Singin' in the Rain has been my favorite movie for almost 30 years. It's got classic music, extraordinary dancing and, incredible humor. And it's got Gene Kelly.
And if that weren't enough, it takes you inside the birth of a technology — the talking motion picture — and conveys the excitement, joy and the transformational power that greeted it in such a way that even though movies are utterly familiar to us, we feel the joy and excitement, too.
The Social Network takes us inside the birth of a technology that in just five years has become as ubiquitous and familiar as movies: Facebook. It's got Aaron Sorkin dialogue (and, hence, Aaron Sorkin tempo) and inventive structure. And it's got Justin Timberlake. Those ingredients add up to a captivating experience, and a movie that could well become a classic. A classic business movie, anyhow.
But The Social Network may be the most misleading movie title of all time: if there's one thing this movie is not about, it's social networking, at least in the online sense. Sure, there are some references to MySpace and LiveJournal, a minor subplot about the consequences of indiscreet blogging, and a joke about gauging relationship status by Facebook status line. And I was thrilled to finally see a movie with a couple of scenes that were best appreciated by those with a little programming knowledge.
But these elements are at the margins of the movie, details thrown in to provide local color. You could take just about any business involved in a juicy legal dispute, and make more or less the same film. The action is punctuated by membership milestones, but these are numbers, not people, and the fact that these numbers are essential proxies for market valuation becomes abundantly clear at the movie's climax, when membership figures and dollar figures are explicitly overlaid. The Social Network reminds us periodically that Mark Zuckerberg didn't care about Facebook for the money, but the movie sure does. This is a movie about getting rich; a movie about business.
To make a movie about Facebook, and yet say nothing insightful about the platform or its social impact, is symptomatic of where the field of social media has ended up. The business of social media has gone mainstream, enough to warrant its own movie, and that seems to be what matters now. Follow the social media press, and you'll read about social media marketing, business models, monetization plans, the latest hot startup concept. Silicon Valley used to be where you went to be with the other geeks. Now, it's just where you get rich.
Still, if you listen to normal social media users (yes, there are such creatures) rather than social media professionals, you get a different picture of what really matters on social networks (as opposed to The Social Network). You hear about people who've found old friends or have rediscovered old hobbies or even found brand new friends and new passions. You hear about people who have been flamed or exposed or criticized or simply (and most often) overwhelmed.
Part of why the movie focuses on business and not what I believe is the real story, the tangible impact social media is having on how we live, is because social media is still developing. We don't quite know yet how to tell the story of this world in which we'll all have close friends that we've never met, careers that don't exist yet (as we're told), forms of expression still being invented. We'll have physical bodies as well as networked minds but we'll have elided the distinction between the "real" lives of our "wetware" and the "virtual" lives of our hardware. We'll live on the same planet that humans have inhabited for 200,000, but compared to just a decade ago, it will be a radically different world. A world that Facebook was key to incubating.
People working in the field of social media bear a particular responsibility for imagining, interrogating and forming this new world that is just beginning, for what use is our insatiable appetite for connectivity, our constant embrace of new tools, our perpetually self-reflecting conversation, if not for the job of shaping this new world with some degree of insight and deliberateness. If The Social Network mistakes the business of social media as being what the field of social media all about, we should take it as a reflection and a reminder to pay attention to the real work at hand.
Maybe we're twenty years away from knowing how that work turns out, and twenty years from seeing a classic movie that not only tell us how it began, but also transfers that palpable sense of excitement, of unknown exploration, of newness, that has accompanied the explosive onset of social networking.
After all, Singin' in the Rain came out in 1952; The Jazz Singer, which dates the period in which the film is set, came out in 1927. Two decades gives you the perspective to look back on an historical moment and pick out the elements of lasting significance, while still giving you access to the people who lived through it firsthand. If in twenty years, those people are still telling the story of social media as one about who got rich, we'll know we've missed out on more than a great night at the movies.