My thoughts on The Social Network

So that Facebook movie everyone’s been going on about – yeah, it’s pretty fucking fantastic. The music is great. The pacing is excellent, at the start particularly so. Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast as the neurotic genius, and Justin Timberlake is a fantastically smug and insecure friendship wrecker. Aaron Sorkin’s pared-back way with words makes the movie seem as though there is absolutely no trimming left un-shaved. It’s altogether a very lean film. Very fit.

Yep, I have no complaints about the movie whatsoever. It’s great! But you know how all those people said it was a “missed opportunity”? Well, okay so maybe only Lawrence Lessig said that – but it seemed like the critical consensus at release was that it didn’t really go into detail about the revolution that Facebook has inspired, which is true. But it also spectacularly misses the point about that revolution.

You don’t need to explain what Facebook has done, least of all to anyone that would be reading your review online. And why? Because there is already a better than ONE IN THREE chance said person using the internet to read your damned comments about The Social Network uses Facebook already. The ubiquity of the Facebook revolution (whatever that means) is probably more powerful and more potent than the actual content of its transformation.

According to Google’s numbers there are about 1.5billion internet users in the world (as of 2008). As of today-ish there are 500million Facebook users. One in three. One in three internet users has a Facebook account and is (probably) intimately acquainted with the site and at least a few of the major services it provides. Status. Photos. Comments. Friends.

Lawrence Lessig, et al. – your comments are officially irrelevant: everybody already uses it.

As a short aside, the movie would be as dull as shit if it actually was more about the changes to society’s concept of privacy; sharing; over-sharing; friends and friendship; networking; and a million other ideas all subtly touched by the gently caressing software hand of Mark Zuckerberg and co. Yes, those changes are all really interesting things and they all really happen and have greatly been affected – but in no way would beating people over the head with the implications of those things constitute a good film! We already know that stuff, so it’s neither new nor interesting.

So as a history of the founding of Facebook, it adds something to the picture of the site. We now know a little bit more (albeit, through the distorting lens of Hollywood) about how, and perhaps even more importantly why, the site came into being. And the fact that the why is pretty much like any boring, reasonable, real-life story is also fascinating.

I was reading the other day about creative writing, American university MFA programs and whether they stamp out creativity. One of the questions the article asks is ‘What about other forms or writing, like the personal essay?’ Well, the personal essay of which this is (somewhat loosely – okay very loosely) an example is the perfect vehicle for explaining all those shocking and amazing and terrifying things Lessig talks about in his review-type piece.

Someone out there, or more likely tens of someone’s out there, are writing blog posts, magazine articles and personal essays explaining the highlighting the profound changes that Facebook is out there actively affecting in the world right now. I’m contributing what small insights I can provide. The Social Network is not for that.

The Social Network is an ordinary story about relatively ordinary people. Boy gets hurt by a girl. Boy creates horrible website. Boy becomes billionaire. The steps between each moment are made ever so slightly more visible; more real. The myth of the genius-neurotic who has that one idea that changes the world cannot survive the film The Social Network. Yes, so-called ‘genius’ is one part of it but it’s not the whole story. If that’s where the story ended it would not have been a very long film. Genius isn’t enough to get Facebook to 500 million users, and nor just pure tenacity – as demonstrated by the characters of the oddly named Rowers. They proved that – by refusing to give up, they still never ended up getting control of Facebook , nor I imagine did they go on to create or invent an even better idea.

There was a scene early on in the film where Zuckerberg and his friend and CFO Eduardo Saverin come out of a lecture Bill Gates was giving at Harvard. They’re stopped by three guys outside who want to congratulate them on ‘the cool job’ they did on Facebook. It struck me at the time just how identical they were to Zuckerberg’s cohort. Same clothes. Same manner of speaking. Clearly just as bright, or they wouldn’t have been at Harvard.

Yet someone invented Facbook, but it wasn’t them. Why is that? The Social Network shows us a sliver of the practicality behind that why.

