‘The Social Network’ Gave Us an Origin Story For Internet Toxicity

It's almost as if David Fincher was trying to warn us...
The Social Network

This guest essay about The Social Network is part of our Decade Rewind. Keep up as we look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of the 2010s.

In 2010, it seemed strange to pair director David Fincher with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin to tell the origin story of Facebook and its co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Yet as we soon found out, their film isn’t just about how a Harvard student made billions from a groundbreaking social media platform — nor is it just about the legal disputes in the wake of its success. In addition to chronicling the start of Facebook itself, The Social Network provided an origin story for the toxic behavior that has become commonplace on that website and the internet in general.

The Social Network’s defining scene occurs between Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) and Erica (Rooney Mara) in its opening minutes. This masterful scene uses fast-paced overlapping dialogue to establish Mark’s motivations and highlight his flaws, as Erica’s well-meaning attempts to keep up with his scattered, self-centered thoughts are brought to a standstill by his insensitivity and social ineptitude. She eventually calls him “exhausting,” a feeling shared by the audience as he picks apart every word she says. When he defends one insulting comment as simply “stating a fact,” he reflects the kind of unsympathetic behavior wrongfully equated with rationality across the internet today. Her feelings are dismissed, while his take center stage, disguised as “objective” reasoning.

Mark clearly resents gatekeepers of high society such as the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer), but he also desires their status and is quick to denounce others for not being on his level. Rather than communicating his feelings over being ostracized from the elite social clubs at Harvard, he misreads or outright ignores the intent of her words in favor of cold, hard, logic. He takes offense when Erica asks him which final club is easiest to get into — a clear sore point with him — yet sees no issue with saying that she doesn’t have to study as hard because she goes to a less prestigious university. When Erica breaks up with him, this becomes yet another rejection for him to project out onto the world.

“You’re gonna go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd,” Erica tells him in the film’s most memorable line, “And I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.” Her comment touches on the misogyny that Mark’s Facebook algorithm emerges from, as well as the entitlement one present in many internet subcultures. Nerd culture originated in previously niche hobbies and interests, often leading to bullying and ostracization from the popular crowd, but it also led to identifying these same interests with being an underdog. In the 1980s comedy The Revenge of the Nerds, nerdy men take revenge on the jocks, yet it’s the women who’ve rejected them who take the most abuse. In The Social Network, this same process takes place through a much more sober lens.

To vent his anger over the break-up, Mark writes insulting blog posts about Erica, calling her a “bitch” and joking about her bra size and family name. He then distracts himself by launching a site to rate women against each other, a process that Fincher intercuts with fantasies of the exclusive parties Mark isn’t invited to. We also see the numerous male students he shares the link with, who invite other men to join in on the mockery and judgment of their female classmates. The urgent momentum of the scene is punctuated by one female student to call it “pathetic” and another to realize with dismay that it’s her roommate they’re judging. Mark’s idea to make the site may be rooted in personal pain, but the shared connection between those participating in it is misogyny. And given that the creation of the site meant hacking images of these women from university sites, it’s not hard to see how this same mindset plays into the real-life internet trolls who have doxxed female critics or otherwise taken part in online harassment campaigns.

The Social Network received some criticism over its portrayal of women, such as in The Daily Beast’s description of Sorkin’s female characters as “doting groupies, vengeful sluts, or dumpy, feminist killjoys.” Responding to this criticism, Sorkin took to a comment section to argue that “Facebook was born during a night of incredible misogyny” and that he was “writing about a very angry and deeply misogynistic group of people.” “These aren’t the cuddly nerds we made movies about in the ’80s,” he added. “They’re very angry that the cheerleader still wants to go out with the quarterback instead of the men (boys) who are running the universe right now.” Nerd culture has effectively become popular culture by this point, but that hasn’t stopped those that identify with it from gate-keeping or self-victimizing as “underdogs.”

When Mark meets Erica again at the midpoint in the movie, she reminds him that “the internet isn’t written in pencil, it’s written in ink.” His actions had an effect, just as the mean-spirited words anonymous users send out into the world do — whether or not they were serious about it. “You write your snide bullshit from a dark room because that’s what the angry do nowadays,” she says, suggesting his site is just an extension of that same impulse to get revenge on the world. A decade earlier, Fincher’s disenfranchised men gathered underground to beat each other senseless in Fight Club. In the 21st century, they huddle over computer screens.

In the final scene, Mark tells junior lawyer Marilyn (Rashida Jones) that he’s “not a bad guy” and defends his actions from the beginning of the film. “I was drunk and angry and stupid,” he says. “And blogging,” she adds. Marilyn tells him that “creation myths need a devil.” She’s right to not put the blame solely at his feet, but the “night of incredible misogyny” that the website was born from is vital to understanding what Sorkin and Fincher are communicating about online behavior. Mark never confronts his real problems, letting them fester under the surface. The internet platforms we use are not always a neutral ground, but a place where we are encouraged to engage with each other in specific ways. This can see positive communities with distinct aims and personalities emerge, but it can also allow our worst impulses to go unchecked.

The lack of empathy Mark shows for those he hurt in that first night is the same we can see in abusive internet exchanges brushed off as just being “just a joke.” Going forward, Mark describes user behavior on the site like he’s a detached anthropologist, without thinking of the effect his creation may have on the people that populate it. Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), whom Mark idolizes, paints a disturbing picture of a world addicted to status updates: “We lived on farms and then we lived in cities,” he says, “and now we’re gonna live on the internet.” His gleeful description of the site’s future sounds like an omen – and now it’s our present.

Jack Godwin: Jack is a London-based writer, film and TV critic, and comic book obsessive.