Let’s spill the pop-culture tea: A look back at ‘The Social Network’ reminds us of the trap of tech gurus

Actors Jesse Eisenberg and Joseph Mazzello play Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz in "The Social Network."
Anna Tolkien CM ’24 argues that “The Social Network” celebrates and glorifies the corrupt tech industry. (Courtesy: Goh YongWei via Flickr)

Sexy suits are replaced by “fuck-you” flip-flops: Welcome to Silicon Valley.

We are all surrounded by social media from the moment we open our phones, click on a news article or even sit in a coffee shop and see everyone scrolling through their feeds. From my own childhood, “The Social Network” (2010), directed by David Fincher, defined what the new generation of Wall Street playboys would be. 

The film depicts Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his constituents using their newfound fame to do backhanded business deals, party recklessly and climb the corporate ladder with an entitled attitude. Despite my love for the film, it perpetuates the problem of societal corruption in the tech industry — it teaches the audience that to be successful in tech, you should cut corners, double-cross your business partners and develop a massive ego. These tech gurus shouldn’t be given a free pass from consumers, exacerbated by the likeability of the film, to get drunk on power. 

“The Social Network” chronicles Zuckerberg and his journey from being an overcompensating unconfident student at Harvard University to one of the youngest billionaires who fundamentally altered the tech industry. Along the journey, viewers see Zuckerberg go from his dorm room to a fancy sushi restaurant in New York and from partying with college girls in a house near Stanford University to owning massive headquarters, ultimately ending with watching the rain pour down as he is sued by two different parties for cheating them out of the company. The audience knows that due to Zuckerberg’s immense wealth, he will be relatively unscathed.

Beyond the great writing and interesting story, there is something sexy about the film. These men are depicted as brilliant, entitled and determined to take over the world with their tech empire. The scenes with Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) explaining the billions of dollars Zuckerberg could earn, the endless drinks ordered at clubs, the tense relations between Zuckerberg and his business partner Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and the seemingly revolving door of women filtering through their coding quarters make this corporate playground seem unregulated and unethical. 

Everyone knows that movies like “The Wolf of Wall Street” glorify everything we have tried to move past: locker room talk, corruption, unethical business and predatory behavior. With the suits hyped up on cocaine and holding access to outrageous sums of money, it was a recipe for disaster. Eventually, we see this behavior boil over in the film, and we learned to call out the unbalanced power dynamics in the finance industry on Wall Street — and now we need to be more critical of the tech industry. 

With the industry constantly evolving and gaining more power in different spheres, we have to be more cognizant of companies’ actions and hold them accountable.” —Anna Tolkien CM ’24

Important to note, too, is how early “The Social Network” captured the story of the real-life Zuckerberg. The most recent plot line of the film is Zuckerberg’s lawsuit with the Winklevoss twins in 2004 — in which he was only 20 years old and Facebook hadn’t even celebrated its first birthday. A decade after its release and 25 years since the happenings in the film, Zuckerberg — and his tech titan peers — hold much more power than they did in the early 2000s.

For example, Google runs a $250 million private transit system to transport their employees through poverty and homelessness to their cushy headquarters. These tech oligopolies, like Google and Facebook, are responsible for driving up home prices and subsequently contributing to homelessness via gentrification. For remote workers, accessible locations can mean reduced pay.

And, because of the amount of political and economic cachet these companies have, they can get away with breaking almost any rules or regulations. Since the companies market themselves as being progressive, they might not be scrutinized under the same lens as other more visibly egregious industries — even when flagrantly furthering partisan interests and betraying users’ trust and privacy.

Most famously, in 2018, Zuckerberg had to testify in a congressional hearing to defend his company after Facebook was grilled for not protecting data used by Cambridge Analytica

Facebook’s chief operating officer subsequently said the company was going through a “philosophical shift” — whatever that means. But do not be fooled. 

No matter how many woke press statements or promising ideas they put out, the tech industry giants only care about one thing: money. The moment Zuckerberg looked most excited in the movie was when Parker mentioned the words “billion dollars.” You could practically see the green bills swirling in his eyes. With the industry constantly evolving and gaining more power in different spheres, we have to be more cognizant of companies’ actions and hold them accountable. 

Despite my love for this undeniably well-made and entertaining film, it popularizes bad business practices, copious drug use and an industry breaking all the rules. We need to look in the mirror and accept that watching “The Social Network” over and over again with a bucket of popcorn isn’t a good thing — it’s celebrating and glorifying a corrupt industry. 

Anna Tolkien CM ’24 is one of TSL’s pop culture columnists. She’s a media studies and literature dual major and loves her pugs, iced coffee and Timothée Chalamet movies.

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