Thursday, October 21, 2010

Is Larry Summers the Key Character in The Social Network?

In my last post I mentioned in passing that Larry Summers is the only likable character in The Social Network. Let's revisit that idea.

I still think I'm right about the Summers character's likability. But as I was discussing the film with my roommate, I realized that this issue might be more complicated than I initially thought.

Your thoughts on Larry Summers in the film--played by Douglas Urbanski--most likely depend on your thoughts on the Winklevoss twins. Are they spoiled brats who expect the world to conform to their expectations or are they the victims of a serious case of intellectual property theft? This, of course, is the main question of the movie.

I initially read the twins as the former, but there's reason to reconsider this approach. After all, Zuckerberg did steal their idea, even if he did all the coding from scratch. The courts agree, to the tune of a $65 million settlement. (I'm talking here only about the universe of the film; I have no idea what happened in real life.) They're honorable gentlemen--or, at least, one of them is--who believe in the ideals of a Harvard code, initially refraining from suing Zuckerberg. They've previously succeeded in business, sending a programmer off to work for Google. They're athletic. They're attractive, no small thing for audiences who love identifying with good looking characters.

So why am I introducing the film's overarching theme through Larry Summers? Because the twins' quick interaction with the Harvard president may be the crucial scene to determining their character. Summers dismisses the Winklevosses and their claim pretty conclusively. If the scene were played differently, it might have added additional support to the idea that their legitimate claims are being ignored by the very people entrusted to safeguard their success. But, as shot, this short scene lends credence to the opposite approach.

Let's start with Summers. As Harvard president, he starts off in a position of authority. This appeal to stature is only strengthened when he mentions that he understands the financial considerations of the case because, after all, he had served as Treasury Secretary of the US. But beyond that, Summers is quick and confident and funny, a likable combination. Compare this to the Winklevosses, who repeatedly lose their cool throughout the meeting. Not as much room for sympathy with them. It only gets worse as the viewer learns that the twins relied upon their father's connections to secure this meeting. Score one for the privileged brats theory. Their petulance and immaturity are again highlighted as one of the brothers breaks the knob off a historic door.

This scene, short as it was, sealed my interpretation of the Winklevoss twins. If it were shot just a bit differently, my entire approach to the movie would have been different. It might not be true, then, that your understanding of the Winklevosses guides your take on Summers: your analysis of Summers just might determine your reading of the Winklevoss twins and, I believe, the film as a whole.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Facebook, Privacy, and the Bettering of Society

All everyone's been talking about is The Social Network, the so-called Facebook movie. And with good reason: it's a damn good film, even if it took some time on the way home from the theater to come up with even one likable character. (We eventually settled on Larry Summers, and, maybe, Erica and Rashida Jones' character.) I'll have some more thoughts on the film, I hope, later this week, but I found it interesting that so many publications used the occasion of the film's release to talk about Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. As opposed to the usual formula of the movie following a book--even as The Social Network is based on Ben Mezrich's The Accidental Billionaires--here we have an outpouring of the written word following a film.

The best of these, at least of the ones I've read, is Jose Antonio Vargas' profile of Zuckerberg in the September 20th edition of The New Yorker. There's the usual history and background, but where Vargas really excels is in discussing issues familiar to any of Facebook's users, a number somewhere around half a billion worldwide.

Here's Vargas on Facebook and privacy, one of the recurring issues of our new digital lives:
Danah Boyd, a social-media researcher at Microsoft Research New England, added, “This is a philosophical battle. Zuckerberg thinks the world would be a better place—and more honest, you’ll hear that word over and over again—if people were more open and transparent. My feeling is, it’s not worth the cost for a lot of individuals.”

Zuckerberg and I talked about this the first time I signed up for Facebook, in September, 2006. Users are asked to check a box to indicate whether they’re interested in men or in women. I told Zuckerberg that it took me a few hours to decide which box to check. If I said on Facebook that I’m a man interested in men, all my Facebook friends, including relatives, co-workers, sources—some of whom might not approve of homosexuality—would see it.

“So what did you end up doing?” Zuckerberg asked.

“I put men.”

“That’s interesting. No one has done a study on this, as far as I can tell, but I think Facebook might be the first place where a large number of people have come out,” he said. “We didn’t create that—society was generally ready for that.” He went on, “I think this is just part of the general trend that we talked about, about society being more open, and I think that’s good.”
I've never understood Zuckerberg's claim that openness is good. I always pictured this as the posturing of someone whose billion-dollar company requires the redefinition of online privacy in such a way that maximizes profits. But, now, I'm not so sure. I still don't necessarily want my grandmother to see all the pictures I'm tagged in, but it might actually be a good thing--both for individuals and our society at large--if, for example, people felt more comfortable being honest about their sexuality. Who knows, maybe Facebook is doing some good after all.