Sympathy for the Unsympathizable: A Second Look at The Social Network

Shylock tells us that when he is pricked, he bleeds too, just like everyone else.  But, despite reductions such as these, certain demographics are less suitable for our (an audience’s) sympathy.  This list includes the very fortunate, such as angels and God (who do not suffer and do not warrant our concern) as well as the very privileged (who suffer much less than us and are therefore poor objects of our sympathy); and the very low, such as demons and vile human beings who are poor objects for our concern (because we see their suffering as warranted). Naturally, a screenplay needs a protagonist that the audience can care about, otherwise we don’t care what happens around the character and there is consequently no drama.


If there is brilliance in Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network, it’s in the monstrous foisting of Mark Zuckerberg as a character worthy of our sympathy.  From the trailer’s melancholic choir rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep” to the sombre opening notes of the movie itself, we are given the emotional through-line of sadness for Zuckerberg immediately and potently.  Even if we manage to forget the real Zuckerberg (who was not romantically wanting as the film suggests), surely a wealthy, good-looking, intelligent, young Harvard student – already virtually assured a successful future without Facebook – and a technical genius speeding towards his billions is a poor object of the average person’s sympathy, especially with the condition that he is facing no serious obstacle or experiencing no great pain.  It is Zuckerberg as an ultra-fortunate character together with his lack of real conflict that is the main problem with The Social Network.  The action of the film is a series of court cases – which is as dull as it sounds – where Zuckerberg experiences only a smug irritation; he is not, and does not feel, challenged or threatened at any point.  He cannot be related to except for his twinge of loneliness, which is not nearly enough to earn a cynical viewer’s sympathy.

Even more distasteful and brazen is writing Zuckerberg, the creator of such a huge, capitalistic, and aggressive marketing force, as an anti-consumerist.  To keep audiences on Zuckerberg’s side, Zuckerberg is portrayed as being disinterested in wealth (he is instead driven by his emotional hurt and need) and against advertising on Facebook; this will keep it “cool.”  So, we respect Zuckerberg, and we respect his Facebook on the premise that it is utterly different than what it is – an empty and aggressive marketing tool.  This is very crafty writing indeed from Sorkin.  And that is why The Social Network is a well-written film: that audiences and critics widely praise the film, that Zuckerberg and Facebook garner sympathy at all is a great feat of writing and directing where we learn to love the figures of our exploitation (the elite, mass corporations, Facebook’s sharing of personal information for marketing purposes and the invasivenss of marketing, and so on).

As a footnote to questioning how worthy of sympathy Zuckerberg and Facebook are, it’s worth mentioning a similar kind of misleading impression of social media like Facebook in the media recently with respect to the Egyptian revolution and the other upheavals in the region happening now.  The notion that Facebook or Twitter have been vital in the revolutions is preposterous for obvious reasons: a revolution does not need Facebook to communicate the wrongs that inspire it, and people will organize themselves with whatever tools they have; Facebook or Twitter are incidental.  Besides, the Egyptian revolution (whatever success is proves to have in the long run) was finally achieved by physicality – by getting out into the streets and protesting until they got what they wanted.  In contrast, so-called “clicktivism,” or cyber activism, has been criticized by some on the radical Left as being a impartial form of revolt that is powerless by itself.  As necessary as it is to organize, voice problems, and form mass ideas, producing drastic social change almost certainly requires the kind of physicality that the Egyptians have enacted.  Claiming that Facebook played an essential role in the revolution will be opportunistically touted by related businesses, which ought to remind us what lurks in corporate culture so much.



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