“If He Could Only Connect…”

“If He Could Only Connect…”: Peak Sorkin, Eisenberg-as-Zuckerberg, and the Inception of Facebook

By Hugh Lilly
December 2010

Social networks have always existed, and they have almost always sprouted from an agenda of exclusivity. In 1727, a twenty-one year old in Philadelphia founded The Leather Apron Club, informally known as “the Junto.” He and his friends were a group of likeminded young men who met on a regular basis to discuss the issues of the day, to debate philosophy, to devise schemes for self-improvement, and “to form a network for the furtherance of their own careers,” in the words of Walter Isaacson, the young man’s biographer. The group stood in opposition to the prominent high-society gentlemen’s clubs at the time, and the number and power of its membership would eventually be leveraged to create, among other communal services, a lending library and The Union Fire Company, the latter born of frustration over “the utter lack of any organization for extinguishing fires in the town.” The Junto even circulated lists of questions not unlike the “25 Things About Me” Facebook notes that were in vogue not so long ago. Among the questions was “Is there any man whose friendship you want, and which the Junto or any of them can procure for you?” So from the start, and even despite the group’s intentionally distancing itself from the élites of the gentlemen’s clubs, Benjamin Frankin’s social network sprang primarily from a need to feel part of an exclusive set, to befriend influential and important people, and to feel needed and appreciated by a collection of peers. If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em: make your own cadre of companions where everyone is of equal stature, and build from there until you become more powerful, collectively and individually, than those you once wanted to be in with. Status anxiety—worrying about one’s position in life—has always informed social interaction, and the development and rise of social networking, coupled with the always-on nature of the Internet, has not only allowed this to continue unabated but amplified (arguably out of all proportion) its importance in forming social ties. He would eventually amass a network of more than half a billion, but in 2003, when he was a 19-year-old Computer Science undergraduate student at Harvard University, Mark Zuckerberg had just one. One friend, that is. Facebook, his social network, would—as David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s film The Social Network tells it—start life as a campus-centric HotorNot.com, an idea sparked by the combination of a few too many Tuesday-night beers, his jilted lover’s stupefied resentment at having just been dumped, and a macho need to show off his ‘hacking’ skills to his friends. In his profile of Nick Denton in the New Yorker earlier this year, Ben McGrath quotes the Gawker magnate as saying that Zuckerberg revealed to him that he had originally planned for the site to be, in Denton’s words, “this dark Facebook… the idea was that it was going to be a place for people to bitch about each other, and then it evolved. It was interesting… how agnostic he was about which approach to take.” Towards the end of the profile, McGrath points to a New York Times piece on the film which quotes Denton again, referring to earlier Silicon Valley hippie-pioneers like Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak:

What may be different is that in the past, those people have been far more colorful and charismatic. They have embraced that side of themselves. But for people like Zuckerberg, it’s more like Asperger’s, that they lack something essential and don’t have an instinctual understanding of human behavior. That’s why he ended up creating algorithms to explain it.

Read the rest of this essay at The Pantograph Punch