Posts Tagged ‘Facebook’

Review: The Social Network

Friday, October 1st, 2010

The problem with Facebook is not just how distracting it can be to try to focus on things like writing reviews rather than checking your newsfeed to see which of your friends has just said something particularly pithy or made a splendid gourmet meal for dinner; it’s also that it’s so darn hard to filter out things you don’t want to see at all — like, for instance, people raving about The Social Network before you’ve seen it yourself.

There’s no way on Facebook (that I know of anyhow) to tell it “don’t show me any updates with the words “The Social Network” until after I see the film (are you listening Mark Zuckerberg? Because the ability to filter out what you don’t want to see by keyword could be a nifty feature to add, and I won’t even sue you for $600 million for stealing using the idea). So even though I’ve tried very hard not to read or hear anything about The Social Network, David Fincher‘s and Aaron Sorkin‘s fictionalized story about the beginnings of Facebook, it would have been impossible for snippets not to filter through, unless I’d gone dark on Facebook altogether for the last couple weeks. Can you imagine how far behind I’d be on the minutae of my friends’ lives if I did that? Perish the thought.

Many of my friends, as you might expect, also work in this field, so in spite of my best efforts to the contrary, word of what many of them thought about The Social Network inevitably filtered down to me through my own social network. When I start to get the general idea that every critic and his brother is in love with a film — when comparisons to Gatsby and even the holy grail of Citizen Kane are being bandied about; when the film’s official site already boasts pull-quotes raving that this is, practically, the best film ever made in the entire history of films being made (and we haven’t even seen the Coens’ True Grit yet, people!) — well, I have to take a step back, try my best to distance myself from all the orgasmic gushing, and go into the film as unbiased as possible. Because a lot of the time — maybe even most of the time — the end result fails to live up to the hyperbole.

So now I’ve seen it and yes, okay, The Social Network really is all that and a bag of chips, as the kids say — for what it is. Not a “masterpiece.” Not “astounding.” Probably — almost definitely — not a film that will “literally” change your life. Maybe — dare I say it? — not even the absolute “best” film of Fincher’s oeuvre. And by the bye, what The Social Network is not, actually, is a film about Facebook, the social network, or an exploration of the impact of living our lives online, or a thoughtful exploration of the nature of social networking as a phenomenon.

So what is The Social Network? It’s a film with a very specific (and, I have to add, quite possibly not entirely accurate) story to weave about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who’s portrayed here as a grim, driven, humorless, almost savant-type guy who allows greed, his own intellectual superiority and sheer hubris to twist him into the kind of person who would screw over his best (in the movie, only) friend, Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield).

As such, what this story needed to make it click is a study in opposites: a devil of a bad guy and a morally upright good guy, and what Fincher and Sorkin have created here is exactly that: a very one-dimensional, quite possibly unfair portrait of Zuckerberg-as-villain that fits exactly the shoe they wanted the character to fit.

Now, if you toss things like objectivity and the fairness of how you’re portraying real people completely out the window, and you look at The Social Network as purely a work of storytelling — at best a fiction based very loosely on one person’s interpretation of real events — then it is a pretty good film, that works as it needs to. Certainly a lot of critics will place The Social Network among the best films of this year.

And if it’s guilty of perhaps not entirely telling the objective truth about the founding of Facebook, of maybe unfairly and subjectively painting boy-wonder Zuckerberg in a particularly unflattering light while being, perhaps, just a tad biased in favor of Saverin (the only one involved, if you’re keeping track of things like that, who gave his side of things as a consultant for Ben Mezrich‘s book The Accidental Billionaires, Sorkin’s source material for the screenplay), well, what of it? After all, Zuckerberg didn’t choose to make himself accessible to tell his side, and besides that he’s super rich, so who cares if the portrayal of him in a movie that will be seen by millions is fair or accurate? Er, right?

It does all make for a heck of a good story, anyhow, and so far at least, neither Zuckerberg (played in the film by that boy-wonder of indie films, Jesse Eisenberg) nor controversial Napster-founder/now part-owner of Facebook Sean Parker (played here very well by Justin Timberlake, a boy wonder of another sort altogether) has filed any lawsuits alleging that Fincher, Sorkin or Mezrich got anything substantially wrong. Or at least, not wrong enough to make it worth suing over.

Nonetheless, as with any real-life story that involves friends falling out and lots of money, we should maybe keep in mind while watching The Social Network that this story does have two sides, and while Zuckerberg might be the main bad guy of The Social Network, the movie, this is also a tale that’s clearly very much spun from Saverin’s point of view as the guy who was dicked over by his best friend, to whom he fronted the money that seeded the business that made Zuckerberg the world’s youngest billionaire. Thus, we should, perhaps, take everything in this film with the proverbial grain of salt (even Sorkin himself has said in interviews that he’s not that familiar with Facebook, the website, and that The Social Network is “not a documentary.”)

