Every generation seeks a hero or an anti-hero, a trend or countertrend, a fashion or non-fashion to define itself in both politics and the culture, pop and otherwise. Recall Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock in the movie “The Graduate,” lolling about in his parents’ swimming pool, fins and all, with no place to go. Quintessential ‘60s.
Fast forward to 2010. Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, trying to connect with his girlfriend in the new movie “The Social Network” as she tells him with fatigue and exasperation, “Dating you is like dating StairMaster.” Swoosh. The devil as a dork.
Inside our speeded-up Internet, cyberspace, tweeting networks, technological change accelerates perceptions about who we are, where we’re going and how we’re getting there. Mr. Zuckerberg may not like his portrayal in the movie because it’s “lightly fictional,” but his persona captures the zeitgeist of the geek with all of the remoteness that allows one unlikable genius to touch the nerve of a generation.
This guy with only one friend created a network of a half-billion “friends,” which, if it were a country, would be the third largest on the globe. Facebook, of course, is not a country, but that doesn’t relieve its users of fretting about a Techy Big Brother making private information public. Mr. Zuckerberg didn’t help matters when he said privacy was a changing “social norm.” In reaction to criticism, he changed certain privacy settings to make them more secure. Still, it’s difficult to understand why so many people choose to reveal so much information about themselves to so many people they hardly know, if they know them at all.
This is not “the culture of narcissism” so much as the culture of the superficial. In it you see the social and psychological shifts that move from intimacy to interface, from touching moments to the touch of a keyboard, from eye-to-eye contact to virtual reality. People boast of how many “friends” they have, as if quantity is quality.
While using Facebook can be a harmless process for people to find out about people they once knew or would like to know, it cultivates a way of thinking and “connecting” that is veneer-deep and can be less than benign in the attitudes it fosters. More and more politicians use Facebook to be “in touch,” and the phrase itself betrays a surface assumption. Ideas spread swiftly without substance. They’re offered as facts without verification. These network connections encourage daily bulletins to lots of people, suggesting a significance they don’t have and a value they don’t merit.
Marshall McLuhan famously said “The medium is the message,” suggesting that the way we get information is the information. That notion seems even more to the point today, as the space where the information is supplied becomes the message. A new Facebook feature even marks a user’s location. We’re frequently reminded that the digital age encourages transparency, but the reality is that there are merely more ways to see not very much. When the messenger wears no clothes, who can tell?
Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake), co-founder of Napster, observes in the movie that a million dollars is no longer cool. “You know what’s cool?” he asks. “A billion dollars.” He doesn’t say how the billion should be spent.
So it was a remarkable moment on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” when the real-life Mark Zuckerberg announced that he would give $100 million to the failing schools of Newark, N.J., to “make a difference.” His timing could have been self-serving - to counteract the negative portrait of him in the movie - but his motive seems to have matured. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is trying to change the education system in Newark by pushing parents to find better schools for their kids.
Newark charter schools require children to win the lottery, literally, if they want to attend a school of their choice. As in most other cities, there simply are not enough spaces in charter schools for all those who want one. Mr. Christie recalls meeting a mom whose son won a coveted spot through the lottery who told him that the charter school would make the difference between her son “going to college or going to jail.”
If the 26-year-old billionaire has learned something about charity in the transition from the callow Harvard dropout he was, he may have moved from wading deep in the digital shallows to finding new depths of possibility. Like the devil, the dork is in the details. By building on Facebook to become a philanthropist, he’s appealing to our better angels. You could call it “the new cool.”
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.