Social Network: the movie

I went to see The Social Network this evening.

The movie starts out with Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, in a bar with his girlfriend from Boston University, Erica Albright. This struck an off note for me because the typical Harvard undergrad needs a passport to leave Cambridge. The idea that an introverted computer programmer at Harvard would have a girlfriend at BU, other than perhaps someone he had known from high school (the dialog makes it clear that they did not meet in high school), is almost absurdly unlikely.

The next scene in the movie has Zuckerberg bringing down the entire Harvard University network by building, a site that let users rate undergrads’ appearance. The site got 22,000 page views within four hours (or perhaps it was 22,000 photo views), each page view consisting of some text and a couple of photos, and this supposedly brought down Harvard’s 2003 network, capable of transferring physics data sets and streaming video. (For comparison, in 1999 America Online’s Web servers were responding to 28,000 file requests… every second.)

[It was possible in the olden days to slow a network down with user activity. I personally slowed down a corporate network by developing a popular multi-player SpaceWar game that required peer-to-peer synchronization, but that was in 1983 and the network was a single coax cable running old-school Ethernet (10Base5!) among about 100 Symbolics Lisp Machines. The game was banned by company executives.]

The portrayal of Harvard students and Facebook programmers as persistently drunk seemed hard to reconcile with the dreary realities of keeping a bunch of MySQL servers running and indeed the movie’s initial focus on technology shifts to a focus on interpersonal dynamics. We don’t learn much about what it felt like to build the company or add features to the service.

Former students often ask me what I think of Facebook. Many of them are just a little older than Zuckerberg and they say “Philip: you built all of those features in the 1990s. You taught a whole course on how to build online communities. How does it feel to see this guy make billions of dollars without having to do anything innovative?” My response is that I didn’t envision every element of Facebook. I imagined only three levels of publication: private (email), public (Web site), and community (on a Web site accessible only to other registered users of a site such as I never had the idea of limiting information based on a network (though on we did have a “friends” feature starting in 2000 where contributions to the overall community by particular users marked as interesting would be highlighted to the person who’d selected those “friends” and that information would be displayed in reverse chronological order).

Zuckerberg seems to have done everything that the early Internet nerds suggested doing, e.g., starting with a relational database management system, watching user behavior carefully and refining the site’s feature set, providing mechanisms for users to connect and discuss. It was our generation’s job to show his generation how to do stuff, so we did our job and he did his.

My favorite part of the movie experience was a character who says that his girlfriend is “jealous, crazy, and frightening”. I nudged my companion and said “Wow, she’s just like you!” Seconds later the girlfriend says “How come your Facebook page says that you’re single?” My companion had in fact uttered these very words back in 2007 and in much the same tone of suspicion and indignation. I explained that I had set it up back several years ago after being invited by some students and didn’t use Facebook except to acknowledge friend requests. If it made her unhappy I would change the status to “married” and did so. This led to a flurry of congratulatory emails from surprised friends. To each one I had to respond that I had only changed the relationship status in order to quell criticism and there had not been any wedding. That’s when I realized that Facebook was more than simply a diversion for college undergraduates.

9 thoughts on “Social Network: the movie

  1. Phil, you didn’t make billions but you made enough to retire early and devote your time to flying; I’d take that if offered! Zuckerberg’s billions seem to have brought him a wealth of lawsuits, and are in any event tied up in the non-listed stock of a single entity. While it’s unlikely he’ll ever be poor, the history of internet companies suggests that the fickle finger of fate is not to be relied on.

  2. Stephen: Remember that I didn’t complain that I hadn’t earned enough for my meager contributions to the world of software! It was my students (expert technicians) who thought that it was slightly unfair that a pioneering technician should earn less than a young technician who simply had to apply well-known principles (some of which my friends and I published in for example!). Maybe MIT needs a class titled “The smartest nerd does not always make the most money”!

  3. I like this post so much I read it twice. I was especially taken by the first paragraph, and I’m wondering what you mean by the passport comment. Perhaps you meant that programmers at Harvard did one thing, write code. Or are you referring to something more?

