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Zuckerberg, Zuckerberg, Zuckerberg!

PH2010093006835.jpg

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.

By Ezra Klein  | October 4, 2010; 10:28 AM ET
Categories:  Movies, Tech  
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Comments

Social Network is clearly supposed to be a zeitgeist film, not a documentary or a piece of objective reportage. It's supposed to capture the "essence of a decade" on celluloid (or, in digital HD, I suppose).

"That also makes it easier for us to believe people deserve* enormous, inconceivable monetary rewards for their inventions"

Bah, who thinks that?

"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."

In the same sort of way that, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction makes sense. People who spend 10,000 hours building a better mousetrap don't "deserve" anything more than someone who spent 10,000 hours mopping a floor. But trying to enforce egalitarianism on a economic system in order to avoid great disparities of wealth do indeed act as a disincentive, making the next Facebook orders of magnitude less likely.

I'm trying to think, right now, as to why that is a bad thing, but I can't quite come up with it.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | October 4, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Keep in mind that The Social Network is a movie. And as such, it probably does no more or less than other movies. Mme Curie's discovery of radium probably didn't come down as Greer Garson portrayed it in the Mervyn LeRoy picture, and Cole Porter most assuredly did not get the idea for 'Night and Day' in a flash while listening to the pitter-patter of rain outside the window in his parlor. Please don't expect Hollywood biopics to conform to the complexities of real life: they're movies, and no matter what message they are trying to hawk, they are either for entertainment or art. Veracity is not part of the equation, nor should it necessarily be.

Do read the Profile on Zuckerberg that appeared a few weeks ago in the New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/09/20/100920fa_fact_vargas

Posted by: JJenkins2 | October 4, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

"Insofar as the film implies that only Zuckerberg could've invented Facebook, that's wrong."

The impression I got from the film was that he pretty clearly stole it from the crew trio. Given the story, I'm surprised they only got $65 million out of him.

Posted by: TheodoreLittleton | October 4, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

This is very relevant:
http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/09/mf_kellyjohnson/all/1

Posted by: ntyork | October 4, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

TheodoreLittleton: "The impression I got from the film was that he pretty clearly stole it from the crew trio. Given the story, I'm surprised they only got $65 million out of him."

And that's not the impression I got at all. I was completely with Zuck when he said that a Harvard-only Match.com isn't exactly the most earth-shatteringly original idea of all time. Social networking sites already existed by that time. I don't think the Winklevii deserved much of anything.

Posted by: Chris_O | October 4, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

"It was the advancing storehouse of human knowledge, not the advancing capabilities of particular humans, that made up the difference."

Are you trying to resurrect Social Credit (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_credit)?

Posted by: wayward_va | October 4, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

Check out this very interesting article on another case where two web apps that did pretty much the same thing launched at roughly the same time. The winner-take-all story happened in a very similar way: http://money.cnn.com/2010/10/04/technology/wesabe_vs_mint/index.htm

Posted by: davidleetodd | October 4, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Very important points, and very well put as usual.

This is extremely important in economics, although far too few economists think about it.

Something closely related is the winner take all phenomena described by Cornell economist Robert Frank. See:

http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=talent_and_the_winnertakeall_society

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | October 4, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

Facebook = Death

http://slumwords.wordpress.com/2010/10/02/for-the-toofaced-crowd/

Posted by: drowningboy | October 4, 2010 6:52 PM | Report abuse

"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."

It does to some extent, but you can be way past the optimal point on that.

Consider this:

You're in a race with 100 other people (or considering entering one). To have any chance of winning, you have to train for a year full time, so you can't work and make any other income besides what you may win in the race. Everyone has very close to the same odds of winning, about 1%. Even if you're most likely to win, your odds are still only 3% of winning and 97% of losing.

There are three ways the race's prizes can be structured that all cost the same to the races sponsors; let's call those sponsors society:

A) The Winner-Take-All Way – the winner of the race, first place, gets $100 million; everyone else gets zero.

B) The-Very-Low-Taxation Way – the winner of the race gets $99.55 million. Second place gets $100,000. Third place gets $70,000, and the other 97 competitors get $20,000 – and this is for a year's work.

C) The-Strongly-Progressive-Taxation Way – The winner of the race gets $30 million, and the other competitors divide up the other $70 million in a not extremely uneven way: Second place gets $2 million, third place $1 million, fourth place $700,000, and so on, so that even the 100th place competitor still gets $40,000, so he can at least afford to keep his family's health insurance and not lose their house.

Now really think about this:

1) Suppose you were able to enter this race and chose either A, B, or C. Which would you prefer – even if you knew you were the most likely to win, even if you knew you had the 3% chance?

2) Do you really think you'd have that much less incentive to train hard for the race if the highest potential winnings were ONLY $30 million like in C as opposed to $100 million as in A (and keep in mind that in C you still have a strong incentive to train hard even if you think you have no chance of getting first, just because 90th pays a lot more than 100th)?

3) If the race were set up like in A, would you even risk spending a year to train to enter? Would you even risk trying? And would you be (far) more likely to enter the race, to risk trying, if instead the race were structured like C?

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | October 4, 2010 7:05 PM | Report abuse

First, it simply doesn't follow from technological feasibility that anything whatsoever is technologically inevitable. The tools don't create the platform: they define for their user what is and is not possible. The only thing like inevitability that follows from something so defined is that the user may at some point find the precise limits of what he can do with the tools. Which is to say it's not a real kind of inevitability, but something entirely contingent on the discovery of the limits and, maybe, a will to move beyond them.

Second, I think what you're talking about is tradition, which entails that "storehouse of human knowledge," and which develops in reference to itself and only as informed by the experience of finding and confronting limits. Tradition is something we find ourselves within -- it's something we have without choosing it or even recognizing that we are, in fact, part of it. We receive it without asking, or even knowing to ask.

The American tradition (the "cult") of the exception emphasizes the recipient of our storehouse of knowledge over the storehouse itself. Mr. Zuckerberg, as an exceptional recipient, gets the credit and the money in large part because our collective orthodoxy dictates that he should. Were we a backward-looking society rather than a forward-looking one, honoring the body of knowledge over the individual who does something novel with it, I think he'd be lighting candles for the developers of HTML, PHP, and MySQL, maybe along with the great Cynical philosophers he seems to channel, and we wouldn't be evaluating the factuality of his unauthorized biography. There wouldn't be a movie to evaluate because the man wouldn't be an issue. But since what we celebrate is the exception -- the recipient of tradition over the tradition itself -- it's his personal success that we recognize and reward.

Posted by: justinskolnick | October 4, 2010 10:15 PM | Report abuse

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