Social Network and Lessig

Two lawsuits provide the frame for The Social Network. One was brought by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, twins at Harvard who thought they had hired Zuckerberg to build for them what Facebook would become. The other was brought by Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg’s “one friend” and partner, and Facebook’s initial CFO, who was eventually pushed out of the company by Silicon Valley venture capitalists. These cases function as a kind of Greek chorus, setting the standards of right, throughout the film. It is against the high ideals they represent that everything else gets judged. And indeed, the lawyers are the only truly respectable or honorable characters in the film. When they’re ridiculed or insulted by Zuckerberg, their responses are more mature, and better, than Zuckerberg’s. (If you remember the scene in “The Wire” where Omar uses his wit to cut the lawyer to bits, that’s not this film.) The lawyers here rise above the pokes, regardless of the brilliance in Zuckerberg’s charge. This is kindergarten. They are the teachers. We’re all meant to share a knowing wink, or smirk, as we watch the silliness of children at play.

In Sorkin’s world—which is to say Hollywood, where lawyers attempt to control every last scrap of culture—this framing makes sense. But as I watched this film, as a law professor, and someone who has tried as best I can to understand the new world now living in Silicon Valley, the only people that I felt embarrassed for were the lawyers. The total and absolute absurdity of the world where the engines of a federal lawsuit get cranked up to adjudicate the hurt feelings (because “our idea was stolen!”) of entitled Harvard undergraduates is completely missed by Sorkin. We can’t know enough from the film to know whether there was actually any substantial legal claim here. Sorkin has been upfront about the fact that there are fabrications aplenty lacing the story. But from the story as told, we certainly know enough to know that any legal system that would allow these kids to extort $65 million from the most successful business this century should be ashamed of itself. Did Zuckerberg breach his contract? Maybe, for which the damages are more like $650, not $65 million. Did he steal a trade secret? Absolutely not. Did he steal any other “property”? Absolutely not—the code for Facebook was his, and the “idea” of a social network is not a patent. It wasn’t justice that gave the twins $65 million; it was the fear of a random and inefficient system of law. That system is a tax on innovation and creativity. That tax is the real villain here, not the innovator it burdened.

Lessig in TNR

What struck me about the movie was how it showed the misogynistic shallow world of Silicon Valley as even more shallow and misogynistic than it really is. Must be what Hollywood is like. As for Lessig’s argument, I wonder how many people sympathized with those Greenwich/Harvardians who, by the way, look like they’ve gone back to Federal Court to get more money.  And does Lessig really think those lawyers came off looking wise and mature?

For me, the funniest thing about the movie was the dreary Harvard OS class that Zuckerberg walks out on. Oy,did that seem tedious.