This all-American reality TV show staple line seems to have become the tech world’s guiding mantra of 2010. From pop culture icons LeBron James and Kanye West (let’s not forget this year’s VMA chorus of “let’s make a toast to the douchebags”), to high profile nerds Mark Zuckerberg and Julian Assange, and publisher Nick Denton (Gawker), no one seems to be worrying themselves about a visit from ghosts past, present, or future this year. You don’t get ahead by caring what other people think. Successful mavericks or inhuman jerks, will these guys ever really have their Rosebud moment? Should they?
Whether you love to hate them or hate to love them, the media’s flirtation with the drama behind new media figures like Zuckerberg, Assange and Denton is high profile-piece drama. Character assassination has taken a front seat in publications like the New York Times, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, perhaps somewhat deservedly. But when it comes to business and publishing, the reality is that it’s always been this way. How short our memories are. San Francisco alone played host to The Big Four and the Hearst empire. The business world, particularly the publishing industry, is littered with the corpses of arrogant, confident men who put their ideas and success ahead of personal happiness, or at least found that for them they were one and the same thing.
Since The Social Network was released several months ago, the critical response has tended towards the contemplative. Conflated as it is with larger social questions about the “Facebook generation,” we’ve cast it as a lens through which to analyze contemporary life. The New York Times, all on its own, has covered The Social Network and gender, The Social Network and tech entrepreneurs, and (the angle that has dominated my office’s water cooler), The Social Network and how differently older and younger viewers interpret its antihero, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
The article, “Film Version of Zuckerberg Divides the Generations,” written by the always insightful David Carr, observes that younger viewers find Zuckerberg’s drive and creativity inspiring, forgiving his treatment of those around him, while older viewers see it as a cautionary tale of arrogance and duplicity. The very idea that a group of young people could build a billion dollar business in a year without rifts and betrayals is absurd. Has this ever happened in the long and colorful history of American business? Anyone who’s made even a small independent film knows how difficult it is to create something even on a mini scale while keeping friendships intact. So is the issue here that Zuckerberg, with a somewhat rude disregard for the rules of polite social discourse, destroyed some friendships? Or is it that in previous generations patrons both old and young would have left the theater with the same impression? Perhaps that’s more a sign of the evolution of cinema, where a film’s representation of morality isn’t as clear cut as it was in say Citizen Kane, or All About Eve, or even Dickens. It may be that what we really find disconcerting is Fincher’s ability to make us feel both reactions. Perhaps that’s what’s unique to our generation—the storytelling rather than the story itself. Our representation of morality in most forms of popular culture has changed substantially in the last 50 years, and it’s no longer so clear cut.
'The Social Network' spawned a conversation about technology and the age-based reception of film
Carr’s article starts off with a very good question— “at what point does ambition, the cornerstone of American commerce, morph into something darker and less celebrated?” Far from being something new, it’s one of Hollywood’s oldest questions and favorite tropes. Where would Frank Capra have been without it? What we chafe against is our newfound cultural acceptance of the shameless arrogance so well embodied in the “I’m not here to make friends” mantra. Beyond the loss of a moral compass, is it also because the power has been given over to lowly engineers, formerly the group hired by badly behaved businessmen? A group that is less inclined to hold their inappropriate razor tongues until after success has been found? In the 21st century, the group formerly just pawns in the business of creation are actually creating businesses. And the unique circumstances of our generation mean that they won’t all die in relative obscurity only to be revived as cult heroes a la Nicolai Tesla.
Which leads us on to one of the other most talked about responses to the film, one that looks at the characters’ roles as “nerds”: Zadie Smith’s New York Review of Books essay “Generation Why?” (which prompted Alexis Madrigal’s “Literary Writers and Social Media: A Response to Zadie Smith,” in the Atlantic). Smith’s review is divided between analysis of the film itself and a greater treatise on Facebook and what she calls People 2.0 (an idea, “2.0”, that’s already passé, as is “nerd” while we’re at it, a derogatory underplaying of the work of engineers). Most reaction pieces to her reaction piece praise her analysis of the film before taking on her larger ideas about popular culture, but there seem to be several misconceptions about the film itself there too.
