Archive for October, 2010

Recursion In Movie Reviews: The Social Network

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It’s rare that a film outside of the science fiction genre draws reviews from the technology community. However David Fincher’s film The Social Network hits very close to home, and so we saw an outpouring of movie reviews on blogs normally dedicated to the politics and economics of technology. One common thread of these reviews is the opinion that film has failed to capture the reality of the real person, Mark Zuckerberg, his company, Facebook and the larger trend of social media. This from a group who have no trouble accepting that people can dodge laser beams, that explosions in space make loud noises and that space craft should naturally have an aerodynamic design.

It’s almost as though, in the instance of the film, The Social Network, this group of very intelligent people don’t understand what a movie is. The demand that it be a singular and accurate representation of the reality of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook is an intriguing re-enactment. In the opening sequence of the film, the Zuckerberg character, played by Jesse Eisenberg, has a rapid-fire Aaron Sorkin style argument with his girlfriend Erica Albright, played by Rooney Mara. Zuckerberg has a singular interpretation of university life that admits no possibility of alternative views. This leads to the break up that sets the whole story in motion. In their reviews, the technology community takes the role of Zuckerberg, with the movie itself taking the role of Erica. The movie is lectured for not adhering to the facts, not conforming to reality, for focusing on the people rather than the technology.

In computer science, things work much better when a object or event has a singular meaning. Two things stand on either side of an equals sign and all is well the the world. This means that, and nothing more. When an excess of meaning spills out of that equation, it’s the cause of bugs, errors and crashes. In the film, the inventor of the platform for the social network, is unable to understand the overdetermined nature of social relations. He doesn’t participate in the network he’s enabled, just as he’s unable to participate in the life of Erica, the girl he’s attracted to.

Non-technologists saw different parallels in the Zuckerberg character. Alex Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker, saw Zuckerberg as Alberich in Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Alberich forsakes love for a magic ring that gives him access to limitless power. David Brooks, the conservative columnist for the Op-Ed page of the New York Times saw Zuckerberg as the Ethan Edwards character in John Ford’s The Searchers. Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, is a rough man who, through violence, creates the possibility of community and family (social life) in the old west. But at the end of the film, Ethan is still filled with violence, and cannot join the community he made possible. He leaves the reunited family to gather round the hearth, as he strides out back into the wild desert.

In an interview about the film, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, talked about how the story is constructed to unfold through conflicting points of view. Other articles have been written about the idea that depending on what perspective you bring to the film, you’ll see the characters in an entirely different light. There’s a conflict of interpretations between the generations, the sexes and the divide between technologist and regular people. And depending on one’s point of view, a conflict of interpretation is a sign of a bug, error or crash— or it’s a well spring of hermeneutic interpretation. Zuckerberg connects to Alberich and to Ethan Edwards, and tells us something about power, community and life on the edges of a frontier. Unlike Ethan Edwards, Zuckerberg makes a gesture toward joining the community he made possible with his friend request to Erica at the end of the film.

It was Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon that introduced us to the complex idea that an event could exist in multiple states through the conflicting stories of the participants. Fincher and Sorkin’s The Social Network tries to reach that multi-valent, overdetermined state. Time will tell whether they’ve managed to make a lasting statement. But it’s perfectly clear that a singular, accurate retelling of the story of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook would have been tossed out with yesterday’s newspapers.

The poverty of the technology community is revealed in its inability to understand that the power of movies is not in their technology, but rather in the power of their storytelling.

Planes of Silence and Interruption Across The Network

A brief note on two planes of the Network landscape that have recently caught my attention. They are the terrains of interruption and silence. Each of these areas is going through a transition. Each signals changes that are starting to bubble up in other areas of the Network.

The terrain of silence, for the purposes of this discussion, will be defined as unvisited web page locations. Web servers are not purposefully asked to send these pages to waiting browsers, their activity is indistinguishable from background noise. An unvisited page published by an individual is a perfectly acceptable event; here I’m more specially addressing the corporate CMS (content management system) driven behemoth web sites. The enterprise CMS brings the cost of brochure-ware publication down to almost zero. Marketing departments, assembled and calcified in the Web 1.0 era, churn out copy that is sent out to occupy the hard-won turf of their little section of the company’s web site. The products battle for shelf space in a self-defined, self-limited topography of web 1.0 information architecture— home page, tabs, pages, categories, sub-catagories. The navigation scheme based on the hyperlink and the outline implies an almost infinite number of potential pages that can occupy the space below the tip of the iceberg.

Many are learning that if you build it, it doesn’t mean they will come. More often than not this multitude of pages is met with silence. The analytics show that there just aren’t any clicks there. Generally companies retool to get clicks to those pages, because clearly “they” should be coming, there’s simply some adjustment that needs to be made. “User-centeredness” is bolted on so that users will understand that the pages they don’t want to look at are “needs based.” All kinds of lipstick is applied, but in the end, it might just be that the user just isn’t that in to you. The conversation is one-sided in an empty room, the analytics show it. It turns out that automated publishing of linked hypertext documents isn’t the same thing as interactive marketing. The growing silence will eventually change the character of the interaction. The old 1% response rate for junk mail is transferred to the web when direct marketing model is employed without alteration on the Network. The web is just a way of lowering production costs, it’s a notch above the economics of spam. Think of it as the negative space of the page view model.

At the other end of this candle that burns at both ends, is the terrain of the interruption. For the purposes of this discussion, the this terrain will be defined as the the set of Network-attached devices you’ve given permission to ping you when something important occurs. The classic examples are the doorbell and the telephone. Each was originally anchored to a specific location and would signal you with a bell when they required your attention. The telephone went mobile, and then was subsumed into the iPhone as a function of a personal computing device. The bell that signals a telephone call is still there, so is the alert that tells you a text message has arrived. But now there are a whole series of applications that will send you an interruption signal when something has occurred. A stock hits a certain price, a baseball team scores a run, you’re near a store with a sale on an item on your wishlist, or someone just commented on an item in your Facebook newsfeed.

The terrain of interruption used to be limited to a few applications that signaled a request for a real-time communication from another person. The interruption is still event-driven and unfolds in real time, but it’s no longer only an individual signaling for your attention. Now it might just be a state of the world that you’d like to keep tabs on. If any of these things happen, feel free to interrupt me. If I really don’t want to be interrupted, I’ll turn off that channel— so ping me, I’ll pick it up in real time, or as soon as I’m able. What was a sparse and barren landscape is quickly filling with apps that want the privilege of interruption. Multi-tasking becomes simply waiting for the next interruption: interruption interrupting the last interruption— or as T.S. Eliot put it in his poem Burnt Norton, “distracted from distraction by distraction.” The economics and equilibrium of the interruption have yet to find their balance. These interruptions threaten to become an always-on real-time backchannel to daily life. Constant interruption is no interruption at all.