Grammars of Code
The Social Network depicts multiple scenes of code writing, particularly hacking, mostly performed by Harvard undergraduates, depicted as geeks in Gap hoodies, drinking light beer and doing shots. In a review of the film, Zadie Smith writes of the dilemma that director David Fincher must have had when deciding whether to include these scenes: “How to convey the pleasure of programming . . . in a way that is both cinematic and comprehensible? Movies are notoriously bad at showing the pleasures and rigors of art-making, even when the medium is familiar. . . . Programming is a whole new kind of problem.” Scenes of programming in The Social Network are not always pleasurable, but they are busy and hyper and engaging. They are also social, not just as the social media network-to-be, but as always-already socially and culturally embedded practices.
One of the first sequences of the movie shows the character of Mark Zuckerberg (real-life founder of Facebook, played in the film by actor Jesse Eisenberg) arriving home after being dumped by his girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), grabbing a bottle of beer and sitting down to write a blog post about the woman he was just dumped by. This scene takes place at a desktop computer, but the character also has a laptop next to the desktop screen. Open on the laptop is a Harvard website that shows student profiles. Zuckerberg’s roommate jokingly suggests comparing female students’ profiles to pictures of animals and rating them. Zuckerberg decides that rather than compare women’s profiles to animals he should set up a program to rate women’s photos against one another. This thought process is shown on-screen as Zuckerberg types it all in his blog, and it is simultaneously narrated by a voiceover (Eisenberg, playing Zuckerberg, reading the blog aloud). After Zuckerberg has hit on this idea, a quick-cut sequence of programming and blogging commences with his call: “Let the hacking begin.”
In the scene that follows–the making of Facemash—the voiceover continues to narrate the blog post, which describes the hacking sequence, while on-screen the film alternates between images of the two screens: the blog post and the code for hacking into the Harvard student profile sites. The images of Zuckerberg in his dorm room are spliced with images of action taking place elsewhere on campus: female students arriving at a party in one of the exclusive members’-clubs that Zuckerberg covets. The overall effect of the scene conflates the writing of code with the actions it will eventually effect. Through montage and compressed temporal gestures, Zuckerberg is shown to be literally rewriting the hierarchical nature of social networking (as it is represented by Ivy League institutions). In this sequence, iterability and executability are blurred by the edits of Fincher and his team.