A Thing That Happened

So this is a thing that happened. I was playing Battlefield Bad Company 2 this evening and ended up on a Games.on.net server rotating endlessly through the beautiful, and cleverly designed, Valparaiso map (see image). I was placed on a team initially on defence, and it didn’t take long to realise we were being horrendously and mercilessly crushed. I died, again, and again. But something felt wrong.

People started commenting in chat that something was amiss, and a quick glance at the scores showed that, yes, the top scoring player on the other team had six thousand more points than the next best player. The player unfortunately named ‘Curry_Muncher’ was cheating, and my team started complaining. He didn’t deny it, and it was obvious.

Someone suggested in team chat that next round we perform a sit-in, a passive form of protest. The next round, we stayed in our base after spawning and stood around firing in the direction of the enemy. We tried to pass the time by shooting trees and things. We protested.

Members of the opposition started trying to persuade the cheating player on their team to leave, with one even going around popping smoke directly in front of the cheating player. Apparently “he didn’t like that”. It made us feel a little better, and I raised a cheer in general chat, “Three cheers for the members of the opposition not cheating” that got a few “hurrah!”s. Good sportsmanship, even in (pretend) mortal combat is something like the height of civility.

But new players kept joining and people kept leaving the server, and the newcomers had to have what we were trying to do explained to them. They didn’t always get it. Eventually I got sick of waiting for an admin to show up and ban the cheater, and I left.

Mereology; The infinitesimal; Radiohead

Mereology is the study or philosophy of parts and wholes. i.e. In what ways is my toenail a ‘part’ of me and when is it not? What is a ‘me’ and what is a ‘toenail’? How about time? How is some part of time joined to the ‘whole’ of time as it exists? Are the connections straightforward, sliceable into infinitely small sections or does it work some other way? What about space? How small a part of space can we drill down to and find out about how it acts and relates to all the other parts of space?

The Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a great entry on mereology, which helps explain some of the terms. Graham Harman’s reading of Latour as a philosopher or metaphysician results in an ‘object oriented philosophy’ that can help with these kinds of questions. It’s also has the best answers for most of them I’ve encountered, despite being often counter-intuitive.

Related to the above questions is the issue of The Infinitesimal. Can we actually get infinitely small in relation to time and space, or are there hard limits to the universe? The desire for a hard-bottom is entirely understandable, as any such discovery would lend an absoluteness and equivalence to any statement or research or analysis. Disciplines would be eradicated overnight as everyone rushed to build the necessary frameworks to start analysing everything from ‘culture’ to ‘love’ to thermodynamics in light of this new ultimate substance. The jury is still out on whether any such ‘substance’ or floor to the universe exists. For Latour (a bit of a post-structuralist in this sense) his unresolved relationism means that there is never a ‘bottom’ to the universe, or indeed anything – it’s networks all the way down, and yet his actor-network theory still ‘works’.

The domain of mathematics has employed the infinitesimal, however,  for everything from calculus to some things I’ve never even heard of before. According to Wiki, “In common speech, an infinitesimal object is an object which is smaller than any feasible measurement, hence not zero size, but so small that it cannot be distinguished from zero by any available means.” This is interesting because it means that there is still a difference between the infinitesimal and the nothing. The degree of that difference is on an unimaginably diminished scale, but it remains the same category of difference as the difference between 1 and 0; between chocolate cake and an empty plate; between something and nothing.

Finally, if you are determined to hold onto a mereology based on ‘common sense’, how do you deal with gaps? When does a gap disappear? How close do things need to get before the distance between them is nil (not infinitesimal, mind)? And when that gap disappears, do two become one, and what is that new one? If it takes two things to become completely one for a gap to disappear, how does anything act on anything else except at a distance? Perhaps certain things can act ‘in part’ on other things, but then which object does that part which is acting belong to? One, the other, or both? I hope you’re getting the picture that these distinctions are increasingly untenable. Common sense has deserted us, leaving behind only a confusion of actors and associations.

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke sung about this kind of confusion in the song ‘Where I end and you being’. Ostensibly about relationship difficulty arising from bridging that gap,  I think it still addresses the same issue at heart. It’s a strange world out there on the borders between things – it’s a place where:

The dinosaurs roam the earth
The sky turns green
Where I end and you begin

On avoiding Facebook

Last Tuesday I deactivated my Facebook account, resolving to spend less time with the web-based service. I spent a week without the online service and here follows a list of some things the benefit of distance caused me to think about or encounter.

