The Loser Wins

Zuckerberg is not just any loser. His victory is not a win for equality, but instead signals the rise of a new, no less inegalitarian hierarchy. The Social Network is, at heart, a conservative morality tale. Zuckerberg is the anti-underdog. 

By Malcolm Harris

While some critics have hailed The Social Network, David Fincher’s account of the rise of social-media mogul Mark Zuckerberg, as Citizen Kane 2.0, the Facebook founder hardly seems to measure up: he is neither old nor alone, and his modest Palo Alto rental is no escapist Xanadu. The failed college relationship that purportedly motivates him is no Rosebud. For all the conflicts his ascent provokes — Zuckerberg against his shafted co-inventors, Zuckerberg against the privacy of his users, Zuckerberg against Luddites, and most of all, Zuck against his own happiness — his story has more in common with come-from-behind sports movies like The Mighty Ducks than the Hellenic tragedy of Welles’s thinly veiled William Randolph Hearst biopic.

But there is an important difference. The traditional underdog narrative is deeply democratic, with the heroes coming from society’s garbage bin. Think of Stallone in perhaps the greatest underdog role of all time: Rocky, the gritty low-level mob enforcer who goes punch-for-punch with the heavyweight champion of the world. The ringer in the sports movies of my youth comes (often literally, as in Mighty Ducks I and II) off the street, so low on the social hierarchy that the elite teams can’t be bothered to see them. And even the talented outsider requires the fat kid, the nerdy kid, the small kid, the fundamentally untalented, in order to win. As often as not in these movies, it is a mediocre team member who comes through in the end. The insurrectionary joy in underdog films comes from seeing the dominant hierarchy subverted by anyone with enough guts, will, and hard work. They end with the playing fields truly equalized: any group of losers can win — with the right montage scenes, of course. But Zuckerberg is not just any loser. His victory is not a win for equality, but instead signals the rise of a new, no less inegalitarian hierarchy. The Social Network is, at heart, a conservative morality tale. Zuckerberg is the anti-underdog.

The Social Network is the story of a hierarchy being optimized, not undermined. The film traces the now familiar tale of Zuckerberg’s rise to riches and fame. Romantically and socially jilted, Zuck writes the code for a site that allows his fellow Harvard students to compare the attractiveness of female coeds. The site is so popular that it overloads Harvard’s servers and turns its creator into a campus celebrity. When two blue-blood Harvard rowers, Cameron and Tyler Winkelvoss, approach Zuckerberg with the idea for a University-exclusive MySpace, he accepts before blowing them off and pursuing Facebook on his own, with startup cash from his roommate Eduardo Saverin, who gets screwed out of his share for being unable to read a contract.

Much of the film takes place in a deposition room: defendant Zuckerberg stares at his watch while his former friends, now plaintiffs, tell the story of his betrayals. By the end of the movie, the lonely outsider has turned into a rich celebrity, the sort that people make movies about while they’re still alive, with Harvard’s elite sucking on his financial teat.

In some ways, Zuckerberg seems the classic underdog. At Harvard, he is shut out of the elite campus clubs. In a school of suits, he wears hoodies. He is short, nerdy, and oh so Jewish, especially compared with the Olympian (literally) Winkelvosses. While the twins party with gyrating hotties, he codes. But Zuckerberg is not the nose-picking nerd-Everyman. The film portrays the upper-middle-class coder as phenomenally talented, more talented (he says outright in a deposition scene) than anyone else in the story. His frustration at not being allowed into Harvard’s exclusive finals clubs is not anger at selective institutions as such, but a quiet fury that his particular merit goes unacknowledged.

The Social Network shapes up as a battle between anti-meritocratic systems of privilege (the Harvard clubs, the Winkelvoss twins) and Zuckerberg’s imagined meritocracy, with him on top. We can read him as a synthesis of the elitist Harvard culture and the techno-anarchism of Napster founder turned venture capitalist Sean Parker, who in the film serves as a coke-snorting Mephistopheles to Zuckerberg’s Faust. In one of The Social Network’s more memorable exchanges, Parker describes himself as a success before Saverin protests that he lost everything. Parker replies with a devilish smile: “But would you invest in a Tower Records franchise?”

Zuck nods along, but he plans something more conventionally lucrative, something a little more Harvard. This fits with political-science professor Corey Robin’s description of conservatism in his recent essay “Conservatism and Counterrevolution” (pdf):

Far from yielding a knee-jerk and unre?exive defense of an unchanging old regime or a staid but thoughtful traditionalism, the reactionary imperative presses conservatism in two rather different directions: ?rst, to a critique and recon?guration of the old regime; second, to an absorption of the ideas and tactics of the very revolution or reform it opposes. What conservatism seeks to accomplish through that recon?guration of the old and absorption of the new is to make privilege popular, to transform a tottering old regime into a dynamic, ideologically coherent movement of the masses. A new old regime, one could say, that brings the energy and dynamism of the street to the antique inequalities of a dilapidated estate.

Conservative insurrection leads not to the democracy of The Bad News Bears but the empire of Aeneas’s incipient Rome. Zuckerberg is conservative in precisely this way, using the same user-created content model as Parker, but with the profits (material and social) flowing to his person. In the deposition, he threatens, in a show of disdain, to buy the most exclusive club at Harvard and turn it into his ping-pong room. Edmund Burke might call this a sublime utterance: Zuck is powerful enough to lay waste to the status quo, which validates his position on top of the new world order. Saverin and the Winkelvoss twins’ inability to protect their positions makes them weak and undeserving of their privileges in a more “meritocratic” or “natural” free market system.

The Social Network is a conservative story, as is the story of Facebook and Google and every other celebrated firm founded in a humble Northern California garage and offering a supposedly leveling technology. For each succeeding innovation seems to produce a surprising number of billionaires and, as part of an advanced market form, a superseding hierarchy even less equal than the one it supplants.

Zuckerberg and Facebook are dedicated to erasing their outsider labels and taking their places in a novel structure where page views are more valuable than patrician connections. If Zuck is alone at the end of The Social Network, it is because the top of the new pyramid, the nouveau ancien regime is even narrower than the old peak.