Critic and Cultural Analyst Jeff Koch faces down the behemoth social networking tool via reviews of two recent movies on the topic
“Friend” is a verb, getting tagged and poked is a good thing, and everyone can know as much (or as little) as they care to know (and you care to share) about you. Yes, it’s the world of Facebook, and for better and worse, it’s changed the ways in which we interact with each other and the world at large. With over 500 million users, it’s much more than just a website or a social networking tool. For most, it’s a daily part of life; for many, it’s a way of life.
Two new movies tackle the subject of Facebook and its ambiguous yet pervasive influence on our culture, albeit from different perspectives. The first is The Social Network, which is the story of the creation and founding of Facebook and its creator, Mark Zuckerberg. The other is Catfish, a documentary about a community and relationship built entirely online.
The Social Network opens in Harvard in the early part of the century, where Zuckerberg (played wonderfully by Jesse Eisenberg), a sophomore at the prestigious University, has just been dumped by his girlfriend. She leaves him with these parting words, which very tidily sums up Zuckerberg: “You’re going to be successful, and rich. But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a geek. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”
The hurt and rejection from his girlfriend sets in motion the chain of events that lead to the creation of Facebook and its expansion from an exclusive, Harvard-only social network to the monolith it is today. The story is told through the lens of two competing lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg and Facebook regarding the true sources of its inception and creation. We’re left with multiple points of view and no clear answers, just the story of a messy, victim-riddled ride to the top. The film excels on every level: the acting is top notch (along with Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake give exceptional performances); the writing is crisp and sharp (the movie was written by Alan Sorkin), making a story about computers and coding and depositions taut and thrilling; the score (by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Atticus Ross ) is pitch perfect; and the direction of David Fincher is strong and assured. The movie was a pure joy to watch and the best movie that I have seen this year by far.
In the movie, Zuckerberg makes for an interesting case study in regards to social networking. He creates a revolutionary website designed to bring people together and in the process changed the fundamental way in which we interact. As an outsider in ‘the real world’ at Harvard, the old way wasn’t working for him, so rather than change himself, he changed the way we interact. Yet he’s always an outcast, on the outside looking in. In most scenes, he is deliberately shot separate from everybody else. In one scene, after a huge investment comes in and the staff of Facebook is celebrating, Zuckerberg is outside, alone in the dark, looking in at the warmly lit house as his cohorts celebrate, without him. He is literally on the outside looking in. In the chilling final scene of the movie, Zuckerberg, having just been rebuffed by a woman, sits alone at a computer, on his own website, awaiting a friend request that will most likely never come. He is more alone and more unhappy than he has been the entire movie. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
While The Social Network only hints and intimates about the conflicts of social networking, Catfish is solely devoted to the topic. The documentary, directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, follows Ariel’s brother Yaniv (Nev, for short) as he strikes up an online friendship with a young painter, Abby, after she paints one of Nev’s photographs. Eventually Nev’s online social circle expands to include Abby’s family, most important Abby’s mother, Angela, and step-sister, Megan. Nev’s relationship with Megan-whose Facebook profile reveals a beautiful, caring young woman who is a dancer and musician-quickly escalates to the point that they are swapping several emails and texts daily and making regular phone calls to each other. Nev confesses to really caring about Megan and saying that if they lived in the same town there’s no doubt in his mind that they would be together.
To say any more about what happens in Catfish would be unfair to anyone who has not seen it. The suspense of the story and the slow unfolding of the mystery is half the fun. In the end we’re left with a story that is simultaneously about the connection and the deception that is to be found online. Nev’s beliefs about his new online “family” turn out to be less than accurate. But does that change or negate the intensity of his feelings or emotions leading up to that discovery? Can online networking and connections exist in their own reality, separate from the visceral, corporeal world? How do we view Nev’s time spent cultivating a relationship with Megan if, in the end, nothing is there? Is it wasted time? Or is the time spent its own reward? And is it any different than building (and losing) relationships in the physical world?
Catfish is the perfect microcosm through which to view the entirety of social networking, and it helps to illustrate my own ambivalent feelings about Facebook and social networking in general. In so many ways, it has enriched my life, giving me a way to meet new friends and lovers, stay in touch with old friends and far away friends, and providing me an outlet for my music and writing to reach a vastly larger audience than otherwise possible. On a larger scale, I feel it’s made our culture more literate, more appreciative of writing, more connected, and more able to find the things we need and want to make us truly happy. It has shrunk our world.
And expanded it, creating gulfs between individuals who would rather interface online than interact face to face; who would rather update their Facebook status than talk to the person standing right in front of them. The closer it makes us, the further apart we get; the more intimately we express ourselves, the more impersonal we behave; the more connected and tiny our world becomes, the more disconnected we feel as individuals; the more together we feel, the more alone we are.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Social Network : 9.5 / 10.0
Catfish : 8.0 / 10.0