  • Firstly, I had completely habituated the automatic process of opening the Facebook page. I found myself doing it completely without any conscious thought. This habit took a couple of days to get over.
  • Related to the above: Perhaps this habituation is a way to approach the internet in general. We build a set of websites and frequent them because the internet doesn’t present itself with an easy ‘in’. Just using the internet presents a problem for the human being – there’s too much of it, and where do we begin? So we build habits of use, sites we rely on. Facebook, Twitter, blogs that update regularly, etc.
  • It’s very hard, at first, to decide what to use all that new spare time on when you don’t have the instant gratification of Facebook to plug into. Should I read? Or listen to music? Should I cook something? Should I get some exercise? That you are even asking these questions means you’ve already taken longer than the muscle-memory operation of opening Facebook in a new browser tab. That was a frustration for quite some time.
  • It requires non-trivial effort to maintain even a similar level of connectivity with people via email, phone/text, etc if you are averse to using Facebook. I had several valuable conversations via email, but the vast majority of people I typically interacted with in any given week on Facebook I didn’t hear from or speak to elsewhere for the duration. There is a whole class of people I only speak to on Facebook.
  • Sharing interesting internet things with friends is much harder (if not outright impossible). If I had to pick one thing I really, really missed about Facebook it was the ability to instantly share something with a large group of people. I’m not sure what that says about me, however, and whether I’m alone in seeing the appeal in that.
  • Conversely, however, the world doesn’t end when your friends don’t see that crazy video of the latest uncannily-human-looking-robot out of Japan, even if you think, nay know, people would enjoy it. That was a valuable realisation.
  • People do miss you on Facebook when you leave, and as above, you become intimately aware that by not using Facebook you’re making yourself just a little bit more difficult to contact. Not on chat, only available by phone or email, etc. You are being a minor nuisance, Is how it feels.
  • We are, all 500 million of us, entirely at the mercy of the design of Facebook, and at the mercy of our psychological and evolutionary predispositions. That little red box with a ‘1’ in it is so very, very hard to ignore, and there is no way to change any function of Facebook (aside from privacy controls, etc) and given that they are trying their absolute hardest to monetise and optimise your clicks and eyeballs, I find it dis-empowering that we get no say in these kind of developments. If I could, I would turn off or change the way notifications are displayed.
  • Yet I’m also painfully aware that this desire or expectation is not found outside of digital environments – at least not to the same extreme degree. We can (and often do!) complain about things like the fact that our car steering makes driving a chore and gives us sore muscles, but because the technology is so utterly dependent on the function of metal, plastic, oil, gear-ratios, (things that are hard to change quickly, or at all) we tend to grit and bear it. Within the digital environment, everything is instantly and immediately modifiable in a theoretical sense, if not necessarily in a technical one. Is this an unrealistic expectation, wanting to decide or have some say over core software functionality? I do not know. But certainly Diaspora, Crabgrass, et al. look set to cater to more of that kind of expectation.
  • Related to the above, I still don’t have an active and viable strategy to mitigate the harm of my constant Facebook usage. I didn’t want to come back until I could somehow ensure that I wouldn’t fall back into the obsessive habits of  constant connectivity. But as Douglas Coupland said, “In the same way you can never go backward to a slower computer, you can never go backward to a lessened state of connectedness”. Having now tried it and found a lesser state of connectedness actually and technically possible…. I now know lesser-connectedness is not quite worth the trade off. Perhaps self-discipline is the only answer, or regular de-habituation sessions like this week.
  • Lastly, my mum told me that she missed me on Facebook. I think her words were along the lines of “I feel like I’ve lost one of my eyes” (she has only a few friends on Facebook – most prolific are myself and my brother). Facebook as a way to reassure people you’re still alive, know where you are, and what you are doing (both in good and not-unproblematic surveillance kind of ways) is not a new thing, but it’s worth being reminded of every so often.