Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Social Network and Facebook's foreign policy

A few weeks ago, Internet law writer Tim Wu playfully asked (or his headline writers did) whether “Facebook had a foreign policy?” It’s a reasonable enough question. If Facebook were a national state, it would be the third largest in the world after China and India. Facebook is not anywhere so powerful as a nation yet but its 500 million adherents mostly recognise there is no other tool yet that manages that social network side of life nearly as well.

Wu called Facebook “an integral part of the world's social architecture”. The author of the book Who Controls the Internet understands what makes Facebook interesting: “a mutual agreement to tell others who you are, what you like, and what you are doing.” Not only has this “agreement” attracted mass audiences, it attracted a massive intensity of international and domestic scrutiny which Wu said would give us a sense of the soul of this company more so than any “recent movie” ever could.

Wu was making a powerful point about Facebook but erred badly in his faint praise of the “recent movie”, the acclaimed David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin film “The Social Network”. It deserves better. Director Fincher reins in the violent storytelling ability he showed in Seven and Fight Club while Sorkin brings the intelligence of the West Wing to the script. The result is a brilliant but tight expose of how and why the biggest social network of our generation came into being.

How Facebook became “The Social Network” is indubitably the story of its chief founder Mark Zuckerberg. The 27 year-old New Yorker officially owns just under a quarter of Facebook but his mindshare in the company is a lot closer to one hundred percent. The story of the film is set in the recent past with Zuckerberg facing two law suits from those that feel they lost out while Zuckerberg made billions. “You’re not an asshole, you’re just trying really hard to be one,” one sympathetic female lawyer said in the film, yet whether he was or wasn’t became immaterial to the film's purpose.

Zuckerberg didn’t cooperate with the filmmakers yet right from the electric opening scene, we see a strange hagiography emerging. Zuckerberg harangues a soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend and paints himself as an intensely burning candle with little or no thought to what way his smoke went out. Jesse Eisenberg’s gift is to make audiences awed by his audacity and awareness of opportunity as much as they detest the way he treats people. Sorkin and Fincher are both 20 years older than their main character and it may they are trying to channel their own X-gen faults with women through the Zuckerberg they came up with. His jilting/jilted lover is “Erica Albright” who is made up for dramatic purposes (his real girlfriend is Priscilla Chan) but it isn’t difficult to believe he might be that chimeric with women.

Aided by a deft soundtrack by Trent Reznor, the plot surges along in a manner most would not associate with computer nerds. We see how Zuckerberg and his friends turned a new idea called “the Facebook” (complete with definite article, it is a pre-Internet Ivy League invention to describe a set of photographic data that defined a student) into a success story. As it gets closer to becoming a billion dollar industry, bottom feeders such as Sean Parker (played with Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winning conviction by Justin Timberlake) start to shape Zuckerberg’s vision.

Zuckerberg’s Brazilian friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) provides inspiration in the shape of intellectual honesty as well as a mathematical algorithm and funds to keep the server running. The film is based on the book "The Accidental Billionaires" a semi-fictional account that tells the story primarily from Saverin's point of view. But in the movie Saverin overplays his hand and is ousted by the Machiavellian Parker. The eventual feud forms one of the two dramatised court cases; the other being Zuckerberg’s fight with the Winkelvoss twins (both effortlessly played by Arnie Hammer) who claim they gave him the idea to use the Harvard .edu domain to promote the social network. Zuckerberg tells the “Winkelvi” if it was their idea then they would have done it. The filmmakers’ sympathy is with the nerdy Jew over his upper-class co-religionists.

How much he has won since that battle was shown in a new item this week on the BBC about a fight between Facebook and fellow Internet heavyweight Google. Facebook has offered users a workaround after Google Gmail blocked the export of contact material because Facebook “did not share its data reciprocally”. Mike Davis, a senior analyst with research firm Ovum, told the BBC the stand-off says a lot about the developing rivalry between the two firms. "Facebook is a significant challenge to Google's dominance of the web sphere and it has decided that it doesn't want to give Facebook any more advantage,” he said. "This is Google waking up to the fact that it was the next big thing and that now Facebook is," he said.

Because Facebook’s phenomenal reach shows little sign of slowing, there are those who worry greatly about its power. Criticism to date has focused on data mining, child safety, and the inability to terminate accounts without first manually deleting all the content. But there is a bigger hankering issue which Wu alluded to earlier. In the film Zuckerberg acknowledges Facebook’s phenomenal growth is based on its “cool” value Wu called the “mutual agreement to tell others who you are”. But when Zuckerberg himself is such a cipher, why should we treat the agreement as mutual? Without a foreign policy to guide us, Fincher and Sorkin have done us a favour by asking the question.

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