A paper I wrote in a Film course, American Dreams Made in Hollywood, in Fall 2019
Our Own Worst Nightmare:
Digital Consumers and American Demonology in The Social Network
It is often said that people fear what they do not understand. It has also been said that people fear change. The rapid development of technology over the past three decades checks both boxes, as technology is swiftly changing our society in ways that many do not entirely understand. The rise of social media has been a particular source of fear in American minds. The 1990s saw the beginnings of instant messaging and online networking, but the 2004 launch of Facebook, created by entrepreneur and Harvard drop-out Mark Zuckerberg, marked a new height in the digital revolution (Terrell). The site was unique in concept and it kickstarted the emergence of several other social media sites throughout the rest of the 2000s, which have come to dominate the lives of many young people today (Terrell). In 2010, six years after Facebook’s launch, The Social Network (TSN), a film about its creation and its creator, was released. Directed by David Fincher, TSN follows Zuckerberg from his days at Harvard, where Facebook began, to his skyrocketing success with the site, all while charting the new technological world order that was then arising. This emerging world order, largely accelerated by Facebook, had an enormous impact not just on day-to-day lives, but also on the American psyche. Although TSN can be read as a critique of the entrepreneur as an American Dreamer, demonstrating the price Zuckerberg paid for his success, on a deeper level, the film gives expression to an American nightmare; it reflects public anxieties about social media’s depersonalizing effects while also including in its critique the consumer as a kind of monster, him/herself.
The figure of the entrepreneur can be seen as a quintessential American Dreamer—a contemporary culmination of American individualistic success. The American success myth, which holds that anyone can achieve success through effort and hard work, has its roots in the beliefs of the country’s early settlers: The Puritans. As Jim Cullen writes in The American Dream, Puritans were strong believers in “self-improvement” which, he says, “remains a recognizable trait in the American character and is considered an indispensable means for the achievement of any American Dream” (Cullen 30-31). Over time, the ideal of self-improvement has manifested itself in several archetypes of American Dreamers represented in Hollywood films—in particular, the businessman and the frontiersman. In many ways, the entrepreneur is a combination of the two. Like the businessman, the entrepreneur is opportunistic, strategic, and business-minded and like the frontiersman, he/she is brave and willing to take risks in exploring new frontiers of the business world. But most importantly, like both the capitalist and the Westerner, the entrepreneur is a staunch individualist; he/she works outside traditional systems to create his/her own venture and be his/her own boss. As Peter Watt writes in an article on entrepreneurship and the American success myth, underpinning the spirit of entrepreneurship is the age-old glorification of the self-made man (Watt 24). Watt goes on to explain the modern phenomenon of exalting college dropouts (such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates), suggesting that dropping out is the ultimate “gesture of self-reliance” (Watt 25). College dropouts break from “a normative (and arguably ‘secure’) path through life” and thus represent a “self-styled success” that is achieved “without the support of or other-directed reliance on an external institution” (Watt 35). In Fincher’s The Social Network, Zuckerberg is an outsider at Harvard; to him, belonging is predicated on acceptance into an exclusive Harvard “Final Club,” which he has no chance of getting into. Mark’s outsider status both at Harvard and when he ultimately drops out forces him to be independent, self-reliant and competitive in his entrepreneurial self-pursuit, or self-making. As such, Fincher’s Zuckerberg is a classic American Dreamer.
