“Dating you is like dating a Stairmaster!”, the girl, who is named Erica, in a pique, tells the boy she’s about to dump, at the start of things. Acidic in its exasperation and all the funnier for it, the retort makes me laugh a little but it makes me cheer her under my breath more, as if she just threw a mean left hook in a prize fight which in some ways she did, and makes me secretly hope, too, that the force of what she said would break a little skin, as the boy, given the brief time I’ve heard him talk, is not only obnoxious and exhausting but also seems peevishly oblivious to his own profound lack of charm. “You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd,” Erica says, “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.”
It does hit him like a clout of trauma, much like any rejection, only the scar it leaves runs a little deeper. The boy, you see, is also supposed to be Mark Zuckerberg, prodigious inventor of Facebook, not so much a nerd as a hyper-nerd, hopped-up on his own adrenaline of precociousness. And the breakup, with its toxic fallout of scorn and vendetta and maybe a couple of beers too much and one spiteful blog entry, is also supposed to be the loam from which his ubiquitous billion dollar brainchild would rise. Erica may have all but disappeared after she walks out on Mark, but she soaks into the fabric of the piece, becomes ambient almost. David Fincher has flippantly referred to The Social Network as “the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies” and if we’re to indulge him, then Erica is Rosebud.
Facebook, then: bane or boon? Hoary debates revolving around its ramifications on social conduct and modes of communication have long emerged and trended, as they always do each time something new tucks itself into the folds of the zeitgeist so deeply as to become equal measures infrastructure and default setting. It’s a little tiresome, to be honest, and a little impertinent, too. The Social Network is not about Facebook per se. Good news, that. It’s speculative fiction, but pickled in the conspirational anxieties that shadow the platform, only it’s less about the conspiracy as it is about the conspiracy theory. The Kane referencing is fun, but while the sub-machinegun velocity of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue and the sinister melancholia that underpins it and gives the piece its torque and throb, what it hews closer to is Preston Sturges, albeit a Preston Sturges so feverish with paranoia and malice it deters the comedy of manners a little for something closer to noir.
The Rashomon parallels make even more sense, mostly out of how the three-way legal tumult—between Zuckerberg, his best friend and CFO Eduardo Saverin and the Winklevoss twins who claim they thought of it first—is mapped out, a fractured whole pieced together from opponent sides of the story, stingy about its truths, like a mystery that closes in on itself. Obviously, getting to the bottom of matters is not the main thrust. And neither, it seems, is getting to the bottom of the man who centers everything.
Jesse Eisenberg, sidling at last out of the shadow Michael Cera casts over him unfairly because it really should have been the other way around, allows his Mark Zuckerberg to break his armor some, with little tics of remorse that soften him and also surges of awe when he comes into the presence of the devil himself, who is supposed to be Napster overlord Sean Parker and is played with a fiendish glee by Justin Timberlake. But for the most part, he is the quintessence of a nerd—abnormally brainy, profoundly isolated and possessed of both supernatural tunnel vision and a debilitating social deficit.
A little after the beta version of his social network detonates on campus and makes him a rockstar-in-small, Mark sees Erica in a restaurant. He walks over and rather than apologize for his online spew of vitriol, among others, he tries to impress her with his new website. This is the currency of his world, the main prop of his cockiness. This is also the crucial truth nerds never learn when it comes to women who are not nerds: never try to impress a girl as if you were trying to impress yourself because nerd things mean little to people who are not nerds. Except that, at last, this nerd thing of his means something to people who aren’t nerds. And it hasn’t changed a thing. It’s heartbreaking. And if you can trace, from his feigned contempt for Harvard’s exclusive Finals Clubs for one, how he secretly wants to be part of one, and how his cocky self-regard is ultimately beholden to the hierarchies, then you know that heartbreak must come with extra crush. After this, when the Beatles’ Baby You’re A Rich Man starts playing at the end of it all, the line that goes “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people? Now that you know who you are” can’t help but gain a measure of snark.
“Good luck with your video game” is Erica’s caustic rebuke in the restaurant, her killer blow, and the last we see of her until we sort of circle back one last time in the end. Rosebud, remember? “You’re not an asshole. You’re just trying so hard to be one,” the benign, almost angelic paralegal and slightly corny expository mouthpiece, and one of the few bum notes here, tells Zuckerberg after the deposition and before leaving him alone in the empty conference room. It’s a line freighted with redemptive balm. But Zuckerberg is still too lost in his own orbit for it to have any brunt. That penultimate image of him sitting alone at his laptop, though, sending a friend request to the one that got away, is the very condition of our online selves: everywhere at once and nowhere at all. And The Social Network is a dark fable about this condition, the fundamental disconnect of a hyper-connected generation and the loneliness that comes from it. The last shot of Zuckerberg hitting the refresh button every few seconds, awaiting the confirmation that will most likely never come, is an epistle to that loneliness: the creator in the coils of his creation, fulfilling his cosmic destiny as a nowhere man.