‘The Social Network’ ignores the Network

On Friday, I wrote a review of “The Social Network“. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig did one better for The New Republic: “Sorkin vs. Zuckerberg—‘The Social Network’ is wonderful entertainment, but its message is actually kind of evil“. Lawrence is insightful as always, although he expects too much of the film’s writer and director. Nevertheless, he makes spot-on observations about what Facebook represents for future entrepreneurs like co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. The film is seemingly a morality tale about moral ambiguity. What’s lost is Zuckerberg’s ingenuity and the network that allowed it to flourish.

A Troubled Tale
Lawrence describes “The Social Network” as “deeply, deeply flawed”. His reasons include:

  • Perspective—”Imagine a jester from King George III’s court, charged in 1790 with writing a comedy about the new American Republic.”
  • The Net—screenwriter Aaron Sorkin “simply hasn’t a clue to the real secret sauce in the story he is trying to tell…Sorkin boasts about his ignorance of the Internet. That ignorance shows.”
  • Legal narrative—”Did [Mark Zuckerberg] steal any other ‘property’? Absolutely not—the code for Facebook was his, and the ‘idea’ of a social network is not a patent.
  • Storytelling—”What’s important here is that Zuckerberg’s genius could be embraced by half-a-billion people within six years of its first being launched, without (and here is the critical bit) asking permission of anyone.”

The latter point is the crux of everything and goes back to my Nov. 6, 2005, post “The Web Miracle“. Writing about World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee:

The conception was unique, because of Tim’s decision to use open-standard technologies that no single entity controlled. Its execution is amazing…Tim’s no-patent, no-royalty approach imbues the highest aspirations for what real research is supposed to be about. The patent frenzy of the last 10 years is phenomenal and antithesis of Tim’s approach.

The Web is an open platform, and a hugely disruptive one at that. I got on the Web in 1994, recognizing it would change publishing. Recently, that disruption has brought chaos to my field of journalism. But that’s OK. The network is everything, and Lawrence rightly observes how it’s missing from “The Social Network”: “The real hero in this story doesn’t even get a credit. It’s something Sorkin doesn’t even notice.”

Lawrence uses the founding of Nantucket Nectars as vehicle for comparing the old and new worlds. He writes:

At each step after the first, along the way to giving their customers what they wanted, the two Toms had to ask permission from someone. They needed permission from a manufacturer to get into his plant. Permission from a distributor to get into her network. And permission from stores to get before the customer…

Zuckerberg faced no such barrier. For less than $1,000, he could get his idea onto the Internet. He needed no permission from the network provider. He needed no clearance from Harvard to offer it to Harvard students. Neither with Yale, or Princeton, or Stanford. Nor with every other community he invited in. Because the platform of the Internet is open and free, or in the language of the day, because it is a ‘neutral network,’ a billion Mark Zuckerbergs have the opportunity to invent for the platform.

Think about what Facebook has become in six years, and, yes, all without asking anybody’s permission. As I explained in June 21, 2009, post “Iran and the New Democracy“: “The Internet is tearing down monopolies of power and empowering individuals and smaller groups. The Internet is the new democracy.” Nearly all the most potently empowering technologies now in the mainstream—Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, among others—weren’t publicly available before November 2005. Facebook and Twitter weren’t publicly availability until 2006, although college students could access the social network starting two years earlier.

However for all my enthusiasm: “I’m not convinced this Internet democracy is sustainable in a free market. The free market really isn’t free. Capitalism favors the creation of monopolies of power. From the ruin will rise new monopolies, I fear.”

Keep the Net Open
Lawrence and I worry about the same thing: Ending of Net neutrality that allows so much freedom and innovation around the “neutral network”. I expressed my first concerns on this blog in April 26, 2006, post “Keep the Net Open“. Lawrence worries that people watching “The Social Network” will miss what Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher did: The network’s uncredited and largely ignored starry role. Lawrence writes:

That is tragedy because just at the moment when we celebrate the product of these two wonders—Zuckerberg and the Internet—working together, policymakers are conspiring ferociously with old world powers to remove the conditions for this success. As ‘network neutrality’ gets bargained away—to add insult to injury, by an administration that was elected with the promise to defend it—the opportunities for the Zuckerbergs of tomorrow will shrink. And as they do, we will return more to the world where success depends upon permission. And privilege. And insiders. And where fewer turn their souls to inventing the next great idea.

In August, Google and Verizon made a heinous Net non-neutrality proposal that I characterized in a Betanews post as “worse than evil“. As I expressed earlier, in April 2006, policymakers—and even Net non-neutral supporters—miss the broader restrictions network providers could impose:

What is a competing service? How about you and me…Big Net providers would just as easily compete with their customers. I’ve got email running off my own domain. What would prevent my provider, Verizon, from favoring email routed through its servers and putting the breaks on email sent off my domain? The competitor pushed to the slow lane would be me, or you.

You could be asking Verizon permission to send email in the Net non-neutral future the company envisions. How much harder would it be for Mark Zuckerbergs to innovate?

All that said, Lawrence Lessig misses something important in his commentary. Facebook is a closed network. The entity is as much a threat to the open Web as policies affecting Net neutrality. There is little open about Facebook other than its access, whether that’s subscribers coming in adding content and connections or developers accessing APIs (application programming interfaces). Facebook is in many ways a closed book, at least compared to the otherwise openness of the residing network.

With 500 million users, and growing, Facebook increasingly is the repository for photos, movies and online communications—displacing blogs, chat services, email, photo-sharing sites and even YouTube. Facebook is disruptive, too, to the very network that makes it possible. The Internet and Facebook are stories still unfolding. So I wonder: What tale will the sequels tell?