the social network

It’s a very good movie. You should go see it.  I don’t have much more to say about it than that.

What I do want to observe, though, is that the reaction to the movie on Twitter has been fascinating.  A surprising number of people are leaping to Zuckerberg’s defense.  Many are linking to this account of the legal maneuvering dramatized by the film — an account which doesn’t actually exculpate Zuckerberg, but is written as if the author thinks it does.  Even more astounding are posts like this one, which lionize Zuckerberg as a sort of Nietzschean hero.

It’s all a little weird.  People clearly have reservoirs of affection for and identification with the founder of Facebook. Presumably this is because of what his invention means to them.  I suppose that’s fine.

But let me offer my predictable cranky technologist perspective.  Zuckerberg is wildly successful, and I don’t begrudge him that.  Nor do I find myself particularly outraged on behalf of the various people he seems to have betrayed, all of whom are now even more astoundingly wealthy than they started out being.

There’s a strange tendency in this country to declare everyone who’s extremely rich to be some sort of visionary genius, whose unprecedented perspective allowed a break from the chains of history.  This is ridiculous.  Mark Zuckerberg did not invent social networking.  His achievement at Harvard wasn’t even that remarkable: 400 unique visitors to a just-launched website is great, but hardly unprecedented.  Nor are his technological achievements all that impressive: assuming the movie’s depiction to be accurate — and I suspect it basically is, judging by the tasks he was performing — he seems like a strong web developer, but not any kind of wunderkind (Facebook’s ability to operate at its current scale using a hugely rewritten version of PHP is a genuinely impressive achievement, but the entry-level LAMP stuff Zuckerberg himself did is simple enough).

What Facebook did was deploy an extremely effective marketing scheme — one based on exclusivity — at exactly the right  moment.  From there, network effects took over and delivered success.  This is an impressive commercial achievement, but it is not a triumph of vision or technical skill.  Depending on your perspective, you might not even consider it to be particularly admirable.

In the absence of Zuckerberg, someone else would have almost certainly come along and stolen Myspace’s thunder — just as someone or something will surely supplant Facebook before its ludicrous valuation is realized.  Zuckerberg is not one of history’s great men — he’s just one of its richest.

2 Responses to “the social network”

  1. Alex Priest

    Thanks for the link–although I hope my post didn’t *really* come across as lionizing Zuck like “a sort of Nietzchean hero.”

    You’re right, he’s not anything special. He’s probably not particularly talented, smart, and his technical achievement really isn’t anything to get all that excited about. My post wasn’t about that–it was simply how he is one of my generation (I am, after all, only 21) and his philosophy on life seems to mirror mine and some of my peers. He’s not better or smarter than any of the rest of us, he’s just a public figure that’s easy to draw lines to.

    I will, however, defend him a little bit, here. He may not be one of “history’s great men” but he’s not “just one its richest” either. Mark Zuckerberg is special because, although nothing he’s done has been *all* that unique or special, he made something of it anyway. He had the audacity–dare I say, the balls–to take what he created and do something with it. And although I’m sure a fair amount of luck figured into it, no one else has replicated what he’s achieved, and it’ll probably be a while before someone else does.

    There’s a reason we don’t see companies like Facebook popping up every day. Because there *is* something unique about these people. It may not be smarts, technical skills, or even ambition–it’s hard to pinpoint, really–but there’s something that put him where he is. And I think that, at the very least, that deserves a little respect.

    Anyway, you’re response certainly earned your blog a spot in my RSS reader! Looking forward to reading more, and thanks again for linking to my post. :-)

  2. Jeff

    Even if his defenders don’t always acknowledge it, Zuckerberg himself said he knew that something like Facebook was inevitable. I can’t remember if it was made clear in the movie, but in this New Yorker profile, he says, “We’d say, ‘Isn’t it obvious that everyone was going to be on the Internet? Isn’t it, like, inevitable that there would be a huge social network of people?’ It was something that we expected to happen. The thing that’s been really surprising about the evolution of Facebook is—I think then and I think now—that if we didn’t do this someone else would have done it.”

    I didn’t see the movie as terribly critical, except in attributing his drive to succeed mostly to interpersonal motives (revenge, envy). All we know for sure is he is “content to make something cool.” Who knows why? He acknowledged that he was in the right place at the right time, and he was happy to capitalize on it, but he’s clearly not resting on his laurels. The guy loves building this website, and he works hard at it.

    And now he’s a billionaire. I don’t know what he’ll do with his billions but for now at least he’s living like “the poorest rich person” his patrician classmate has ever seen.

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/09/20/100920fa_fact_vargas?currentPage=all

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