The Social Network, a fictionalized account of how the website Facebook was founded and then turned into a social and financial sensation, primarily poses the question whether its founder and creator was a nice person. But it actually raises some much weirder questions. The film has two large problems: its creators’ inability to depict a plausible narrative of the creation of something like a website, and its creators’ inability to depict a plausible version of success that involves more than buying a nice house with a pool, throwing wild parties, and getting your name in the paper. The plot seems to be—oddly—Mark Zuckerberg becomes a Hollywood superstar, very much like the filmmakers themselves; there is almost nothing in the story to mark his success as being of a different kind than theirs. Everyone knows that the moral of the film is that Mark Zuckerberg is a bad guy who has been living a bad life, but if the story has the fictional Zuckerberg living the life of those who imagined him, what is it that’s supposed to be bad about it?
This is not the story of how Mark Zuckerberg struggled and worked to overcome obstacles that arose as he tried hard to accomplish a difficult goal; this is not Apollo 13, in which people were called to go above and beyond, working extra shifts for no recognition greater than a gift of a new tie from their wives. This is the story of how Mark Zuckerberg ignored every obstacle that put itself in its path: and all of those obstacles arose from the will of others’ opposing themselves to him (usually by telling him there’s something he should pay closer attention to). Actually, there are no real obstacles. He and his friends tell a few friends about “The Facebook,” and they tell a few friends, and so on and so on and so on. On campus after campus, within a couple of weeks of students’ getting access to the site, it is the biggest thing since pitchers of beer. The coding goes smoothly, and everything just falls into place. There are no technical challenges that require hard work and thinking even from a programming genius. There are no unforeseen hardware failures, no power outages that make prearranged deadlines impossible. There is nothing Mark Zuckerberg got wrong—except the rule that one should never stomp on the little people on his way up the ladder.
The only problem Zuckerberg has is that he doesn’t know an algorithm to create an absolute ranking of a large group of competitors on the basis of a limited number of real competitions between selected pairs of them. He has to ask his friend Eduardo Saverin for that information. We do see him in an Operating Systems class, in which he solves a complex calculation, involving addressing theory, on the spur of the moment (Zuckerberg’s actual Harvard OS professor has written up some of his reminiscences, with reference to The Social Network, here and here). But there is no sense, in the film, that memorizing theory and doing quick mental math is not enough to create a successful computer application, much less a distributed application. Admittedly, a focus on technical issues would be boring. But the filmmakers suggest that Zuckerberg’s accomplishment lay in finding an opportunity and making sure he was the only one who profited from it: the near equivalent of climbing onto a speeding train and pushing those already riding it over the side.
It was not necessary, moreover, to hinge the film on the bizarre personality (as portrayed in the film) of Sean Parker. (He is described in the film as the founder of Napster, though according to Wikipedia his real involvement is questionable.) Parker, as depicted, and presumably as can be shown through publicly available documentation, is a flake. He has a history, not only of being unable to work with colleagues, but of fallouts with police, over cocaine use and underage girls. He appears to be paranoid and (in the words of Saverin in the film) delusional—which is not so surprising if the allegations about cocaine are true. He does have contacts in the business world that Zuckerberg and Saverin lack. His intuition that Facebook could have an even bigger impact—on something—than Napster had, on music sales, turned out to be right. Saverin’s apparent feeling that what they had was just an ordinary dot-com business success turned out to be wrong. Yet the narrative is set up as Zuckerberg’s choice—between remaining on the East Coast, finishing college, and being ordinary—and breaking into the big time in California, turning himself into a superstar. Saverin remains committed to the first of those choices, while Parker tempts Zuckerberg towards the second one.
The problem is that the film does not successfully distinguish Parker’s way of life from his business and technical ability. There is a relentless focus on the way having lots of money gives men the wherewithal to form private all-male clubs and party, to stay out all night drinking and taking drugs and getting hot women to take off their clothes and dance with one another. At Harvard, this is the province of the final clubs, like the Porcellian, to which Zuckerberg’s nemeses the Winklevoss twins belong. Mundane fraternities like AEP only have lame-looking mixers, and people like Mark Zuckerberg—because of their aggressively ambitious personalities, the film suggests—will never be accepted into those people’s clubs. In California, on the contrary, a smart guy with lots of ambition has the chance to become Sean Parker. You can write code in your rented house and party with college girls at the same time. You can get hot women who wouldn’t have looked at you twice before you were rich. There is no real sense of irony in the film’s idea, expressed by the Beatles’ song that plays over the film’s final shot, that Mark Zuckerberg is now “one of the beautiful people.”
And Parker’s personality is certainly typical California. The drugs, the partying, the contempt for the East Coast as old and stodgy, the idea that nothing of any importance is going on anyplace else. The identification of expertise with knowing the right people and being willing to play them, of creativity and intelligence with business sense and aggression. Parker is Zuckerberg’s Paul Simon to Saverin’s Woody Allen (with Mark Zuckerberg, then, as Annie Hall, if rather more successful than she will ever be). And he behaves, and talks, in a manner more frequently associated with Simon’s and Allen’s generation (or with Sorkin’s) than with that of today’s young people. There is no apparent irony in this, either. The idea seems to be that California tech executives and Hollywood stars are the same—and better than everybody else—and, not least, just because they are free enough and rich enough to party. At least the filmmakers don’t seem to have cared to do some research and find out whether they and their subjects are different.
Which raises the question: Are the filmmakers capable of understanding success as anything deeper than money, fame, and personality, as anything more important than the ability to gain access to a kind of secret society where drugs and free love are the rule? Is joining a men’s club (a gentlemen’s club in the real meaning of the phrase) what “making it” means? Are rich people better than the rest of us, really, only because they know how to party? It’s as strange as if “the music of the night,” promised by the phantom of the opera in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical of that name, were only what could be heard from a ladies’ room stall at Studio 54.
(For more, here is an interesting story about Mark Zuckerberg and the origins of Facebook, by Zuckerberg’s Harvard classmate Rebecca Davis O’Brien.)
 It’s interesting that the MP3 format used by Napster is, technically, a very poor format. Its great advantage is its simplicity. It is easy to program to. I’ve wondered whether this is an example of technical lock-in as a result of nontechnical path dependence, something that is far from rare (Sony Betamax is widely regarded as superior to VHS), but in this case arose because the only broadly available application for downloadable audio files was created not only by amateurs, but by student amateurs.
 At Columbia, for what it’s worth, AEP renamed itself as TEP when it decided to become coed and admit women, not just as “little sisters.” Does Harvard have any coeducational fraternities?
 Was the racist garbage about how perfect Asian women are for Jewish men really necessary? And while the male characters were cast to resemble more or less plausible college students (as opposed to, say, characters on The Practice), the women looked like Victoria Secret models more than like Boston undergraduates. There are plenty of good-looking women in Harvard Yard. Couldn’t a little effort have been made to find out how they dress?
And what was up with the BU girlfriend, Erica’s, beret? Did dating Zuckerberg upset her so much she decided to become Orthodox?
 Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue, as usual, goes by too quickly, but especially in the first scene, he definitely nails a certain sort of man and the way he talks to women. Believe me, they are not all geniuses.
 Do they think poor people don’t party?
P.S.: It's been pointed out to me--by my husband, who has a Facebook account, which he signed up for initially for distributing baby pictures--that it's ironic I would be writing a post about The Social Network when I don't use Facebook myself (except when he shows me his account, so I can see my relatives' pictures, or updates from female acquaintances of his who cook much fancier than I do).