Movies About [and made out of] the Internet
by Katie Anania
The Social Network and Catfish’s primary audience will be Facebook fence-sitters—a group in which I include myself. Ambivalent folks like us are driven to madness by the fact that, while the website is a timesuck that destroys organic human relationships, looking at pictures of your married high school friends is just so damned compelling. Caught between indignant distaste and prurient delight, we convince ourselves that the only way we prevent losing our soul to the experience of something like Facebook is that our soul is extremely robust to begin with. Yes, we triumph over the machine. We have real lives and just augment them with this tool. We are solvent and whole. We will win.
This mantra rehashes the Rousseauian principle that institutions are corrupt and people are pure, and these two recent films about Facebook (or, rather, that use Facebook as their respective structuring principles) argue the same thing. David Fincher's biopic The Social Network is both an origins narrative about Facebook and a bildungsroman about its founders, and shows us that Facebook was co-invented by a flawed human being who was eaten by his own machine. Ariel Schulman's documentary Catfish invites us to see social networking as a web of seductive deception that strives to ensnare innocent young men, with only the purest of heart emerging unscathed. Each film first tricks us into thinking that all relationships are destined to be mediated in some way. At the end of each, though, the redemptive messiness of real-time interactions reveals online social networks to be legible, artificial and a thing against which true personhood is defined.
Catfish, the movie serendipitously released four weeks before The Social Network, was shot by the main character's brother. It was edited on Itunes and uses a Helvetica font and shots of Google Earth to illustrate the characters’ peregrinations. It has a gentle, instructional quality, like the how-to videos for Mac software. The Social Network, by contrast, is all pulsing synth beats and imperial dread; Trent Reznor's soundtrack has us convinced that Harvard undergraduates are going to hack into our bedrooms and steal our underwear. Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, played in The Social Network by a terse and intense Jesse Eisenberg, is a 19-year-old Harvard sophomore cobbling together a Frankenstein of a program that destroys the few tenuous friendships with which he began college. Nev Schulman, the 26-year-old New York dance photographer who has a relationship over Facebook with 19-year-old Wisconsin horsewoman Megan Faccio in Catfish, is so dreamy and genuine that we plead for him to be all right in the end.
Both characters are believers, delicately dancing with the online tools that help and beckon them. Both are men, which is significant. Their battles with The Internet reveal and produce different permutations of masculinity (the tortured outsider, the naïve romantic), in a backdrop composed by The Internet itself—specifically, shots of Facebook’s blue-and-white interface. Ultimately it is Marc Zuckerberg's character that rejects Rousseau's plea for innocence and purity, confirming to Facebook fence-sitters that Facebook is a foreign system to be treated with caution.
Proposing online social networks as a natural backdrop for coming-of-age stories bears consideration for the art world, because its institutions have quickly assimilated social networks into exhibition programming. MoMA's current collaboration with the Conflux Festival, for instance, in which the museum and surrounding areas will become sites for a “stealth” augmented reality exhibition, will take place during an Abstract Expressionism show drawn from MoMA’s collection. The Conflux project, whose premise is derived from Situationist notions of psychogeography, seems to tow the line between empowering viewers to create new realities, and making those realities contingent on purchased tools like smart phones. It will be interesting to see whether the Ab-Ex show will problematize the Conflux project or be assimilated into it. Facebook fence-sitters will certainly enjoy the concession that even a movement like Ab-Ex that wholly rejected group participation can be better enjoyed through social networks. These two recent Facebook parables, though, confirm for us what we suspected all along: this tool is most productive when it remains estranged, or at least legible from a distance. You know, to stave off the corruption of our robust souls.
Katie Anania is an art critic and doctoral student in Art History.