Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Social Network (2010) Re-visited

Back in 2007, when I was in film school, I enrolled in a course on the films of David Cronenberg. It was the final course that I needed to complete in order to earn the credits to graduate, and since it was offered in the summer, the long class periods allowed us to immerse ourselves in lengthy discussions about the films. Even after screening nearly all of Cronenberg's filmography (excepting maybe two or three minor works), the film that made the greatest impression on me was his prophetic 1983 science fiction thriller, Videodrome, which certainly gave me much to think about in terms of the film's prescient views of the ways in which humans interact with technology.

A comparison can be made between the ways in which Cronenberg depicts his characters' relationship with television, and the relationship between Internet users and social media sites today. I was especially intrigued by the character of the McLuhan-esque media theorist, who only appears "on television" -- that is, via a televised image. His representation in the form of a video image is accepted as "real" by the flesh-and-blood characters, but when Max Renn tries to meet the professor in person, he learns that he has recently passed away, and "lives on" only through pre-recorded videotapes, which are naturally limited in terms of the experiences and interactions they can provide.

In watching the film, I was struck by the similarities to the depiction of the professor's video representation being accepted as reality, and the digital representations of users on social networking sites like Facebook that come to create an illusion of reality of their own, which are accepted by other users, but are similarly limited in terms of the experiences and relationships it can provide.

Because of this fascination with thinking about these ideas in relation to social media, I have also been interested in thinking about them in relation to The Social Network, the 2010 film -- written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher -- about the creation and rise of the popular social networking site. I had avoided the film when it premiered at the New York Film Festival in 2010, as well as on its theatrical run, perhaps because I was concerned that the critical enthusiasm surrounding it was a misplaced excitement for the website itself, and that the film would turn out to be little more than a ride on the wave of Facebook's growing popularity.

When I finally caught up with the film last December, I was struck by just what a good film it is in many ways, and by just how much it "got right" from the vantage point of 2010, when the site was hardly in its infancy, but when its future seemed a lot less certain in terms of what directions it might take. As a biographical drama, it succeeds in creating a vivid portrayal of the historical moment in which the website appeared, and the factors that contributed to its longevity and success where other similar sites of the period failed.

It seems to me that the trick in writing a film about any social phenomenon is to avoid falling into the trap of becoming instantly dated, of creating something that quickly becomes the target of camp condescension for its laughably inaccurate predictions of the future. If Facebook had gone the way of MySpace or Friendster, say, in the intervening years since the film's release, it would no doubt look very different today.

It is difficult to fathom how incredibly important Facebook has become to the lives of many of its users in those intervening years. And, I think, where the film is most effective is in how neatly it explores the seductive ways in which the site becomes accepted as a substitute for real interaction, through book-ending scenes depicting opposing moments in the life of its creator: from the early popularity-seeking and competitive self-comparisons of the college years, to the wistful reflection on the people with whom connections have been broken over the years, and the (false) hope of re-kindling those connections through digital representations.

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