Thursday, October 28, 2010

How healthy is Facebook?

I didn’t know until I saw The Social Network that Facebook began as an exclusive service for Harvard students before being rolled out to other top US colleges and eventually the rest of us. It suddenly made a lot more sense.

I'm on Facebook. But watching the movie, I began to wonder why anyone would want to sign up to the virtual version of a particularly brutal American rite of passage built around the public playing out of popularity. The social network is one of dysfunctional rich kids, dysfunctional geeks, dysfunctional scantily-clad women all dysfunctionally desperate for acceptance by the coolest frat club. Facebook, of course, becomes the coolest of the lot.

Today there are 500 million of us playing out this ritual, day in day out. Driving up and down on the same old strip like the kids in American Graffitti, permanent adolescents, a night that never ends. No wonder all the characters in the film end up suing each other.

The Social Network is written by the brilliant Aaron Sorkin who created the West Wing. Like the characters he writes about he’s very smart and part of the secret of his success is the way he uses detail, very precise detail, to make us believe that this is real. I felt I was at Harvard just as I felt I was in the White House.

The result can be stories that are interesting and exciting on a theoretical or intellectual level but less so on an emotional one. No problem in a series when there’s plenty of time for us to engage with the characters - no problem at all in The West Wing where we're prepared to wait for what, a hundred episodes?, for Josh to finally kiss Donna - but a potential Achilles heel in a film where the audience needs to find someone to sympathise with fairly early on if we’re to be pulled in.

Sorkin seems to deliberately avoid using the obvious candidate for this role – Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin who put up the initial capital – to this effect. Perhaps Aaron’s even cleverer than I realise. The medium is the message and this film is pretty much absent of real emotion – it’s all the anaesthetised synthetic emotion of the courtroom. A mediated second-hand sort of emotion. Sounds a bit like Facebook really.

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