Monday, August 15, 2011

Sympathy for Zuckerberg (13 Sept 2010)

I am having a hard time figuring out who the target audience is for the forthcoming Facebook film The Social Network: Who needs to see a movie that "reveals" that Mark Zuckerberg is a douche bag? Who cares anyway? Ambitious people are not nice, neither are elitists at institutions like Harvard, which are designed to make their clients feel set off from the little people.

The excruciating, portentous trailer for the film is having something of the opposite effect on me -- now when I think of Zuckerberg, I conflate him with Jesse Eisenberg, who was in that 80s-nostalgia movie about working at an amusement park, and it makes Zuckerberg seem more sympathetic. So does this New Yorker profile of Zuckerberg by Jose Antonio Vargas, which partially pushes the idea that he is just a humble coder with a passionate desire to change the world for the better through sharing. He certainly seems to have an obsession with putting a happy face on surveillance and busybodyism: "It’s like hardwired into us in a deeper way: you really want to know what’s going on with the people around you," he tells Vargas. Sure, people are nosy, but Facebook and its corporate partners want us to share all the details about our whereabouts and doings a lot more than our friends on Facebook probably do -- all that data allows them to make advertising seem like its a friendly conversation, something stemming from people we know, not the companies who want to shill to us.

Nonetheless, Vargas's profile cleverly questions the impulse to elevate Zuckerberg to some kind of Steve Jobs-like capitalist wizard -- especially in its conclusion, which I won't spoil here. Something like Facebook was going to become the dominant social network -- a fact that was obvious the moment Friendster exploded. It took no special genius to see that. It's probably worth investigating why Facebook was able to succeed when the others faded away -- probably some combination of better programming, better access to money and talent, and a marketing angle geared toward making the site seem exclusive and more stolidly middle-class relative to its competitors. But there doesn't seem to be much reason yet to give Zuckerberg all that much credit for it -- he's just another sufficiently ruthless entrepreneur.

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