Still, there’s no denying that The Social Network is effective storytelling and filmmaking, and that’s at least partly because Sorkin has written a script that makes what could have been the most boring subject matter imaginable: watching an antisocial computer geek — or at least, an approximation of what Sorkin thinks an antisocial computer geek looks and acts like — sitting at a computer writing tens of thousands of lines of code — and makes it pretty fascinating.

So Sorkin and Fincher paint us a story about a brilliant, socially inept, self-aggrandizing and arrogant kid, a guy so utterly solipsistic, so certain of his own superiority and brilliance, that he would have the balls to steal the basic idea — a social networking site exclusive to Harvard — brought to him by a pair of fellow Harvard students — the rowing, Olympic-bound, silver-spoon born Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler (both played here by Armie Hammer) and their business partner Divya Narenda (Max Minghella) — and, with mind-boggling speed and focus, expand it into something bigger, better and ultimately exponentially more profitable than anything the Winklevosses had imagined.

Completely accurate or not, Zuckerberg as portrayed by Eisenberg in the film is an excellent bad guy, the epitome of the cliched antisocial computer geek, who did, in fact, dream of and build something that surely far exceeded even the wildest expectations he had when he started. And Jesse Eisenberg is just terrific in his portrayal of Zuckerberg, the character who exists in this film. Eisenberg’s always been an actor to watch, but with this film he truly establishes himself as a star.

All the cast is great, by the way: Andrew Garfield does his job of making Saverin eminently likable and sympathetic (between this and Never Let Me Go, he is now teetering on the brink of real stardom); Timberlake as Sean Parker is just fantastic, rivaling Eisenberg’s performance, and even the smaller parts — most notably Rooney Mara as Erica Albright, the fictionalized girl who starts it all by breaking up with Zuckerberg in a bar when she wearies of his arrogance, Brenda Song as Saverin’s girlfriend, Hammer and Minghella — are uniformly excellent.

Fincher takes Sorkin’s excellently imagined script and grabs the short attention span of the Facebook generation by the horns, giving the film a brisk, almost brutal pace, cutting effortlessly among interspersed scenes of two separate lawsuits (culled, I believe, from actual court transcripts) and past events as Sorkin imagines they unfolded, without ever leaving us lost as to where we are in the story.

The directing is tight and paced, perhaps in homage to the speed with which Zuckerberg’s success (and personal failure?) fable unfolds — more reminiscent in style and pacing of Fight Club or Se7en than Zodiac or Benjamin Button — though in many ways it’s as artistically conceived as Zodiac, my personal favorite of Fincher’s films.

As you would expect from a Fincher film, the cinematography (by Jeff Cronenwerth, who shot Fight Club and worked on Se7en) and editing (Angus Wall, who edited Panic Room, Zodiac and Benjamin Button and Kirk Baxter, Benjamin Button) are practically perfect as well, and Fincher, as he did so well with Zodiac‘s newsroom, really nails the environment — what it feels like to be a student at Harvard, what it felt like to be working in a fast-paced internet startup at the height of the internet bubble. You feel, truly, as if you are a fly on the wall watching all these events unfold, and it’s riveting, captivating, fascinating.

As to whether it’s all true — or whether anyone involved sees the irony in a studio making millions of dollars off a rather questionable skewering of a real guy who happens to be a billionaire — well … that’s a question for another day, I suppose.

Tool Businesses Vs Content Businesses

Monday, September 27th, 2010

There has been a bit of violent conversation, starting with The Social Network, but expanding to the question of whether Facebook is really a Media Company.

Here’s what I think…

Since the web started, there have been two very different types of sites/services, etc. One kind is driven by content over which the site/service has (for the most part) control. Content Businesses. The other is the Tool Businesses category, in which I would include Yahoo!, YouTube, Google (which has expanded into other businesses now), and really, the browsers, RealPlayer, QuickTime, etc, etc, etc.

The mega businesses are – though there must be an exception somewhere – the Tool Businesses that give people tools to use the web in a new, inventive, or significantly more convenient way. Invariably, they realize, after massive valuations, that they need something proprietary to hang onto if they are going to last longer than, say, a decade. And usually, that’s when they start slipping.

It gets very blurry, especially as Traditional Media moves fully into New Media. The thing to hang onto is that, for instance, The New York Times, has been and always will be a niche business. It’s a niche of a few million and it is influential well beyond its reader base. But be clear, if a movie being released relied only on every NYT reader going to see it on opening weekend, the gross would be under $15 million. It’s not nothing. But Facebook has over 400 million users… and if one in forty sees The Social Network, it is a $100 million movie. That’s the mindfuck that everyone seems to be trying to sort out. Facebook is much less influential than the massive size of its base… in great part because the purpose of the site is not to be an influencer… which is an inherent reason why it is so widely popular.

