Why Didn’t I Like “The Social Network?”
- Posted on February 7, 2011 4:08:PM by Steve McConnell to 10x Software Development
- Methods & Processes, events
The title of this blog entry is an actual question. I really don’t understand why I didn’t like “The Social Network” more than I did.
Based on stellar reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and a good price on Amazon, I preordered The Social Network on blu-ray, which I watched Friday night.
This movie has many elements I should like. The screen play was written by Aaron Sorkin, who has written some of my favorite movies (A Few Good Men, The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War). The subject is the area I’ve spent my whole career in—the software industry, and it zeroes in on a specialty area that’s even more interesting: factors that contribute to success in startup environments. The movie steered clear of my biggest gripe about computer-related movies, which is focusing on hackers to the exclusion of everything else. The dialog was fast and witty. The acting was good across the board. Jesse Eisenberg portrayed Mark Zuckerberg as an intriguing, complex character. So why didn’t this movie work for me?
Roger Eberts’ review gives an interesting non-programmer perspective. Ebert says,
“It is said to be impossible to make a movie about a writer, because how can you show him only writing? It must also be impossible to make a movie about a computer programmer, because what is programming but writing in a language few people in the audience know? …
“The Social Network” is a great film not because of its dazzling style or visual cleverness, but because it is splendidly well-made. Despite the baffling complications of computer programming, web strategy and big finance, Aaron Sorkin's screenplay makes it all clear.”
I think what Ebert is saying (reading between the lines) is that computer programming is so inscrutable to most people, that ANY insight into how it’s done will be of interest to people – in part because 20-somethings can make billions doing it.
I think part of my issue is that I already knew that 20-somethings could make billions creating software. I’ve lived next door to Microsoft and Amazon my whole adult life and have been buying Dell computers as long as I can remember. This is not news to anyone I know. In the closing frames of the movie, when the final crawl tells the end of the story (“Facebook is worth $25 billion”) I felt like saying, “Was that really the point? EVERYBODY knew that before this movie came out.”
Another reaction I had was that, if we didn’t already know that Facebook was a true story and feel like it was giving us the inside view of how Facebook was created, the movie would not be interesting at all. The problem is, the most emotionally appealing parts of the movie are fictitious. The movie opens with a dialog between Zuckerberg and Erica, his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend from Boston University. Several times throughout the movie we see Zuckerberg reflecting wistfully about Erica. And in the final scene in the movie [spoiler alert], a lonely-looking Zuckerberg attempts to reconnect with Erica on Facebook. So there’s a dramatic symmetry from the beginning of the movie to the end, which is nice, except for the fact that it’s entirely fabricated. The was no girlfriend from BU, and in real life Zuckerberg has been with the same girlfriend from the year he began Facebook to the present.
Eisenberg’s portrayal of the intensely focused, socially awkward megalomaniac software genius was spot on. For people who haven’t previously been exposed to this type of person (like Roger Ebert), apparently that character portrayal was interesting enough to carry the movie. For me it wasn’t. I’ve spent the last 25 years around people like that, and to me that set of attributes is common enough to have become an archetype. Accurate portrayal of the archetype is a good place to start but is not in itself sufficient to make a great movie. I’m sure this archetype is more familiar to me than to much of the non-software public, and so maybe that’s the reason the movie was more interesting to other people than it was to me.
There were other story lines that could have been interesting but that were left undeveloped. Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg’s college-buddy/CFO invests seed money but seems to lack the commitment to Facebook that many of the other players had. There is a potentially interesting exploration of the nature of entrepreneurial commitment, why some people have it and some people don’t, what it really takes to succeed as an entrepreneur, and whether in the end it’s all worth it. But that’s left unexplored.
The 3-way interactions between Sean Parker and Eduardo Saverin looked for awhile like they might develop into an interesting story. I was an expert witness in lawsuit that had a similar triangular between two founders and a third party, and the pathologies were fascinating. But the movie just scrapes the surface of those topics too.
There was also a potentially interesting investigation of, Who’s idea was Facebook really? What is the nature of intellectual property ownership? What gives someone the right to call something “my idea?” There was a subplot in which The Winklevoss twins hire Zuckerberg to create a Harvard-only networking site that was intended to be in the same social networking ballpark as Facebook. Zuckerberg goes off and creates Facebook instead of working on the Winklevoss’s project. That could have been used to explore the question of, What does it really mean to come up with an idea? The closest the movie gets to exploring these issues is a comment from Zuckerberg about “A guy who makes a nice chair doesn't owe money to everyone who has ever built a chair.”
The Winklevoss’s are drawn somewhat sympathetically, but as portrayed in the movie I think they represent capitalism at its worst. Their idea is half-formed. They have no ability to implement the idea themselves. The details they present to Zuckerberg get changed into something unrecognizable as he creates Facebook. If Zuckerberg had implemented their idea as they described it to him, it would have gone nowhere. The Winklevoss’s are obviously capable of doing hard work (they’re Olympic rowers), but they’re not capable of doing the specific type of hard work required to create Facebook. Nonetheless, they think that because they hired Zuckerberg to work on a social networking project that Facebook should be theirs. They hired him to create a nice chair. He never got around to creating their chair, and during the time he was supposed to be creating their chair he created an entirely new and different kind of chair that revolutionized the furniture industry. Does hiring him to build one kind of chair somehow give them a right to the amazing chair? The movie doesn’t explore that question.
Personally, I think that good ideas are a dime a dozen. The talent, energy and will to covert an idea into an appealing product is infinitely rarer.
In the absence of any story line that develops to any significant degree, what we’re left with is a lot of witty dialog that adds up to not much of a story, and an interesting character study of one of the 21st century’s well-known geniuses. That character study could provide interesting insights, except that the most interesting details were fabricated, which leaves us with no real insights after all. And that leaves us a movie that has very little to offer other than the fact that, as Ebert says, it was “splendidly well made.” For me that wasn’t enough.