There is one scene in the movie The Social Network that sticks in my mind. Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook team have moved to a house in Silicon Valley and installed a zipline from their roof to their backyard pool. One guy (I forgot his name) ziplines into the pool, whooping and splashing and floundering, as Zuckerberg laconically films him. Zuckerberg then turns to watch the video he’s just taken, a tiny grin tugging at the corners of his mouth, as the guy yells triumphantly from the pool:
Guy: “I made it!”
Zuckerberg: “You did.”
Guy: “I didn’t die!”
Zuckerberg: “I know.”
This is how tech geeks talk. This is how they live. They rig ziplines into pools for the same reason they make things like Facebook, and they jump onto those ziplines for the same reason they (sometimes) throw away their comfy upper-middle-class lifestyles to live on cup ramen and work 15 hours a day on startup companies. Not because they are trying to fuck over the East Coast old-money establishment. Not so they can bang Asian groupies in bathroom stalls. They do it because it’s there. They do it because it’s fun.
That’s why that one brief, glib exchange stood out as the best moment in the film. For three seconds, Aaron Sorkin has his characters stop talking like D.C. political hacks and start talking like nerds. It was probably an accident.
Let me say this: The Social Network is a very well-made film. Aaron Sorkin is a peerless writer of snappy dialogue, and the movie’s first half perfectly captures the warm bath of constant social interaction that is life as an undergrad at a small private school. The shots of boat races, though incongruous, were gorgeous. And Justin Timberlake absolutely steals the show as the megalomaniac, hard-partying Sean Parker (Attention entertainment industry: why is this man a pop star and not a movie star?).
As for the plot, it’s a standard morality tale: money won’t buy you friends or happiness. Fine, good. Valuable lessons for life (not that most of you out there will listen). But here’s the dirty little secret of people like Mark Zuckerberg: They don’t need to buy happiness, because they already have it. Geeks are, by and large, a happy bunch. Not because they make good money (though most do), and not because they get laid a lot (though some do), but because they are interested in the world, and in life. Even before geeks got the money and girls – I’m talking about the dark days of the 70s, when they wore pocket protectors and crashed sci-fi conventions – they were pretty much happy with their lot. Conquering the world, courtesy of the IT revolution, was just the icing on the cake.
Look at the real Mark Zuckerberg. He is a smiley, slightly buck-toothed, doofy guy. He has a smiley, slightly chubby, doofy girlfriend. They look like the sweetest people you know. They look like the couple you and your girlfriend call up when you want to sit around on a Wednesday night and watch weird movies. They look like they’ll cook you some Thai food (not necessarily well). You know who they look like, in fact? Bill and Melinda Gates.
But that is not the Mark Zuckerberg that people want to see. There’s a lot of people out there who don’t like the idea that an extremely successful person could be laid-back and down-to-earth. They don’t like the idea that an extremely smart person could be satisfied and well-adjusted. They want to be shown that success has a price, and that natural ability is a curse as well as a blessing. They want to see a Greek tragedy, the fall of the Successful Man. Oedipus Rex must be a motherfucker.
This is why Ben Mezrich sells books. And, although they might not want to admit it, this is why many people love The Social Network.
And it kind of annoys me. Because to me, the Age of the Geek is about the good guy winning. Finally, thanks to technology and the free market, hard work and ingenuity are a better route to riches than personal connections, corruption, and the exploitation of cheap labor. But even more importantly, career success doesn’t require soul-killing sacrifices. You can make it big, and still dress like a dork, and play video games, and cook Thai food (not necessarily well), and hang ziplines in your back yard. Even if you’re a billionaire, you can still take Rosebud out in the back yard, and strap your frigging smartphone to it, and steer by GPS, and post the video on YouTube.
My advice? Watch The Social Network for the well-made, well-written movie it is. And then forget it. Go be a geek. Go get interested in life. Life is not a tragedy.