Day 296: The Meaning of "Social" in Social Network

October 24th, 2010

“Once again, we see why human beings do not thrive as the “existential cowboys” that so much modern thought celebrates. While it may be literally true that “we are born alone” and that “we die alone,” connection not only helps us to make us who we are in evolutionary terms, it helps determine who we become as individuals. In both cases, human connections, mental health, psychological health, and emotional well-being are all inextricably linked.” -John T. Cacioppo

Although it is hard to know exactly how much truth is reflected in the characterization of the original Facebook players, what is clear from the Social Network, is that the genius and motivation behind the story of the Facebook institution has remarkably unsocial roots. Mark Zuckerberg, the primary founder is both a profoundly gifted programmer and a deeply lonely, anti-social teenager. Early scenes in the film demonstrate how his incredible computing genius is put to use to assuage his pain and his desire to get even with, or at least gain control over, the social world from which he is ostracized.

In my mind, recognizing the emotional drivers that created the institution of Facebook and all the social media that directs this generation is the most essential truth from the Social Network film that deserves commentary. In the film and in real life, we know that the kids who are at the parties and engaging actively in their 3D social lives, are not heavily involved in the online version. Indeed, if Mark Zuckerberg had been included in any of the early Harvard rushing and social initiation rites of his peers, I suspect there might not even be a Facebook at all.

Like many young adults, brilliant in their own unique way, yet excluded from the popularity and acceptance that we all crave, Facebook was invented to provide a two-dimensional experience of “friending,” which resembles some of the power and exclusivity of real face to face contact, without much risk. It answers the fears of unworthiness and exclusion that we all grapple with to a greater or lesser degree. This desire to be part of something bigger, to be in a community, even if only virtual explains the addictive quality of Facebook. It creates a group experience, it allows you to control your sense of being continuously connected to so many, without necessarily really being connected to anyone.

The film explores many of the more visceral values of the Facebook invention from the business, which is in the billions and growing. It is clear that the project is not about the money… demonstrated repeatedly by his fending off billion dollar buyouts. Also not explored or highlighted in the film is the freedom and openness of the Internet platform to create astronomically successful ventures, although this, in light of recent threats to limit access seems worth illuminating.

Mark Zuckerberg has said that for him this project is about changing the world. I hope the lessons that he has learned about respecting his real friendships and building live connections with people is part of the world he is changing for himself. What holds our attention to Facebook is how it chronicles our real life stories and interactions face to face.

I hope his success is helping him to build the connections that were missing for him when he began. For the rest of us, don’t trade real life connections for hundreds of online friends. Spend your life making the stories that you find brief moments to share on Facebook.

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