In portraying Zuckerberg as successful but dreadfully lonely, TSN criticizes the entrepreneur, and by extension, the American Dream of individualistic success. Whereas the self-making that Mark undertakes has been idealized in American history, the film does anything but glorify it. Instead, it becomes what Morris Dickstein deemed Orson Welles’s 1941 film, Citizen Kane, to be: “a parable about power” (Dickstein 346). In other words, TSN displays the “human costs” (Dickstein 347) of power and wealth, which, in America, are significant markers of success. For instance, towards the film’s end, when his shares are diluted, Eduardo Saverin, Mark’s best and only friend as well as the initial co-founder of Facebook, confronts Mark for pushing him out of the company (Social 1:43:41-1:45:17). Soon after the confrontation, which signals the official ruin of their friendship, Facebook reaches one million users. While everyone in his office celebrates, Mark sits alone at his desk, blurred in the background due to the shallow focus of the shot (Social 1:46:49); he is both physically and visually separated from the joy of this success, indicating his lack of fulfillment by it. On top of this separation, the film cuts to a close-up shot of Mark’s face, and on it, a pained expression (Social 1:47:00). The film again presents success against a backdrop of loneliness in the final scene, where Mark dejectedly sends a friend request to his ex-girlfriend, Erica, on Facebook. As he pathetically refreshes the page over and over, the camera zooms in on his sad, despondent face (Social 1:53:45-1:55:35). Text detailing true facts about Facebook fades in to overlay this image, and the final line that appears reads, “Mark Zuckerberg is the youngest billionaire in the world” (Social 1:55:30). Meanwhile, the song, “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” by the Beatles plays over the entire sequence. Such blatant contrasts convey that, despite his ironic invention of a relationship-building website, Mark’s entrepreneurial success comes at the cost of his own relationships—namely Eduardo and Erica—and in turn, his happiness. In the end, though a billionaire, Mark is empty. The final scene of TSN bears a noteworthy resemblance to a scene near the close of Citizen Kane: after his second wife, Susan, leaves him and he destroys her room, Kane holds the snow globe in his hands and the camera pans up to show his miserable, broken face, with tears welling up in his eyes (Citizen 1:50:25-1:50:30). Further, this scene of sorrow takes place in Xanadu, Kane’s lavish estate which symbolizes the wealth and power that he has accumulated. Welles and Fincher both contrast discontented facial expressions with surrounding achievement to imply that the success of the self-made man comes at the hefty price of his own emotional wellbeing. The Social Network, like Citizen Kane, exposes the emptiness of the American Dream of self-made success, as well as the emptiness of the dreamer, himself (Rentschler, “No Trespassing”).
Although important to notice, the film’s message about the empty American Dreamer is a rather explicit one. Laying beneath this overt critique of American Dreaming is a more complex, symptomatic portrait of American Demonology. In creating a pervading sense of impersonality, TSN reflects a societal fear of social media’s impact on human relationships. Often, when computer screens appear in the film, they dominate the frame, taking up a large amount of space and appearing bigger than they actually are (Social 8:22, 9:06, 11:02, etc.). Consequently, the computer becomes an ominous, looming monster in itself. Moreover, several sequences in the film suggest an interaction between man and machine that eerily replicates interactions between real people. For instance, an early sequence of Mark blogging online is structured in a series of shot/reverse shots between him and the computer screen (Social 8:15-9:15). The shot/reverse shot technique in film is typically used during conversations between two people, but in Fincher’s movie, the machine takes the place of a human being in “conversation” with Mark. Later, when Sean Parker (another co-founder who essentially replaced Eduardo) is first introduced while discovering Facebook on someone else’s laptop, a shot/reverse shot pattern is also established between him and the laptop screen (Social 59:13-59:25). Then again, in the final sequence, we see shot/reverse shots between Mark and the screen on which Erica’s Facebook profile is displayed ((Social 1:53:45-1:55:35). Notably, the film begins with Mark and Erica having a physical conversation but ends with Mark interacting with her online profile. This fundamental shift, along with the repeated use of shot/reverse shots between people and computers, reveals that the machine—and the social network enabled by it—that is meant to be a facilitator for social connection becomes, instead, a replacement for it. With social media as a burgeoning new product of the digital revolution, the fear of technology’s depersonalizing effects on society was sure to be prevalent in 2004 and perhaps even more so in 2010. By the time TSN came out, Facebook had dramatically expanded, and Twitter and Instagram had also been invented (Terrell). It seems that the American nightmare articulated in Fincher’s film is about online “social networks” becoming not so “social” after all, to the point where they inhibit, if not outright obliterate, meaningful human relationships.
While the fear of social media is a modern one, the greater, underlying anxiety surrounding technology is not new. The anxieties expressed about the relationship between man and machine in TSN are not unlike those expressed by a film released over five decades earlier: the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (IBS). As Susan Sontag explains in her essay, “The Imagination of Disaster,” science fiction films like IBS often reflect a fear of extreme terror and/or extreme banality (Rentschler, “Pod Almighty”). In IBS, the fear of banality is communicated through the impersonality and conformity of the pod-people. Sontag considers how science fiction films of the early 20th century, such as King Kong, expressed that “the threat to man, his availability to dehumanization, lay in his own animality” (Sontag 222). However, in the second half of the century, she asserts, “Now the danger is understood as residing in man’s ability to be turned into a machine” (Sontag 222). The automatic, unfeeling pod-people are not just nonhuman, they are posthuman; a central anxiety depicted through them (among other fears, such as those of Communism and nuclear war) is an anxiety about all of mankind transforming into heartless machines (Rentschler, “Pod Almighty”). The 1950s saw an upsurge in automobile culture as well as the creation of devices like video tape recorders and the first commercial computer (“1950s Inventions”); even though technology transformed in different ways and reached new levels in 2010, American nightmares about technology have remained very much the same. As seen in TSN, computers come to replace not just human relationships, but humans themselves. People, to a great extent, become their Facebook profiles. Erica in TSN starts as a real person but becomes an image on a screen by the end just as Becky in IBS starts as a sentient human being but ultimately transforms into a machine-like pod-person.
