The Social Network

This is a meta-movie capsule because I haven’t seen the movie, and wanted to comment on the critical reaction to it.

I was struck by this review in Slate

Sorkin and Fincher’s 2003 Harvard is a citadel of old money, regatta blazers, and (if I am not misreading the implication here) a Jewish underclass striving beneath the heel of a WASP-centric, socially draconian culture. Zuckerberg aspires to penetrate this world in order to make fancy friends and—well, do what, exactly? Wear madras? There were some kids at Harvard, in my era, with an interest in whatever gaunt remnants of old-style affluence remained, but the impulse was nostalgic and theatrical more than ambitious—people who arrive in the Ivy League these days do not come from black-tie dinners and wood-paneled rooms, nor do they enter such milieus after they leave. The kids entering Harvard in 2002 came largely from pressure-cooker public schools, dorm-room entrepreneurships, the cutthroat upper echelon of prep institutions, or, in my case, the all-weather-fleece-wearing wilds of San Francisco. Sorkin and Fincher’s failure to discern the underlying culture of the place in the aughts may be why their portrait of today’s Cambridge, Mass., strivers felt so tediously stock and two-dimensional to me: I recognized their Harvard, but only fromLove Story and The Paper Chase, not my experience. To get the university this wrong in this movie is no small matter. In doing so, The Social Networkmisunderstands the cultural ambitions, and the nature of Zuckerberg’s acumen, that made Facebook possible.

I did go to Harvard in the era of Love Story and The Paper Chase, and it wasn’t that way then either.  When I arrived, Harvard had just appointed its first black chaplain, Peter Gomes, who is still there (and who came out a few years ago). Harvard had just opened its libraries and its formerly all-male houses to women undergraduates.  Dress codes had already been abolished, a few years before (by students who showed up for breakfast in the required jacket and tie, and nothing else).  And in my freshman year, the school adopted a random lottery for housing assignments (replacing the “who do you know” system that had been the prior practice).  There were a few students in the secretive (and socially exclusive) “final clubs,” but those guys (whoever they were) tended to keep to themselves.  The one guy I knew who was invited to join those clubs was actually embarrassed by it.

There are plenty of reasons to hate Harvard, which is often a little too full of itself.  But it’s not a citadel of old WASP money, and hasn’t been for at least a generation.