Win the Internet and Lose Your Soul

Review of The Social Network, Directed by David Fincher

Jeff Hammerbacher, one of Facebook’s earliest employees, once infamously claimed that “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” That nicely captures the intellectual conceit and littleness of Silicon Valley’s culture. It did not seem to occur to Hammerbacher that minds spent thinking about clicking ads may not be as fine as he thought. Hammerbacher at least had the good sense to add, “That sucks.”

The contrast between mental horsepower and the purposes to which it is put to use is brilliantly examined in David Fincher’s masterpiece, The Social Network–which, upon retrospect, was the best movie of 2010. The somewhat fictionalized account of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his legal battles took home an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and Golden Globes for Best Director and Best Drama. The Oscars proved their enduring irrelevance by awarding Best Picture to The King’s Speech that year. At least they are consistent.

The film version of Zuckerberg is brilliant (I have no clue, and no interest, in the film character’s fidelity to his real-life inspiration). He also has that mix of arrogance and insecurity characteristic of someone who knows he’s the smartest person in the room but needs everyone to know it. His put-downs and dialogue, penned by West Wing scribe Aaron Sorkin, are fun to watch but would be awful to emulate.

I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try – but there’s no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention – you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing. Did I adequately answer your condescending question?

Zuckerberg shares with Sean Parker, founder of Napster and muse to Zuckerberg, a gnawing ambition to do something great. Parker says he created Napster to impress a girl in high school. Zuckerberg wants the respect he is denied by not getting into Harvard’s exclusive clubs. It wasn’t enough that he aced his SATs; he needs to stick out in a crowd of people who did the same. The film isn’t just about ambition; it is about selfish ambition: the drive not merely to succeed, but to be seen succeeding and to be rewarded handsomely for it.

On the surface, the film is on the very cutting-edge culturally, yet it turns out to be an old fashioned morality tale. The moral isn’t subtle, announced in the opening scene in which Zuckerberg’s girlfriend dumps him for being a jerk; highlighted in every scene in which Zuckerberg is rude, condescending, and angry; and punctuated in the final scene in which he Facebook-friends his ex and sits at his computer, alone, hitting refresh, waiting to see if she responds. Money, genius, and technology don’t buy you love. Love buys you love.

The brilliance of the film is in inviting us to both love and hate Zuckerberg. He is rude, arrogant, and condescending, but we admire his wit, hard work, and creativity. He screwed his friend, Eduardo, but we root for him in his battle with the Winklevoss twins, whose idea they claim he stole. The Social Network may be the most effective movie I’ve seen at portraying the seduction, allure, and loss of gaining the whole world and losing your soul.

Just to be contrarian, let me challenge the obvious moral. If Zuckerberg’s craving for success led him to create one of the internet’s most widely-used and valuable companies (over a billion users and a market capitalization of $174 billion), could it be all that wrong? Instead of portraying him as a greedy, lonely jerk, couldn’t we also see him as a brilliant and successful entrepreneur?

Put another way, if we are forbidden from doing anything from “selfish ambition or conceit,” can Christians be good businessmen? Do we lose something by vilifying Zuckerberg and demonizing ambition? Isn’t some megalomania now and then useful for changing the world?

I am, of course, drawing a false contrast, and so is the film. You can love your work and love people too, when you love God above all. Ambition is not wrong, rightly conceived as a love of excellence. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might,” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). What would it look like to love one’s work but not at the expense of one’s friends? Sadly, it probably wouldn’t look like a very interesting movie. As good as The Social Network is, it teaches only by negative example, damning the times we live in but showing little hope of a different way.

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