Zuckerberg, Zuckerberg, Zuckerberg!
Much like a Facebook profile, "The Social Network" is made more appealing through some artful lies, well-chosen omissions and careful shading. Eduardo Saverin's ejection from the company, for instance, seems rather more complicated than the movie suggested. And though the movie portrays Zuckerberg as a pining loner, he's actually been dating the same person since 2003.
But to cram it into one of the favored themes of this blog, the movie recasts a story of essentially inevitable technological change as the story of a socially inept genius and two or three of his most important relationships. That makes for a better film, of course. But for another perspective, it's worth reading Chris Beam's eulogy for Connect U, the version of Facebook that began at Columbia. Mark Zuckerberg programmed his version over a few months. Adam Goldberg, the creator of Connect U, created his over a summer. According to Beam, it was more advanced than Facebook, even if it did lack the elegant minimalism of Zuckerberg's design.
At the same time, of course, Friendster, MySpace, Orkut, and a variety of other social networking platforms were swirling about. After all, technological advances had made these things simple enough that even college students could pull them together in a few weeks. If it hadn't been Zuckerberg, it would've been someone else. Maybe Goldberg.
This is a rather common phenomenon: It's called "simultaneous invention," and it happens all the time: Technology advances to the point that the next step is obvious to multiple people, and so they all take the next step at approximately the same time. In the end, one of them gets the patent, or the market share, and so squeezes the other out and becomes synonymous with the invention. That's what happened with Alexander Graham Bell, who in all likelihood invented the telephone after Elisha Gray -- and both of them came after Antonio Meucci. Amusingly, the discovery of "simultaneous invention" was another case of simultaneous invention, with multiple thinkers and researchers publishing on the phenomenon all at once. "Unjust Deserts," by Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly, has a good discussion of this.
What does this have to do with the movie? Not that much. Insofar as the film implies that only Zuckerberg could've invented Facebook, that's wrong. But since the movie is mainly a character study of Zuckerberg, it's a bit churlish to criticize it for focusing on his characteristics so intently. Alperovitz and Daly, however, would argue that it has a lot to do with how we should think about inequality. "Differences between individuals are almost negligible compared to the influence of the resources, infrastructure, and most important of all, the knowledge an individual has at his disposal," they write.
In other words, the difference between Mark Zuckerberg and Adam Goldberg was very small, while the difference between Mark Zuckerberg and the smartest college kid in 1999 was huge. It was the advancing storehouse of human knowledge, not the advancing capabilities of particular humans, that made up the difference. But humans tend to think about things in terms of other humans, and so we overestimate the impact of personalities (autistic genius) and underestimate the importance of technology (all sorts of people could suddenly build social networking platforms in under three months). That also makes it easier for us to believe people deserve* enormous, inconceivable monetary rewards for their inventions, as we tend to attribute the entire value of the product to them, as opposed to attributing the incremental difference between that product and whatever was right behind that product to them.
*Note the word "deserve." There's a different argument that assuring people astronomical profits for creating useful things makes them more likely to create useful things. That argument makes more sense.
Photo credit: Columbia Tristar Marketing Group.
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