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The Facebook Movie Hype

posted by LIM College staff Staff Profiles Desktops & Documents lola.rephann My Documents website BLOGS Hubspot Blogs Faculty images RobertClark2DogsIf you build a machine of 500 million potential customers by age 26, maybe it’s only natural that big name directors, producers and writers will want to tell your story on the silver screen and cash in on that too.

But apparently the founders of Facebook do not like the movie about them very much. They would like the film to praise their corporation even more uncritically, according to  

Yet perhaps it would be better if we were honest that the real purpose of Facebook, from its founding, has been to sell things. The stroke of its brilliance was to sell people to other people, an activity that earlier in history has received some notably bad press. 

Both times that I have seen the trailer for The Social Network, the upcoming movie about Facebook, someone sitting in the theatre next to me has shown that they know little about the corporation. “Did they get in trouble for creating it?” one said. Another almost whistled, “500 million users!”

Seeing a movie in a theatre is of course in itself a pre-web thing to do. Maybe it is not surprising that some fellow audience members were behind the technology curve.

However, bad things happen when people do not know basic facts about a corporation that sells information about them to marketers, influences their family life and activities, and has helped to redefine friendship and community.

Yet understanding is not likely to come soon, let alone critical thinking, about Facebook. The Facebook Effect, a book by David Kirkpatrick, is essentially a long advertisement for the corporation and praise for one of the cofounders, Marc Zuckerberg. Weaker books like The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich tried to jazz up the story of the lawsuits and bad blood between those who started Facebook into an exciting drama. They fall flat because the most of the real issues are technical, complex, and none of the main actors are obvious villains indicted or jailed. None of them are heroes either.

Could it also be that companies of a certain size are also more or less invulnerable? Is a popular technology seen as inevitable? Resistance is futile. Maybe too, Facebook founders are of a kind that no one likes to criticize: they were Harvard students who speak fairly well about how they have spread connectedness and awareness around the globe to the benefit of all humanity.

Facebook at LIM College

When we discussed Facebook in News and Reporting class at LIM College last year, students were surprised to learn that a game called Facebook was played in Boston in 1900, and that today’s “social network” has much in common with it.  The game one hundred and ten years ago involved pictures of the guests who visited one’s home,  a scrapbook to which guests contributed, and journal entries by hosts and visitors. Today people still post news of their parties, trips, family and pets in the modern Facebook, along with quotations and their everyday doings along with music they steal free of charge. Many use Facebook as an online, more or less public scrapbook, and it doubles as a worldwide diary too.

Some students in News Reporting mentioned that Facebook broke up relationships, invaded their privacy, and put them in an awkward relationship with people that they disliked. Others said that Facebook helped them get in touch with family and long-lost friends. But they grew a bit downhearted when just how shallow such relationships are came to light. Two students mentioned discomfort about trusting a corporation with making up rules about friendship and community. Facebook helped to popularize the idea of friends one does not know.  

Most observers seem mesmerized by how quickly the company grew and its triumph in squashing rivals like MySpace, Orkut (India) and the nearly forgotten Friendster. To them the story is all about business and the Benjamins.

The Legendary Formula

People who like memoirs and literature recognize that the story of Facebook is currently being told according to a worn-out pattern: the rags-to-riches story. To freshen that tale, one can blend in a little Revenge of the Nerds, a bit about saving the world, and some shots of ivy-covered buildings. 

The story of Facebook for a pop culture audience might stay at that level of fantasy for some time. The Pew and Annenberg media institutes and other serious analysts of media might be wise to post a more accurate story on a Facebook page. Just how powerful the corporation may become is not yet truly understood.

What’s easy to miss is the real genius of Facebook in claiming to fulfill basic human desires: to connect, to lessen loneliness, with just a hint of the possibility of finding romance. Is the corporation doing well on those scores? There have been studies showing lower grades, more social isolation, and a rising number of divores in which Facebook is a factor.

The role of one of the most successful brands in the world, Harvard, in giving Facebook a halo also cannot be forgotten. Anyone skeptical about the genuine value of the Harvard brand will enjoy the book Branded Nation, by James B. Twitchell, which explains how brand marketing has replaced an earlier kind of marketing that was based on the quality, mission and purpose of a business or institution. Branding can be done nobly or deceptively and we have to wait awhile to see which road Facebook chooses.  Early signs are not promising.

That Facebook exists primarily to sell goods and services and mine data about consumers might be easy to overlook with Harvard and the desire to connect in the mix. The wealth of the founders is “awesome.”  Let’s hope some viewers see through that.

--Robert Clark

Further Reading:

Before release, the Facebook movie has Oscar buzz because David Fincher (director), Alan Sorkin (writer) and Scott Rudin (producer) are involved, according to L.A.

Will Facebook and Twitter level the playing field, or will money still talk loudest in politics?

Facebook wants to know where you are, whenever and wherever you are

Topics: social media