A month ago, I argued about The Social Network for a solid 45 minutes with Mike, one of the few friends my age who's actually been climbing the career ladder uninterrepedly since graduation. Three weeks away from moving from New York City to New Orleans in pursuit of a better job, he was way more qualified than me to weigh in on the vexing issue of whether or not the film's Mark Zuckerberg (who, let's stress, is basically fictional) is the hero or villain. For Mike, Zuckerberg was clearly defensible for a simple reason: no one got hurt. Eduardo Saverin currently has a 5% stake in Facebook worth $1.3 billion; the Winklevoss twins got a $65 million settlement. No one involved's strapped for cash; this was an abstract tussle for cultural cachet, not a truly despicable piece of corporate crime. Mike feels the same abstract urge to take risks and do whatever's necessary to move up not because he's fighting for his economic life — he'd be covered — but precisely because it's something he has the option of doing.
I argued the exact opposite for 45 minutes (that Zuckerberg's the loser, lost and alienated from his only friends), and we both had legions of supporting details. It was amazing we could both argue opposite sides for 45 minutes without either of us breaking down, and it made me want to see the movie again, trying to zero in on "what the film's about." Ambiguity seems to be the point: the reason the ethical rights and wrongs can't easily be sorted out is because they don't have real, firmly rooted moral precedents. You can't measure the lasting value of Facebook this early in its existence: there's simply no way to tell what it'll be, or how long it'll be a subject of worldwide obsession.
"We don't know what it is yet," Zuckerberg keeps insisting, and the film agrees. How can you evaluate something when there's no reasonable metrics in place to measure value? Facebook crashed the Harvard servers and made Zuckerberg the world's youngest billionaire by tapping into a need most people had never previously known they could feel. The movie proposes it's an overwhelming, sexually motivated urge for horny college students, but it could be any of the things the site does (allow you to snigger at less fortunate high school acquaintances or envy more successful ones, keep in touch with people you've met once for no apparent reason, etc). And it's seven years old. You could argue there's comparable internet precedents even in this foreshortened, but size matters.
The first lawsuit: whether or not Zuckerberg stole the idea from the Winklevoss twins, stalling them because he knew being first was more important. But that's not quite clear: "If you had invented Facebook, you'd have invented Facebook," Zuckerberg says in a particularly Mamet-y moment. His argument isn't that he didn't steal the germ of their idea; it's more that they presented the goal in a hamfisted, ineffective way (posting traditional Harvard studs for the presumed universal adulation of young ladies everywehre). Zuckerberg's big lightning bolt — the final piece of the concept he strains to grope for — is a sublimated, simple one line question about people's relationship status. It's the difference between a hard sell and a (sorry) inception. Given that his code was entirely different and that the Winklevoss' site would (in the film's conception) almost certainly have failed, does it matter Zuckerberg took a raw idea, made it substantially better and refused to give even token financial compensation to its source? It's unanswerable.
The second lawsuit: did Zuckerberg dick former best friend Savarin out from reasons of sullen resentment? Probably, the movie suggests: Zuckerberg sometimes disputes testimony, but most of the time everyone agrees on what's being said. You can take the linear narrative at face value, the same way Zuckerberg does while demonstrating his utmost contempt for the proceedings: the truth is simply irrelevant to the larger enigma. He did something evil (in the film's telling), but it's yet another lesson on why you should always read what you're signing, so it's hard to feel that bad for the wealthy Savarin.
Facebook's impact and financial value and ability to exploit people's self-created needs are simply immeasurable, the kind of dilemma sure to drive an OCD type like David Fincher nuts. All the verbal fussiness and back-and-forth is an increasingly frantic skirmish to avoid staring the informational void face-on. In Zodiac, Jake Gyllenhaal became increasingly the only one who cared, quantifying one thing for the record long after people had stopped paying attention. In The Social Network, the instigator at the center doesn't care about sorting out what he does; his obsession will be many people's mess to clean up. That's what scares Fincher and Sorkin, I guess: something that can't be measured. That weird, sickly horror film patina — the bags under Eisenberg's are the biggest since Tak Fujimoto shot Chris Cooper like a monster in Breach — is panic at the unknown. Fair enough.