Furthermore, the sense that pod-people are indistinguishable as individuals in IBS helps illuminate a similar sense of conformity and lack of individuality in TSN, especiallythrough the abundance of party scenes (Social 10:25, 13:05, 1:20:00). In one particular sequence, when Mark is creating his initial “Facemash” or “Who’s Hotter?” website (which eventually morphed into Facebook), the film crosscuts between him at his computer and a Final Club party (Social 9:14-11:54). The scenes of Mark in his dorm room consist of multiple shots of girls’ faces on a computer screen as he compiles them into one database. Meanwhile, swarms of girls crowd the Club in the party scenes. The faces on the computer screen start to blur together, as do the faces in party crowds, until all the girls become one amorphous mass. By pairing these two simultaneous lines of action, the film links the beginnings of the social network to a conformist culture. The scenes with Mark are very tightly framed, including several extreme close-up shots, and at the same time, as the camera enters the Final Club, the framing of the shots gets tighter and tighter, instilling a feeling of confinement and restriction of individual freedom. The party girls are like pod-people—unidentifiable as distinct individuals, all doing the same thing, and often moving in the same direction. In fact, the long line of girls automatically walking into the Final Club (Social 10:12-10:24) is redolent of the scene in IBS where the turned townspeople all robotically flock towards a central meeting place (Invasion 56:35-56:42). The amassing of countless faces on “Facemash” only bolsters the lack of individuality in the party scenes; the film thus presents technology as a mechanism that expedites the decay of the individual.
Yet the question arises, who is the real monster, the machine or the person behind it? While TSN critiques the self-made entrepreneur as well as technology itself, at its core, the film shines a harsh light on the modern digital consumer. The movie is not so much about the emptiness of the producer of new technology as it is about the emptiness of the consumer; common, everyday social media consumers are becoming friendless, despite the number of online “friends” they may rack up on Facebook. As Steven Snyder writes in a review of The Social Network, “The real story isn’t [Zuckerberg] or his Vision, but about the users – the way the public rose up and made his invention into something of their own” (Snyder). He continues, “This [movie] is about the shifting sands at the dawn of the technological revolution. In the film’s final scene, we see Zuckerberg approach Facebook not as a creator but as a user for the very first time – the scientist, it would seem, now realizing how much he has yet to learn about his creation” (Snyder). As Snyder aptly points out, in the final sequence, Mark becomes a consumer of his own invention (Social 1:53:45-1:55:35). He is pathetic and lonely in the conclusion by virtue of his consumption of the social network, not just his production of it. Through Mark’s transformation from creator to user, the film illustrates how technology is quickly advancing the shift from a producer to a consumer society, a shift which saw its beginning stages with the rise of mass consumer culture in the early 20th century (Levine 213). In the age of social media, everyone becomes a digital consumer, and a consumer of relationships. While technology enables this consumption, it is the consumers themselves who enable the technology by both buying and buying into it; although computers tend to dominate several shots throughout the film, those shots often still retain a hint of human control behind the machine, whether we see the screen over a person’s shoulder, fingers on a keyboard, or a hand on a mouse (Social 8:03, 9:23, 14:11, etc.). Whether intentional or not, in merging the figure of the maker and the user in Mark, the film’s criticism of the entrepreneurial producer implicitly becomes a criticism of the consumer for abandoning human relationships for digital ones.
