Social status symbol
IT is appropriate that actor Jesse Eisenberg studied anthropology at college. Playing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, he found himself thrust into a brave new world that none but the natives really understand.
It's the playing ground of Generation 'Z', the kids who are only just coming of age but who are the first generation to be truly at home with technology and constant internet connectivity. Gen Z, or 'Naturals' as the marketing people sometimes call them, are more flexible about what constitutes privacy and how much personal information they are willing to share with the world through social media.
They tweet, they google and they facebook -- and they always have. The instant communication these sites provide has become so normalised that they have become verbs to describe actions as everyday as eating and sleeping. Because of this, The Social Network -- which in part charts how Facebook became a success by catching the turn of this wave of communication at just the right time -- is being touted as the movie that will define a generation.
Eisenberg is only 27 but that's an old man in terms of Generation Z. He really had to make the effort to research his part as the 19-year-old college student who created the blueprint for the new 'Friend me' friendship. He didn't even have a Facebook page until he landed the part in the David Fincher movie about the creation of that web phenomenon.
"I signed up to see what all the kids were talking about," he said. Even so, Eisenberg says that he's still got a hands-off relationship with social media.
"No, really, I don't have a website [to network on]. But I do know that for some actors, friends of mine, they attribute some of the success in their careers to having websites and being able to network through websites like Facebook. So I'm sure it's very advantageous,d but I personally don't engage. I did set up one with an alias called Andrew Garfield for a couple of weeks, but it made no friends."
Justin Timberlake admits to being a Facebook virgin too. "I don't use Facebook, so I probably shouldn't comment on it, but I would assume that it's comparable to constantly being on a first date. You can always present the best version of yourself."
Funnily enough, Eisenberg has a cousin who actually works in Facebook. "Probably the closest relationship I have to Facebook now, aside from the movie, is that my first cousin, Eric, has a great job there. He landed that while we were shooting the movie and he's working side by side with Zuckerberg. And, not incidentally, Eric has the nicest things to say about him."
Eisenberg might not be completely down with the kids -- but as Zuckerberg, he's something of a prophet.
Zuckerberg and his contemporaries are almost past the point of being Gen Z (generally defined as those born after 1995 who have never known teen life without the internet). But they have certainly laid the template down for them.
The Social Network charts the rise of Facebook from a good idea by a computer prodigy in a college dorm to a billion-dollar concern with 500 million users. The story behind the company is very convoluted in real life, a mess of lawsuits and accusations of plagiarism and betrayal. As the brilliant tagline says: "You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies."
It's to the credit of director Fincher and the sharp dialogue of writer Aaron Sorkin that the movie manages to rollick along without losing the audience in the algorithms.
David Fincher, of course, should know something of how to capture the zeitgeist. He did so at least once before when he directed Fight Club. In it, Edward Norton's beaten-down office worker is disenfranchised by his superficial lifestyle until Brad Pitt and his no-holds-barred fight-club nights give him new purpose. It was perfect for 1999 when a generation brought up on consumerism began to face into a new millennium feeling empty and rudderless. Again in The Social Network, he seems to get behind the 'stuff' to find out what makes people tick. The most entertaining section here comes in the opening third of the film when the idea of Facebook -- whoever's it was -- first begins to take off.
We start to understand that the success of social sites such as FB and other incarnations is to do with wanting to be with the in gang, to be connected, to not be considered uncool. And it is this, rather than the technology, that really makes this a generational film.
Even Zuckerberg's motivation, or at least his motivation as this film has it (he wants nothing to do with the film and had nothing to do with the book on which it is based), is to be powerful in a way he's not in real life. The film opens with him out on a date that ends badly because of his poor social skills.
He uses the internet to get revenge on his date by posting nasty blog comments about her, but ultimately tries to reconnect with her via his own internet creation. He proceeds to become the world's youngest billionaire, but you wonder if, deep down, it was all about being popular.
When Justin Timberlake pops up in the film to play file-sharing site Napster's co-founder Sean Parker, his character is riven with paranoia that being a very rich young man has done nothing to alleviate. He's got a veneer of cool, but he's a bit of a try-hard.
In fact, strip away the techie stuff and you're left with what writer Sorkin says are themes "as old as storytelling itself": loyalty, friendship, power, money and social status.
They are the same themes that every good coming-of-age movie has. The wallpaper changes -- in fact Generation Z probably only thinks of wallpaper as the background picture on their iPhone -- but the adolescent struggle will always be essentially the same.
Baby boomers had Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate getting a taste of a world where sexual and personal freedom might be his in a way it wasn't for his parents' wartime generation. Fast forward to the 90s and Generation X had achieved some of that freedom -- take college-educated Winona Ryder in Reality Bites -- but, ultimately, they're still striving to make their own place in the big, bad world.
The Social Network is out today, see review page 12