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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Lessons learned from David Fincher, my phone, and the Zucc

I find it hard to believe The Social Network came out a decade ago.

I watched it for the first time, believe it or not, this past weekend, now that it’s been available on Netflix for a while and I could no longer justify not having seen it.

When the film was made, Facebook was six years old, and the lawsuits it depicts had barely been resolved. Now, almost twice the company’s lifespan later, people forget how the mythical startup, began, how these things always begin: by squeezing a half-baked idea for every vile penny and moral compunction.

When I was a tween I began to style myself something of an old soul, I suppose, so from its inception the idea of social media seemed anathema to me. At the time the idea of it, manufactured by adults’ moral panic about children’s screen use, likely drove my fears of the platforms. I didn’t make a Facebook or Snapchat account until my senior year of high school, to keep track of people at a summer program I had attended and, later, my classmates.

I rapidly became what these types of platforms would likely call a dedicated user of the site, refreshing frequently, opening tabs between chores, posting long pieces of my mind on a regular basis. I knew I’d become addicted when the instant I closed the Facebook tab was enough time for me to forget and reopen it, just to make sure nothing new had happened.

My reasons for hating this industry persist, but for quite different reasons than before.

In one scene of The Social Network, Zuckerberg, played by a refreshingly despicable Jesse Eisenberg, gleefully announces to a San Francisco venture capitalist that Facebook has a higher user retention rate than any other social media platform, at over ninety percent. Our users come to the site five times a day, he says with pride.

Ten years later, the thought of any regular user of social media logging in five times a day is laughable not for its extremity but for its moderation. People have made careers out of publicity on Twitter, Facebook, and other websites, and not only influencers, but academics, politicians, and artists as well, for whom the idea of personal branding has become just as central.

My issue with all this is not the general scorched-earth morality than many claim with influencing, but rather the way in which access to these platforms, rather than democratizing communication (“networking”) as they seem to have been created, instead encourages us to sell our bodies, minds, ideas, and information.

We’ve known this forever. Everyone knows by now that we’re the product online, except, perhaps, my tech worker friends who get defensive when I point out where their lucre comes from.

But what’s less clear is that the very idea of democratization—the supposed through line from “Chairs are like Facebook” to the Arab Spring—hides what these networks really are, a way for Eisenberg’s Zucc to assert power over those he hates from his Harvard dorm room.

Fincher and Sorkin’s Fight Club-like image of Zuckerberg might be a composite, but no matter what inaccuracies people faulted them for a decade ago, in our times the truth behind the abstraction is clear.

As the president battles with Twitter over its late and insufficient fact checking of his lies, it has become clear that our “choice” is one between two not equivalent but still horrible possibilities.  A world without free expression is obviously unpleasant to imagine, but a world governed by these technologies can only be worse. We wouldn’t need Twitter to fact check if Twitter didn’t exist.

In Zuckerberg’s woefully inadequate Senate hearings, in Bezos’ bought-out Washington Post (the home of investigative journalism, many like to say!), in the presumption of owning a computer and/or a smartphone foisted onto students and professionals, which probably come from some combination of that other MAGA, Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Amazon, we have allowed the new world of information technology endless power, direct and indirect, over our lives.

Ironic, then, that what we call a network, something meant to create a deterritorialized web of connections, does in fact have a center, a center far deeper and stronger than any we have yet known.

Eight people, just eight people, fewer than lived on the floor of my house at Carleton, now control as much wealth as half the planet. And their roots are here, in the technologies, industries, and philosophies that have structured our new world.

In this time when we cannot often physically see each other, it’s become common to thank these developments, in information technology and around it, for allowing our lives to continue less interrupted than they otherwise would. But these companies are middlemen, siphoning off what ought to be accessible before we ever get knowledge of it.

I have not used Facebook in almost three months, since before sheltering in place began, I keep away from Twitter, and even my most digitally seasoned friends are beginning to grow wary. The world we’ve created allows connections, to be sure, but we must reevaluate whether the whirlwinds of stressful information we receive are worth the massive political consolidation they allow.

This entire brand of corporatism has singled out our need for connection and exploited it. Before coronavirus, during it, and surely after it, we have allowed it to coalesce control of a kind that, to initial viewers of The Social Network, must have seemed both unthinkable and downright laughable.

The indignation the film often received in those days is telling. We let this world happen because the closing image of a then-young Zuckerberg madly refreshing his screen seemed comical, charming, even, to those who then knew Facebook. It did not have the insidious connotations we now recognize.

We let this world happen the way control is so often wrested, so incrementally that we do not even notice it happening, because, when any part of it does seem like an interruption, we enjoy it too much to count it off. The way Atwood’s Gilead sprang from America before anyone had time to check the maps.

In the early days, when the Internet was being developed for military and later academic use, it was thought of as a closed system with democratic rules; by the release of Fincher’s film, people knew they could cash in on no more than a screwball idea.

People buy in, because there is always a market, because the effects of these massive economies of scale are so diffuse and so abstracted from our own lives that no one person sees: not the money made from advertising, not the bundles of mined data, not the gentrified neighborhoods worldwide, not the stock inflation going straight to the top, and only to the top.

But if it’s free, why not?

Ten years later, we are all Zuckerberg, refreshing our screens, waiting to see the notification ping while the lawsuits get resolved on their own.

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