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Saturday, 4 December 2010

This film charts the rise of Facebook from its inception in a Harvard dormitory room where, in the year 2004, a smart and ambitious IT student named Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg, pictured) spent a number of hours after being dumped by his girlfriend setting up a website that allowed students to rank the appearance of girls studying at the university. The site was called Face Mash and it was an instant hit that caused a college server to crash under the weight of the traffic generated. The girl whose words led to his emotional meltdown, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), came in for some criticism and the post containing it was also viewed by many. Having engaged so large a number of his peers, Mark enjoyed some celebrity. But he still didn't get the girl. And he still wasn't rich.

Helping Mark in his early experiments with social networks was another student who lived in the same dorm room, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), whose main contribution to their as-yet-embryonic plans was financial, although he also provided Mark with moral support. There were also three students who popped up on Mark's radar from another college, twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence) and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) who sought Mark's help following the success of Face Mash to set up a social network site to be called Harvard Connect. The attention of the three young men intrigued Mark because they were part of a select club and represented the kind of social attainment that Mark thought would enhance his own happiness and future prosperity. But while they waited for him to begin coding for them, Mark was busy putting together his own site.

While the birth of Facebook is conveyed in such stories there are a large number of cutaways to future legal battles. Suing Mark are two different parties. On the one hand the Winklevoss twins and Narendra said that Mark stole their idea for a social network. On the other hand Eduardo sought compensation for the work that he contributed to the project, after he had been virtually divested of his shareholding following the initial success of Facebook.

A major point of contention between Eduardo and Mark, once the site had become popular within the universities where it had been released, was the issue of advertising. Eduardo felt that his job, as the CFO, was to make sure the site paid for itself. Mark, on the other hand, didn't want to endanger the future potential of the site (still called The Facebook at this stage) by cluttering it up with stuff he felt was not "cool". Advertising was definitely not cool. Not only would it destroy the "clean" look of the site, but it would slow down the pages, thus impeding the user's enjoyment of The Facebook. Mark also wanted to move West, to Silicon valley, and Eduardo did not want to quit university.

At this point of conflict another player entered the scene. Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) first clapped eyes on The Facebook at the home of a female friend he had met at a party. He soon made contact with Mark. As a former founder of the wildly successful file-sharing site Napster, Sean had runs on the board and a knack for picking winners in the online space. Ignoring Eduardo's scepticism, Sean pushed Mark to realise his vision of a site where people would want to spend time. It was also a site that Sean thought would become a huge property in future. So Mark went West to where Sean lived.

The rest, in a sense that the whole movie is too, is history. It's a dialogue-heavy film that requires sustained attention from the viewer in order to follow the various stories and the legal fights across the table where the main players come together to resolve the matters of their contributions to something that had become a global phenomenon. In a sense, then, the movie is a type of reckoning. Why did Facebook start? Ambition for success. Why was it so successful? Other sites had failed in certain material respects and the people behind Facebook had seen those failures and learned from them. But Facebook was also successful because it gave people a type of agency that is absent in more commercial types of social interaction. You can see a movie produced by a large corporation and talk about it with your friends; you can even blog about it. But Facebook allowed people to talk about themselves. This new method of achieving agency caught on very fast. By 2008, when the legal scenes took place, the site was already certain to become a commercial hit. It's just that Mark and Sean wanted to make sure it had a critical mass before introducing paid advertising, which they would do slowly and in an unobtrusive fashion.

The film is necessarily vague about some details, I am sure. And it will have rendered some players in a less flattering light than was possibly justified. This economy is in the nature of storytelling. In the final analysis, it is a fun film to watch for anyone who uses Facebook or Twitter (which "spun out" of Facebook by taking one element of it - the status update - and turning it into the main element). Many films about people involved in information technology are burdened by the cliche of the IT expert as a lone outsider with problems interacting in mainstream society. The Social Network (dir David Fincher, 2010) recalibrates the gears, to a certain degree, and shows us how a group of variously motivated and skilled young people are able to create a new platform for individual agency out of the unresolved yearnings of their lives.

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