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Oct. 4, 2010, 2 p.m.

A movie with its own backchannel: How “The Social Network” shows our reweaving of conversations

Many of the big-time reviews of The Social Network have focused on the film’s characterization of Mark Zuckerberg, “the youngest billionaire in the world.” Is he an evil genius — or simply a genius? Is he a menace to society, or a savior of it?

To know where the film stands, at any rate, all you have to do is listen to its score — so ominous, so severely simplistic, so straight-out-of-Jaws, that, at moments, you’re sure you see a dorsal fin poking through Zuck’s hoodie. It’s not just that The Social Network is plagued with anxiety about its subject matter; it’s that The Social Network is plagued with anxiety about its subject matter’s territory. The film’s settings — the dorm rooms, the board rooms, the back rooms — feel tight and dark and crowded, even when they’re not. The spaces suffocate. For a movie named for a collective, The Social Network has a bad case of claustrophobia.

And the BuhDUMBuhDUM brand of panic that the film indulges toward its pseudo-protagonist translates to its 500 million other pseudo-protagonists: the “friends” — the film’s corps and chorus, omnipresent if mostly absent — who lurk just beyond the borders of its other confined space, the screen. While its trailer, a work of art unto itself, highlights The 500 Million, people-izing them, implying the profound consequences they suggest for human communication and connection, the film deals with their power by marginalizing them. In director David Fincher’s rendering, the individuals we find at the other end of the Internet are numbers, little more. (“Thousand. Twenty-two thousand.”)

But here’s where things, for the Lab’s purposes, get interesting. If Facebook teaches us anything, it’s that people don’t tend to appreciate being blurred together as backgrounds to other people’s stories. And, not content with being marginalized, several of the 500 million have fought back against the film’s downplay of their power — by, simply, asserting it. By creating a backchannel to the movie and contributing to it. People I’ve never seen writing movie reviews before have been reviewing The Social Network in earnest — writing their reactions on their blogs and sending them around on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr. Others have posted, appropriately enough, directly to Facebook. The background has blossomed to life. In addition to the typical movie-subsidiary stuff — the director/writer/actor interviews, the professional reviews — we’re seeing as well a counterweight to the mainstream narrative: the embrace of the sense that we viewers are not merely viewers at all, but characters. We own this film. We are this film.

The Social Network‘s backchannel, in other words, represents the crystallization of a phenomenon playing out across the culture, not least in journalism: the normalization of participation. Until recently, when it came to films, that participation was pretty much limited to the up-or-down vote that was a ticket purchase at the box office. Now, though — via, appropriately/ironically enough, the new architectures for discourse whose foundation Facebook helped to build — our participation is much more than facelessly financial. We augment the film through our public reactions to it. (Sometimes, we augment it even more directly than that.) We challenge the thing-itself quality of the movie by insisting that we are part of the thing in question.

We talk about the problem of context in news: the fact that the unit of an article or segment, while it works fine as a singular narrative, is a poor conduit for the contextual information that people need to understand a story in full. The response to The Social Network is a reminder that our evolving relationship with context extends far beyond the news. It represents, in fact, something of a perfect storm of new media maxims — Shirky’s cognitive surplus, Jarvis’ network economy, Rosen’s people formerly known as the audience — gusting its way into the culture at large. The film suggests that we’ve reached some kind of critical mass…via, quite literally, a critical mass. Amid our anxieties about the atomization of cultural consumption — the isolation of Netflix, the personalization of choose-your-own-adventure-style news — we’re seeing a corrective in collaborative culture. We’re re-networking ourselves, flattening our relationship with Hollywood as much as with The New York Times.

What’s most noteworthy about that is how completely un-noteworthy it seems. Movies, of course, have always been more than what they are; films have always had as much to do with the social experience outside the theater as the personal experience within it. What’s new, though, and what The Social Network suggests so eloquently, almost in spite of itself, is our ability to transform the sidewalk experience of theater-going, the how’d-you-like-its and what’d-you-thinks, into cultural products of their own. There’s The Social Network, the film…and then there’s The Social Network, the social network — the conversations and contributions and ephemera. And those two things are collapsing into each other, with the film-as-process and the film-as-product increasingly, if by no means totally, merging into one event. Participation is becoming normative. We know that because it’s also becoming normal.

POSTED     Oct. 4, 2010, 2 p.m.
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