A Straussian Reading of The Social Network

Mark Zuckerberg is not the antihero, he is the hero. Zuckerberg is the only one who gets it: he doesn’t just have a vision for a social network but understands how to make it happen. The Winklevosses are buffoons who spend their time rowing rather than working on their competing network; they think that the technical details are so trivial they can all be delegated. Eduardo Saverin is even worse; he’s a would-be business manager with terrible ideas, an inability to commit, and awful business judgment. Sean Parker at least understands what’s at stake but is too much of a hedonist to really focus. Zuckerberg, on the other hand, has the necessary technical chops, commits wholeheartedly, and drives himself to the absolute limit. That’s what it takes.

This is secretly a movie for techies. The technological details are, for the most part, strikingly accurate. (Pay attention to the color-coded directories in Zuckerberg’s terminal windows.) The one scene of true head-rush joy is Zuckerberg’s coding run creating Facemash. Zuckerberg’s relationships with his roommates and later his employees are always effortless and sunny; they all understand what it is to be “wired in.” The movie celebrates the programming lifestyle and its camaraderie. There are two scenes of serious debauchery, neither of which Zuckerberg is at, and which frame his character arc; he is conscious of being excluded from the first, but chooses not to be at the second.

The exoteric message of the movie is that Zuckerberg shreds his humanity and friendships in order to create Facebook, and that we should feel either contempt or pity for him over it. The movie is bookended by characters telling Zuckerberg he acts like an asshole. In between are scenes in which he appears to act like one, from the perspective of other characters. (Note how frequently others speak condescendingly to or of him—even and especially when they think they’re doing him favors.)

The esoteric message is that everyone who treats Zuckerberg as though he were a sociopath is merely confirming the depth of their misunderstanding. As played by Jesse Eisenberg, Zuckerberg is actually a well-adjusted geek, a little physically standoffish and blunt-spoken, but otherwise quite “normal.” Others are constantly projecting their own needs and anxieties onto him; he struggles with their inability or unwillingness to accept his more subtle expressions of emotion and engagement. The non-geeks are constantly precipitating conflict, insisting that he play by their social rules (which of course favor them and not him); Zuckerberg is an interesting, heroic character because he learns how to refuse to play along.

The Social Network tells geeks that it’s a lonely, often difficult world. The final scene, in particular, makes a chilling point about just how badly “normal” people (here, members of a hypothetical jury) misunderstand geeks and their ways of speaking. At the same time, though, the movie ends with Zuckerberg at his keyboard, logged into Facebook, a reminder that this time at least, the programmers won.

Thanks for this. The movie infuriated me because it seemed to miss the joy of coding, and of intellectual pursuits in general, and to suggest that only personal relationships could motivate someone. Your reading is thus a very welcome intervention.