is not a real person, as personas and persons rarely coincide.
Movie characters, among other advantages over actual people, exist as controlled artifices, like paintings or statues, in a controlled environment with conveniently limited dimensions and even a soundtrack to guide emotional response to what takes place on screen. Actual people, among other differentiating factors, show complex and sometimes conflicting perspectives, memories, behavior, secrets, to say nothing of physical constraints, that cause them to conduct much of their affairs behind the scenes, and to do so differently than on-screen. There will be qualities of movie personas that stand out, that may seem more substantial, perhaps more universal, than others, and this creates an illusion of reality; but it is only an illusion. For this reason we think of the experience as entertainment, and we turn away from it at will and live our life the way real people do.
With this backdrop, I find it interesting that a criticism most often heard about the protagonist of The Social Network, is that he apparently did not (co-)create Facebook to “change the world” – as many tech idealists had surmised – but rather to, as it were, impress the ladies. Now, maybe I’ve been sensitized to the subject of “changing the world” as a result of its wide circulation and acceptance in blogs and other online discussion springboards for entrepreneurs and their venture backers, but the slogan has always rubbed me the wrong way.Â If such a grandiose message is insincere – as so much online posturing is prone to be – then it should bother us for evident reasons. If it is heartfelt, it should offend us on the world’s behalf.
Considering that the world (for present discussion limited only to that of human activity), has been around for some 200,000 years and, among other products, has given us cities, playing cards, mechanical locomotion, paint, the umbrella, social structure, sandwiches, the mystery thriller, The Doors, alphabets and numbers, nuance and interpretation, the telescope, money, strategy, and the clock, aiming to change it is quite the ambitious goal. Whether it is even a noble goal – as is presupposed – is a matter of perspective. But most of all, I can’t easily relate to the person who would trust oneself to take on such a monstrous task, and it makes me skeptical straight off.
In the context of The Social Network and popular reaction to the movie, these thoughts all underpin a bigger point that I hope to make, which is this: The long-term consequences – socially, economically, technically, and otherwise -Â of Facebook, which is a very new phenomenon in the world’s 200,000-year lifespan, are still to be observed. The isolated example of Mark Zuckerberg’s movie persona and its relation to the actual person is itself a demonstration of the fragile and slippery nature of the subject, particularly as this would have to be multiplied by 500 million (Facebook’s current worldwide subscriber base) individual movie characters. If Zuckerberg did not purposefully set out to create such an incomprehensible machine at first, but was instead focused on a more modest near-term objective, this is if anything to his credit.
For other entrepreneurs, the message is a positive message: Be modest and realistic in your vision, and don’t concern yourself with posture. That is nowadays easier said than done – thanks to, among other things, Facebook – but if you make your invention a work of passion, a work of sincerity, you don’t need to be eitherÂ Napoleon or St. Jerome to succeed. The world will, in due course, accept your creation or reject it, magnify it or diminish it, based on the world’s own readiness after 200,000 years of preparation. Disruption, global revolution, are not pre-conditions to success. What matters is a job well done, and nothing more. Unlike Facebook, unlike the movies, the world does not offer itself to easy conquest.