In the era of social media, not only do we all become consumers, but we also become image-makers; since social media necessitates the presentation of an online “profile,” its consumption lends itself to inauthentic self-image-making. When first describing the idea of Facebook to Eduardo, Mark proposes, “People wanna go on the Internet and check out their friends, so why not build a website that offers that? Friends, pictures, profiles… I’m talking about taking the entire social experience of college and putting it online” (Social 26:57-27:13). From the outset, Mark aims to reduce “the entire social experience of college” to images (“friends, pictures, profiles”). Inherent in “Facebook” is the demand for an online face—that is, an amalgamation of photos, status updates, etc. that create a digital persona. That persona or “profile” gets circulated online, packaged and sold like a product to prospect online “friends.” As a result, it becomes virtually impossible to be a consumer of social media without entering the business of mass image-making. Returning to Citizen Kane, Kane’s character can be seen as a “made man”—a product of image-making and mass culture; he is a projection of many identities, made “by the media and for the media” (Rentschler, “No Trespassing”). Identity in Welles’s film takes on a fluidity indicative of the American value of self-inventiveness—the promise of constantly starting afresh (Rentschler, “No Trespassing”). However, Facebook’s democratization of image-making (by social media and for social media) reveals the potential for self-inventiveness to breed inauthenticity. A person, along with “the entire social experience of college,” goes from three to two-dimensional when transferred onto a movie screen; the online self loses a whole dimension—the authenticity and humanity—of the physical self. In a study of self-presentation on Facebook, several researchers explain that social media “can promote false presentation of the self… we call this false presentation the ‘Facebook-self’” (Gil-Or et al. 1). The “Facebook-self,” they write, is often “a more socially acceptable and popular self” and the difference between one’s true-self and Facebook-self is greater when he/she “is not satisfied with his or her real life” (Gil-Or et al. 2). TSN portrays Mark’s very conception of Facebook as stemming from a desire to compensate for a self he was not happy with, the self that was rejected by Final Clubs. When Mark tells Eduardo about his idea, he describes, “it’s like a final club, except we’re the president” (Social 27:27-27:30). These words reveal that what drives Mark to invent Facebook is a desire to create his own Facebook-self that is not as socially deficient as he perceives his true-self to be. Since Mark comes to represent the Facebook user, his inauthenticity as a producer is translated to an inauthenticity of the consumer. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of Facebook users throughout the film are faceless; they are not real, authentic people nor are they individuals. It is the consumers, including Mark, who bring social connection to new levels of artificiality by making and selling images of themselves (and others) online that are not always true to their real selves.
Almost a decade after TSN’s release, its messages are no less relevant, if not more pressing today. The film was prescient in its expression of anxieties surrounding online consumption, human connection, individualism, and authenticity, for in 2019, with even more technological growth, those fears have only intensified. Studies now show that social media use can lead to psychological and mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, and can inhibit interpersonal skills or cause social isolation (Christensen 9-11). In addition, not only does social media allow people to present inauthentic versions of themselves, but it also allows the spread of false information, which is part of what has launched us into the era of fake news. Beyond social media, the ascent of artificial intelligence has many people terrified that that robots will replace human interaction, if not the human race itself, decreasing our capacity for friendship, love, and empathy (Christakis). Chapman University’s 2015 Survey of American Fears found that most Americans’ fear of technology was greater than their fear of death (Romm). Of course, there tremendous upsides to new technology; social media facilitates connections across borders and oceans, and as a news outlet, it can productively keep citizens informed. AI has already begun to improve the efficiency and quality of human lives. As Danah Boyd writes in The Guardian, “Social media is here to stay. We need to get past the point in which we celebrate it or lament it in order to figure out how to live productively with it” (Boyd). Boyd alludes to the idea that technology only becomes a monster if we are monstrous in our use of it. Intentionally or not, The Social Network encourages its audience to turn its critique on consumers in on themselves. In the final scene, the camera angle is level with Zuckerberg, putting him and the viewer on the same plane. This levelling stirs our empathy; despite the fact that Mark is depicted as a robotic, unrelatable “asshole” in the film, we still feel for him in the end because to some extent, we identify with him, whether in 2010 or 2019. To some extent, we are forced to see ourselves in him. Likely digital consumers, ourselves, we are all the pathetic, lonely consumers of online relationships and constructed images. Ultimately, the film forces those of us watching to evaluate the extent to which we let ourselves become our own worst American nightmare.
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Citizen Kane. Dir. Orson Welles. Mercury Productions, 1941. Film.
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Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Dir. Don Siegel. Walter Wanger Productions, 1956. Film.
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Rentschler, Eric. "No Trespassing.'" Harvard University, Cambridge. 9 Oct. 2019. Lecture.
Rentschler, Eric. "Pod Almighty.'" Harvard University, Cambridge. 6 Nov. 2019. Lecture.
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Terrell, Keith. “The Complete History of Social Media: From the First Online Network to Today.” History Cooperative, The History Cooperative, 16 June 2015, https://historycooperative.org/the-history-of-social-media.
The Social Network. Dir. David Fincher. Columbia Pictures, 2010. Amazon Prime Video. Web. Accessed November 2019.
Watt, Peter. “The Rise of The ‘Dropout Entrepreneur’: Dropping Out, ‘Self-Reliance’ and The American Myth of Entrepreneurial Success.” Culture and Organization, vol. 22, no. 1, 13 Dec. 2015, pp. 20–43., doi: 10.1080/14759551.2015.1104682.
“1950s Inventions.” Fifties Web, https://fiftiesweb.com/pop/inventions.