Content has a naturally narrowing effect. Tools are just tools. Everyone needs a hammer, even if everyone uses it differently. Content doesn’t offer a hammer, but it tells you how to use it.

Another example… YouTube is an important site and its existence is influential. But they did something quite simple. They made streaming video free to the public and to businesses. The public and businesses took care of the rest. It wasn’t brain surgery. It was a big light bulb idea and a hugely risky one at that. As the price of memory and streaming has dropped, YouTube has become closer to being a financially viable long-term operation. Had the cost of streaming/memory not dropped, they might not be in business today. But for all the content on YouTube, the site itself is a Tool Site, first and last. Giving people something they didn’t have before for free is not content creation… it’s offering a tool people want at a perfect price point… major… but not content.

Even The Huffington Post launched as more of a Tool Business pretending to be a Content Business. The Tool was this idea of aggregating more than a sample of content. They focused on a very specific market, stole most of their content from others by creating branded ad-ready pages that offered other people’s content, and did just enough original content to convince the public that it was a content play. But being The Liberal Site was limiting for a Tool Business, so they quickly expanded to soft-core porn, gossip, sports, etc… not their original concept at all.

HuffPo is now working hard to become the content site they promised, as they now face new challenges. Their Tool was not unique enough to dominate. And perhaps aware that soon the whip will crack and Traditional Media will start protecting their content much more aggressively, destroying their tool of choice. So they are down to Huffington’s strong suit… self promotion. In the current media culture, a dozen voices is enough to be real in the content world… so they are… now… even as they milk free writing from others and still steal content with seeming impunity, so long as they keep Mrs Huffington up front, regally claiming to have already won the war.

And by the way, this is not just a web business reality. Blockbuster was a “tool” business. It didn’t create the content it rented. It just came up with a better way to get it to people. It was followed, evolutionarily, by Netflix, first with subscription-based mailed DVDs and now with streaming. But as you have seen, Netflix is now trying to evolve from Tool Business to Content Business, as their idea of streaming is not in any way proprietary and subscriptions are driven by content, not by how cool Netflix is. They are grossly overpaying for content in a bid to plant their flag in the streaming business (still a Tool Business) so firmly that when the industry converts its libraries fully, the Tool is made ubiquitous, and post-theatrical relies on being a Content Business again (not as good a business), they will not be left out.

And just for fun, a note that Nikki Finke and Deadline Hollywood is 100% a Content Business… and will never grow past the narrow base. This doesn’t mean it cannot be successful in that context… though by trying to expand the business into something beyond the strongest personality to hit movie coverage in decades (for better or worse), there is jeopardy of spending more than can be earned. My sense of it is that the folks at MMC have confused Content with Tool and think they can convert to the much wider-based model. And who knows, maybe they are the geniuses who can change the game completely. Probably not. Going from Content to Tool is, it seems to me, almost impossible.

So… I wish I was in the Tool Business mindset. It is where all the real money is. It’s not some backhanded insult to Facebook to say it is a Tool Business and neither a media business nor a Content business. Neither was MySpace or Friendster, nor is Twitter. Rotten Tomatoes was and is a brilliant Tool Business… and frankly, the money they have spent on building their Content side is kind of a waste. They may make a success of it and it may be wonderful to spend time wandering through, but first and last, RT is what it started as… an aggregator and compiler. That business will always be worth more than any Content Business they can build under the brand. And this is likely true of Facebook and others.

You can’t get 20 million people to use a content site. One day for one announcement or something, sure. But in terms of an ongoing business, even 10 million is not a realistic expectation for Content Businesses. And, simply, none exist at that size now… or ever have. But Tool Businesses… sure. Because they serve a macro self-interest, not just a micro interest.

Facebook Goes All Squirrelly Day Before NYFF Preem Of The Social Network

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

Facebook Goes All Squirrelly Day Before NYFF Preem Of The Social Network; What Would A Tie-In Like That Cost Sony?

LouLu Questions Ethics Of NY Times Front-Pager That Repeated Rumors Favorable To Facebook And Reviewing Screenplay Of The Social Network

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

LouLu Questions Ethics Of NY Times Front-Pager That Repeated Rumors Favorable To Facebook And Reviewing Screenplay Of The Social Network

You Can’t Block Mark Zuckerberg On Facebook

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

You Can’t Block Mark Zuckerberg On Facebook

Facebook Not Allowed To Check Into Social Network Over Factual Reservations; Scott Rudin Granted Rare Times Italics In Quotation The Blowback On Facebook Friends Checking Others Into “Places”

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

Facebook Not Allowed To Check Into Social Network Over Factual Reservations; Scott Rudin Granted Rare Times Italics In Quotation
And – The Blowback On Facebook Friends Checking Others Into “Places”