One of Smith’s major misreadings is the idea that Zuckerberg, in the film (not real life), is interested in the “billion” Sean Parker tempts him with, or in any of the trappings that Parker represents—girls, excess, partying. She begins with a few bold statements along the lines of, “Don’t we all know why nerds do what they do? To get money, which leads to popularity, which leads to girls.” And “Parker dazzles Zuckerberg with tales of the life that awaits him on the other side of a billion.” Obviously these are rhetorical setups for a kind of dénouement down the line—these are not the real Zuckerberg's motivations. But Smith implies that the film fails to communicate this well—that Fincher’s attempts to point to Zuckerberg’s indifference to wealth fall flat. Whereas Zuckerberg’s motivations seem clear in almost every scene of the film.
If you want to get to the nitty gritty, what kind of arrogant Harvard business student (Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin) signs a contract without getting guidance? Zuckerberg’s choice to work with Parker is clearly a pragmatic move—Parker’s been through it before and he knows investors. If anything, the film’s Zuckerberg questions Parker’s dalliances with younger ladies.
What Zuckerberg wants is to win. Success. It’s the kind of fear of failure or mediocrity that drives someone to get perfect SAT scores, to drown out personal failure by posting hurtful slurs online, to want to get into the best Finals club. The billion just represents the scale that is appropriate for his self-perceived genius, the only scale that’s really acceptable.
The thing about developers or hackers is that, unlike the business people and publishers of yore, they can create something socially transformative in a short period of time with little money and a pronounced disregard for authority. You might say that publishers and business people had the same disregard, but if that was so, why the need to have politicians in their back pockets? Why the sweet talking on the surface? There was a pragmatism there built on the need to make wads of money. With engineers, there might be a vague idea of why something is done, but the overwhelming answer is more likely to be “because it was there,” or “because it was a cool idea,” and obviously, “because I could.”
There are few barriers to entry on the web, fewer than in the previous world of invention. But that, too, is not new to America. It’s always been that openness that’s driven American business. Coming from Australia, I’ve found many things here to gripe about, but the relative openness of business is not one of them. In Australia and, I’m guessing, the UK, there are many strict paths into business, a kind of hierarchy to getting a job in any given industry that simply does not exist in the same way here. In my experience, talent and chutzpah can push you up the chain. And seemingly, if you add to those qualities a narrow but transformative idea, with a little luck and good timing you can shoot right to the top.
Sean Parker really did challenge the music industry’s thinking with Napster, Zuckerberg’s Facebook challenges the notion of friendship in the 21st century, Julian Assange is challenging the current ethical rules of journalism. They’ve done this rapidly and, some might say, without a great deal of thought. They’re all engineers. For better or for worse this is a kind of opening up of information, more akin to the invention of the printing press than the civil rights movement of the 1960s (get with it Malcolm Gladwell). It’s not going to stop just because some people don’t like it.
Engineers aren’t all witty wordsmiths; they may not charm you while they’re getting what they want (like Cary Grant lying and cheating his way through His Girl Friday). While the charges against Assange ring of a John LeCarre caliber setup, the details, even if not criminal, don’t exactly paint him in a good light. And to think we have such a sparkling history of men in power treating women well.
But the people who have spent this year moaning about the larger consequences of the actions of these figures just imitate the music industry’s pleas of the early 2000s. It’s happening. Bad luck. Deal with it. Make your solution, don’t just talk about your problem. This is actually a world of creativity, where even the least technical people have a chance to express their tastes and critiques on Facebook, where business models are dying and also bursting forth. Build something. This is a world for inventors. But beware: they’re not here to make friends. Never have been.
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