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Why “The Social Network” Doesn’t Define My Generation Or Mark Zuckerberg

October 13, 2010

Will The Social Network go down as the movie of my generation? If it does, I can live with it. But I don’t think it tells the full story of my generation, Mark Zuckerberg, and his vital role in our future.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the movie or find the fictional portrayal of Facebook’s co-founders entertaining or dramatically powerful (arguments about its authenticity bore me, since anyone with half a brain knows it’s fiction). It’s more that the issues in the film seemed universally human — and American — than they did generational or technologically driven. If anything, I walked away with a more positive feeling and elevated respect for Mark Zuckerberg (even the conflicted one portrayed in the film) than I’ve ever had as someone who has followed him and his company very closely. In fact, I left the theater last night more inspired about the possibilities of my generation than I have in a long time.

(And I got home and wrote this post right away).

From the moment I heard Facebook’s history would be made into a movie, I knew it would be as much an indictment on my generation that grew up with computers as it would on Zuckerberg himself. In fact, prior to seeing the film last night, I intentionally didn’t read the reviews because I wanted to go in unencumbered by the opinions of commentators twice my age who want to give me their $.02 on the net generation with zero credibility.

That said, I think tech and social media enthusiasts who deem “The Social Network” an unfairly negative view on emerging technology need to relax. Technology affects all generations and the way they interact with each other, both for good and bad. Not reflecting technology’s role on our lives in art — and the natural drawbacks its has on our relationships — would be silly. Sure, Facebook and like technologies also brings many positive additions to our relationships that could have been covered in the film, but that wouldn’t make for fun fiction. Plus, we all know TV, the defining medium of the generation before mine, is a much bigger culprit in social ineptitude and a loosening grip on reality than Facebook, so I’m not sweating it.

What The Social Network reveals, and what Mark Zuckerberg has successfully shown in real-life, is that my generation not only has the brains and intellect to be successful and innovative on a grand scale, but also those celebrated American qualities of grit, resolve, and determination that the older generation so often insists we lack. Pete Cashmore of Mashable touched on this entrepreneurial spirit depicted in the film by Zuckerberg, describing him as a “genius with an industrious work ethic.” But I think it runs even deeper. Poetically, the story, especially Zuckerberg’s decision to move to California and grow his business rather than play-it-safe back at Harvard, revealed an alive and well manifest destiny story being embraced by an early 20-something. One where you don’t settle. Where you don’t stay at home in mom’s finished basement. As the movie aptly shows, he wouldn’t be content to build a $1 million business if he can build a $1 billion business. And even when he did get $1 billion buy-out offer (he did in real-life), these same older critics probably called him out for hubris. Now, he could be looking at a $30 billion business.

It’s not a cliche, but a mere truism, that my generation is often told we sit around computers all day and expect to get everything free and easy. The Social Network — in an appealing, bold, and human way — illustrated that we have ideas we’ll work tirelessly to realize, and we will help contribute to our economy, create jobs and (though not shown on screen) promote causes. Like the generations before us, along the way we’ll make mistakes and hurt each other sometimes in the process, but the spirit endures.

Unfortunately, this country’s gross disparity in providing opportunity means it’s not set up to create as many Mark Zuckerbergs as we need, which is why his recent donation of $100 million in Facebook stock to the Newark Public Schools couldn’t be more appropriate. Right now, the reason we have so many twenty-somethings living at home has more to do with a lack of education and opportunity due to the complacent generation before them to create jobs suited for the information economy. And parents who spend the majority of their time watching their 25 recorded shows on the DVR rather than helping their kids with homework — and then blame teachers and presidents rather than themselves when their kids don’t thrive in the 21st century economy — should think twice about criticizing.

The Social Network revealed that ideas — and the ability to execute on them — will yield the prosperity and new economic opportunities that our generation must create if we are to make up for the mistakes of the generations before us. My brother and I both proudly work for start-ups, and I know our parents, who just visited us in San Francisco and taught us about a strong work ethic, couldn’t be more proud. The reason I hope this movie doesn’t define my generation is that ethics — not just money — are important to us. And though I don’t him personally, I believe ethics probably matter to Facebook’s heady CEO as well.

So while I know this movie couldn’t have been easy for Zuckerberg to watch, I’d tell him not to sweat it. Despite whatever mistakes he’s made along the way, he’s done more good for my generation than many of his critics care to admit.

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