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Mark Zuckerberg, The Sad Billionaire
The Social Network is propaganda for the 1%.
When I was a kid, Richie Rich confused me. He was always referred to as "the Poor Little Rich Boy." But why was he "poor"? In all the stories I read, he had private helicopters, servants, and an infinite array of gadgets which allowed him to survive all his adventures and inevitably save the day. His wealth seemed to make him powerful, enviable, and happy. Yet, his catchphrase suggested I and other readers were supposed to pity him. How comes?
Now I am older and, if not wiser, at least wise enough to confirm that younger me was onto something. If only the creators of The Social Network were as perspicacious.
Weep for Zuck
Released in 2010, directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network is often cited as one of the best films of the 21st century. Yet, it has the same core issue as those Richie Rich comics of yore; it's obsessed with the idea that we should feel sorry for billionaires.
The billionaire in question here is Mark Zuckerberg; the movie purports to show the founding of Facebook—though it takes numerous liberties. Among the most egregious is its entirely invented opening scene, in which Harvard sophomore Mark (played by a manic Jesse Eisenberg) talks to his Boston University girlfriend Erica (Roony Mara.) Erica is fed up with Mark's snobbishness—he repeatedly insults her intelligence and her school—and she dumps him. Bitter and drunk, Mark posts a blog claiming Erica stuffs her bra and calling her gendered slurs. He then writes a program to scrape every photo of a Harvard female student so that guys can rate them. This, supposedly, is the beginning of facebook.
The (again, invented) origin story frames Facebook as the brainchild of a misogynist, entitled asshole. But it also presents Mark as someone who's sad, wounded, and in pain. The film shows Mark as being borderline autistic, which in turn leads him to be lonely and isolated. He doesn't understand how most people form relationships or deal with emotions; he's a nerd who wants to get into exclusive Harvard clubs and date, but who can do neither because he can't comprehend people the way he comprehends computers.
Mark became a billionaire, in this telling, because he wanted people to love him. He continues to pine after Erika throughout the film, even as he alienates his best and only male friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield.) Eduardo's family has money, and he is the one who puts up the money for Mark's dream, which gets him co-founder billing. But inevitably, Mark betrays him—at which point Eduardo becomes an even more sympathetic, sad billionaire than Zuckerberg himself.
Zuck quickly reclaims the pity mantle though, as he suffers through multiple lawsuits and faces the end of the film (very) wealthy but alone. The film ends with a junior lawyer and woman of color (Rashida Jones) swooping in to assure Zuckerberg, "You're not an asshole, Mark. You're just trying so hard to be." With that the film ends, and we are left to contemplate the complexity of wounded genius and the poor little rich kid in all of us.
Threads vs. The Social Network
It was interesting to watch The Social Network a couple days before Threads launched, because the ethos of Zuckerberg's Threads is in many ways the antithesis of the ethos attributed to the character, Mark, in the film.
Mark is obsessed with being cool and hip and impressing the right crowd; that's the core of his character, and the core of his angst. His conflict with Eduardo is about money vs. cool; Eduardo is a business major who wants to monetize facebook by selling ads on the site. Mark resists ad sales because he wants the site to be super cool, and grow before approaching advertisers; he looks to Peter Thiel for seed capital, and forces the insufficiently status-obsessed Eduardo out.
This is a pretty funny narrative when you look at Threads. Twitter became important because it was the place that "cool" people hung out—writers, journalists, witty celebrities with an engaging online presence like Dionne Warwick. The Mark of The Social Network is someone who would find (pre-Musk) Twitter irresistible; he'd be an inveterate poster, leaping onto hashtags, riffing on dril tweets, trying to go viral.
What does Threads feels like?
Threads feels like when a local restaurant you enjoy opens a location in an airport.
It feels like a Twitter alternative you would order from Brookstone.
It feels like if an entire social network was those posts that tell you what successful entrepreneurs do before 6AM.
It feels like watching a Powerpoint from the Brand Research team where they tell you that Pop Tarts is crushing it on social.
It feels like Casual Friday on LinkedIn.
Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram (which is Threads' parent) said that this was intentional; the site is deliberately avoiding news and politics discussions. " The goal isn’t to replace Twitter. The goal is to create a public square for communities on Instagram that never really embraced Twitter," Mosseri said. Down with cool, up with Brands. Fictional Eduardo would be ecstatic.
The Happy Genocider
The point here isn't just "Zuckerberg doesn't care about cool." The point is that Zuckerberg's evil, and the evil of Facebook, doesn't have much to do with a sad little rich boy trying too hard. It has to do with the bland calculus of capitalism, in which profits trump any other moral consideration. Threads, for example is a "privacy nightmare" which hoovers up health and financial data with few protections. It's so obviously invasive and dangerous that Threads hasn't launched in the EU, where they actually have privacy regulations, unlike in the neoliberal hellscape that is the US.
That's also consistent with Facebook's long history of quite horrific acts, including but not limited to:
— sharing private data with red states so they can prosecute people getting abortions
— lying about video engagement numbers in order to destroy print media
— refusing to moderate hate posts in Myanmar and thereby triggering a genocide.
In The Social Network, Mark is wracked with guilt for years about posting mean things about his ex online. In real life, though, Zuckerberg seems completely indifferent to much worse crimes, including, again, actually being complicit in genocide. When Joe Rogan asked Zuckerberg what his greatest regret was, Zuckerberg did not say he was sorry to have contributed to mass death; he doesn't express remorse about helping Donald Trump win election. He says the thing he's really sorry about is competing on the fencing team in high school rather than taking up wrestling.
Maybe Billionaires Are Happy When They Hurt People
Obviously, I do not actually know much about Zuckerberg's inner life. Nor do I need to; his inner life is largely irrelevant to the harm he does. The concentration of extreme wealth and power almost inevitably creates injustice and violence. What's important is that Zuckerberg has the leverage to impose his whims and fancies on vast swathes of humanity; the exact nature of those whims and fancies is besides the point. Is he motivated by wanting to be one of the cool kids, or does he just like to see the numbers in his bank balance go up? It doesn't really matter to the Rohingya executed because of the propaganda on his platform, or to the women arrested in red states because he handed their DMs over to christofascist law enforcement.
One thing just about everyone knows, though, is that in most situations it's better to have money than not to have money. Everybody faces hardships at some point; everyone faces disappointments, and everyone is sad. But it's a lot easier to weather setbacks if you have a billion dollars than if you don't. It's miserable to be sick, but it's less miserable if you can afford the best healthcare money can buy. It's miserable to break up with a significant other, but it's a lot less miserable if you have so many resources that divorce is an inconvenience rather than a financial disaster. And so forth. Being rich won't necessarily make you happy. But it's a damned sight better than being poor.
So why are we so obsessed with the idea that billionaires are especially sad? A lot of it is what Kate Manne calls "himpathy"—our tendency to identify with and express empathy for powerful men. I think there's also, perhaps a seemingly antipathetic but actually congruent desire to assure ourselves that the powerful somehow karmically get their just desserts. Sure Zuckerberg is a billionaire who can buy whatever he wants and live in unimaginable luxury. But deep down, he's suffering. So it's all okay in the end.
The Social Network presents itself as an expose, tearing the veil off Zuckerberg and showing the ugly underbelly of the elite. But in reality, it's a lengthy apology, which celebrates Mark's genius and excuses his ugliness, all while completely misrepresenting the actual dangers of a world in which unimaginably powerful people like Zuckerberg control our communications and social networks. It's not Richie Rich who's poor. It's the rest of us. That should be obvious. But it apparently isn't. Which is part of why it's so hard to change.
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