The Social Network, opens in the UK this weekend and promises to be one of the best movies about the Internet since … erm … The Net? In truth there haven’t really been any decent movies about the Web that I can recall. On screen stories that feature the Internet as a plot device usually rely on easily digestible concepts such as hacking or serendipitous romance, with the relationships between characters often mediated by some ridiculous looking interface.
It’s heartening to see that the Social Network appears to be more like an old-fashioned morality tale than some faux representation of networked lives. The strapline “you don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies” hints at the personalities of the Facebook founders and how money, ambition and plain dumb luck combined to drive a wedge between their offline relationships at the same time as they were busy facilitating new kinds of online relationships for the rest of us (oh the irony).
Since the movie is interested in exploring the morality of its founders, this begs the question of how much Facebook has been defined by the personalities who created it and the situation they were in at the time. History suggests that Zuckerberg was driven to create Facebook from his frustrated attempts to join the blue-blooded ranks of Harvard student society. Zuckerberg was an outsider who craved acceptance from his conservative peers so he created a tool that lowers the barrier to gaining social acceptability.
The means to connect and feel connected with minimal effort is so universally desirable that it easily trumped the raison d’etre of other social networking tools where the focus was more on individual expression. This isn’t to suggest that you can’t express yourself on Facebook – we typically think of a user’s status as cybernetic extension of their real personality. What makes Facebook different from other networks is the effectiveness with which they have bottled and channelled self-expression in a way that allows them to scale massively without losing their audience.
Facebook has had its share of moral panics however. Think of the sensationalised headlines that portray Facebook as an accomplice to theft, child-endangerment and even murder. Wherever large groups of people gather some form of exploitation usually follows. Like any population centre, Facebook will have its share of dark alleyways. What’s important is that when bad things do happen, it has to be seen to act decisively to maintain order. After all, a massive audience means huge potential revenues from advertisers none of whom really want to be associated with the types of human behaviour that might create a negative association with their brands.
One example of how Facebook deals with unwelcome behaviour are the “porn cops” Facebook employs to check all images that are uploaded to its servers. Doubtless much of the work is automated by algorithms that detect ratios of pink pixels but human intervention is required to ensure that guidelines such as the “no nipple” rule are met.
The average age of a Facebook employee like one of the porn cops is 28. The chances are they have had sufficient life experience to perform a simple moral task like identifying parts of the human body that might cause offence. But does this experience scale to cover all the eventualities and uncertainties that might arise when managing an online community larger than the USA?
The fact is that too much is made of the size of Facebook and the well worn factoid that “if it were a country, it would be the third largest on Earth”. This obscures the fact that, as a whole, it is made up of individual networks. The average Facebook user has only 130 friends – this makes it more like a village. Bumping into the same people in the street everyday may help to explain why something so big requires so little policing.
I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg realised exactly what he would be unleashing on the world when he came up with the idea of The Facebook, to give it its original, definitive title. The unique alchemy of sex-obsessed geekiness and old-fashioned social climbing exhibited in his personality and ultimately expressed in the code behind the site he created is certainly a story worth telling.