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'The Social Network'

Cathleen Falsani finds that the movie version of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg misses the very point of the social network: to reconnect with people with whom we already have a relationship.

October 26, 2010

The theater was empty but for two college-age guys when I went to see a screening of “The Social Network” at the small cinema in the seaside village where I live.

As the fictionalized account of the early days of Facebook.com and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, unfolded on the big screen, I yearned to have a friend sitting next to me with whom to share my observations.

Full disclosure before I continue with my impressions of this terribly compelling film: I am a Facebook fanatic. Over the last few years, checking in regularly -- numerous times a day -- with my friends on Facebook has become a part of my daily routine.

Even on vacation. Even when I was traveling in Africa earlier this year. On my laptop, on shared computers in the hotel business offices and via my iPhone.

I know what many of you are thinking: That’s nuts! How does she find the time?

Well, I make the time because Facebook and the connections and, more importantly, the reconnections I’ve made there with friends, old and new, are an integral part of sacred community for me. “Facebooking” is a spiritual practice and a blessing for me -- one that has changed my life in ways neither I nor Mr. Zuckerberg (I’m guessing) could have imagined.

More on that in a minute. First, let’s get back to the film.

“The Social Network” opens in a crowded bar in Cambridge, Mass., where Zuckerberg (played with virtuoso, haunting pathos by Jesse Eisenberg) is having a conversation with his girlfriend, Erica. Perhaps trying to have a conversation is a more accurate description of what transpires onscreen.

Zuckerberg is painfully socially awkward. He is stoic, almost robotic, in his interactions with Erica and nearly everyone else in his life. It’s clear that while Zuckerberg is good with things such as complicated algorithms and computer code, he is decidedly not good with people. He doesn’t read the social cues and is seemingly flummoxed by emotions and empathy.

It quickly becomes apparent, however, that Zuckerberg, then a sophomore at Harvard College (the year is 2003), yearns for connection. He desperately wants to belong, to be accepted and known, but doesn’t know how to express his desire constructively. Instead, he expresses it as obsession, demonstrated in his preoccupation with getting into one of Harvard’s “final clubs.” He believes membership in one of the exclusive social clubs will be the key to his success -- and connection -- in college and in life.

Because Zuckerberg is illiterate in the language of emotion, his deep longing is shrouded in a veneer of arrogance, condescension and boorishness that repels Erica, who breaks up with him.

“I think we should just be friends,” Erica says, trying to be kind.

“I don’t need friends,” Zuckerberg says flatly.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Fueled by the pain of her rejection, Zuckerberg returns to his dorm room and posts cruel rants about Erica on his blog before his negative energy finds a new outlet and he begins to create a website, called Facemash, that compares the “hotness” of Harvard coeds.

In the wee hours of the morning, alone in front of his computer screen, stinging from a severed relationship and his perpetual isolation, the seed for what would become Facebook is planted.

Today, Facebook, the social networking site that Zuckerberg founded in early 2004, has more than 500 million users worldwide. That’s one of every 18 people on the planet. On his own Facebook page, Zuckerberg has nearly 2 million “fans.” How many of them are truly his friends is a mystery, perhaps even to him.

The plot of “The Social Network” revolves around scenes from Zuckerberg’s depositions in two multimillion-dollar lawsuits brought against him by fellow Harvard classmates: one by a set of freakishly handsome identical twin brothers who believe Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from them and the other by his former best friend, Eduardo Saverin (played by the brilliant newcomer Andrew Garfield).

Zuckerberg co-founded Facebook with Saverin, a sweet soul who genuinely cares for and tries to protect him. When Facebook explodes overnight, becoming a multimillion-dollar enterprise, Zuckerberg callously cuts Saverin out of the company. Their friendship dies, and through Zuckerberg’s and Saverin’s deposition testimony, the audience learns the extent of Zuckerberg’s profound alienation.

“I was your friend,” a teary Saverin tells Zuckerberg. “I was your only friend.”

The juxtaposition of Zuckerberg’s relational disconnection and the mission of Facebook -- on his public Facebook page, the real-life Zuckerberg says his interests include “making things that help people connect and share what’s important to them” -- is more than a little striking.

The film concludes with Zuckerberg alone in an empty room in front of his computer screen once again, hitting “refresh” on a Facebook page, waiting for someone to accept his “friend request.”

“The Social Network” is a fictionalized account of Facebook’s founders based on the novel “The Accidental Billionaires,” by Ben Mezrich, whose main source was Saverin. The founders were not involved with the film, written by Aaron Sorkin, so it’s difficult to say with certainty how much of the Zuckerberg in the movie is an accurate depiction of the real Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg is well-known for his social awkwardness and prickly interactions with colleagues and the media. His depiction in the film has a ring of truth. It left me wondering if Facebook has helped him connect the way it has helped me. The idea of Facebook isn’t to go trolling for new friends, but to reconnect with people we already have a relationship with in some way.

Rather than functioning as a hollow, mechanical replacement for genuine friendship, it is designed to augment and expand pre-existing relationships. It has done just that for me in wondrously unexpected ways. But for someone who wants so badly to connect in real life but doesn’t have the skills to do so, Facebook may be just another failed attempt at lasting human connection.

For me, Zuckerberg’s creation has been a tremendous blessing. Sure, when I first signed on a few years ago, it was more out of sheer voyeuristic curiosity than anything more profound. Did my old boyfriend still have all his hair? How many kids did my best friend from junior high have? Is my suitemate from college still married?

But that quickly changed when I began to make real, true connections with people from my past and present; when authentic (and sacred) community happened, surprising no one more than me.

By the time the credits began to roll at the end of the film, I found myself totally alone in the theater. I began to think about Facebook’s impact on my life: I was sitting in a theater in a town that I moved to last year so that I could live in physical proximity and community with college friends with whom I had reconnected on Facebook. I literally wouldn’t have been sitting there without Zuckerberg’s creation. For that, I am ever grateful.

Surely not everyone with a Facebook account has experienced the kind of life-altering connections I have between its blinking pixels. But some of the other 500 million members certainly have, even if the young man who created it has yet to find the connection he was searching for so desperately.

As I walked from the cinema back to my car at midnight, I pulled out my iPhone and logged on to Facebook to share my experience of “The Social Network,” grateful for the divine gift of companionship, in all of its astonishing forms.