    I didn’t go to school in Cambridge; I went to Williams. Everyone I knew maintained a dating rule book whereby you just didn’t date women at schools everyone regarded as academically inferior (it took supermodel looks to warrant an exception). I was cured of this ailment after visiting a friend at Harvard and getting a gander at this from the other side. Holy crap.

  4. I suspect that the principles you pioneered and wrote about will continue to be core ideas behind successful internet applications for years to come. It may be HTML5 now instead of HTML3 or 4, and the raw SQL might more often be hidden under some Railsesque data API layer, but the core principles are still important. We’ll likely see yet more million or billion-dollar systems built based on the same fundamentals. I think that’s pretty neat, actually.

  5. I’d agree with the need for a class ““The smartest nerd does not always make the most money”. Or even, generalize it to be: “does not always have any success, financial or otherwise”. A combination of an over-analytical mind and schooling that does promote a “right” answer. There’s a right answer to the wavelength of ultraviolet light, but not to the inevitable success of say, TCP/IP over X.25.

    I’m reminded of a quote by Bob Metcalf:

    “I have to sit ’em down for an hour and say, ‘No, I don’t have this house because I invented Ethernet. I have this house because I went to Cleveland and Schenectady and places like that. I sold Ethernet for a decade. That’s why I have this house. It had nothing to do with that brainstorm in 1973.'” He pauses for effect, as we arrive at his top-floor office. “And they don’t like that story.”


  6. MIchael: The passport comment relates to the fact that Boston is about as foreign to a Harvard undergraduate (of any major) as Barcelona. He or she would likely pick up a passport before traveling from Cambridge to either exotic destination. Since Harvard students regard every other school as “academically inferior” (at least until they figure out that all of their classes are taught by grad students!), they would have some trouble implementing the rule that you describe. I don’t think a Harvard male undergrad would object to a romance with a beautiful BU undergraduate; it is simply unclear how the two would ever meet.

    Matt: I didn’t mean to imply that it isn’t a good movie. It probably isn’t a good documentary, in the senses that (a) 22,000 file requests of local traffic over four hours would not have brought down a university’s network in 2003, (b) it is unlikely that Zuckerberg had a girlfriend at BU, (c) your typical Perl or PHP coder does not write scripts while drinking shots, (d) the Harvard students and staff that I’ve met don’t preface every sentence that they utter with a clause about how they are at the world’s greatest or oldest institution, etc.

    If pretend that the movie is about a fictional Web site and a fictional university full of rich kids from fancy prep schools, it is a compelling drama.

    [Much of the fake documentary issues can probably be traced back to Ben Mezrich, the author of the book on which the movie is based. Mezrich previous wrote a book about MIT card counters and the characters did not in any way resemble the MIT card counters that I knew. He also failed to use Google to learn that, for example, the MIT engineering majors he had being elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society were precluded from membership because the Society’s Web site says “To be eligible for election, students must have pursued a broad program of study in the liberal arts and sciences” (i.e., engineers are typically excluded and have their honor societies, such as , though there are some engineering majors at MIT in recent years who’ve been accepted for some reason (maybe Blackjack Team membership helped?)). He also talked about MIT students graduating “with honors” (simply not possible; Harvard hands out the “with honors” tag to about 90 percent of its graduates (see ); at MIT I guess they figure that simply getting out in one piece is achievement enough!).]

  7. It’s probably true that “the smartest [insert description] does not always make the most money”, depending on what you mean by “smart”. The traders on Wall Street are not as smart as the quants they employ, by the standards of Harvard; but by the standards of your average hustler, they are much smarter. In fact, it’s probable that the book-smart are outwitted in the money stakes by the street-smart in most instances. I’ve read that Zuckerberg is portrayed in this movie as an Aspergers’ type who uses his anti-social leanings to run roughshod over everyone he meets in pursuing his goal, but this sort of behaviour is more often encountered with the street-smart.

    The 37 Signals FaceBook valuation piece has been widely demolished: although FaceBook is not listed, its shares do regularly change hands, and valuing a company by its last trade is the most accepted market valuation method we have, regardless of the size of the trade. (You don’t need to wait until the entire stock has turned over.) You may convincingly argue that FaceBook is overvalued at $33bn, but not that that is not its current market value.

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