Why I Loved The Social Network

I'm writing this the night before the Oscars, but that is not why I'm writing. I only saw three of the films nominated for Best Picture: The King's Speech, True Grit, and The Social Network. While I enjoyed The King's Speech and True Grit,, I haven't thought about them since I saw them. In contrast, I still think about The Social Network every day.

For some, The Social Network is just a story about how an arrogant jerk became a billionaire by screwing over his friends and business associates. I didn't see it that way. To me, it is a story about the nature of creativity and invention.

I'll say up front that this entire discussion is about the story and characters in the movie, which don't necessarily match the real-life story. When I talk about Mark Zuckerberg, I'm talking about the character in the movie. I don't care how true the movie is.

The movie does a good job of presenting all sides of the story. To the Winklevosses, the story is that they had a great idea, and Mark Zuckerberg stole it and made a lot of money that was rightfully theirs. In contrast, Zuckerberg doesn't think he stole anything: the Winklevosses had a stupid idea, and he had a better idea, and he was wildly successful in executing that idea.

That's the key to the movie: the difference between having an idea, and actually creating something. I don't think it matters who had the idea. I think the person who creates something deserves almost all the credit for it, regardless of where the idea came from.

Say you're at Starbucks one day, and you overhear a barista saying to another that there ought to be an easier way to control the production of froth in a latte. You go home, spend a few months inventing some new froth-production device, and then you sell that device to Starbucks for a million dollars. How much do you owe that barista you overheard?

My answer: nothing. Everyone has ideas all the time. Lots of people independently have the same ideas. Ideas have little value on their own. What matters is doing something with the ideas you have.

My favorite blurb about this principle is by the author Neil Gaiman, in his essay "Where do you get your ideas?":

Every published writer has had it - the people who come up to you and tell you that they've Got An Idea. And boy, is it a Doozy. It's such a Doozy that they want to Cut You In On It. The proposal is always the same - they'll tell you the Idea (the hard bit), you write it down and turn it into a novel (the easy bit), the two of you can split the money fifty-fifty.

The idea is not the hard bit. The hard bit is making the thing, and then improving the thing, and then throwing the thing away and starting over, and then showing it to people, and being rejected, and keeping at it until the thing is right, even when everyone is telling you that you are doing it all wrong. And then when the thing is right, you don't relax; you start on your next thing. It is better to have lots of pretty good ideas than to have one Great Idea.

I'm a computer programmer, and I felt a lot more sympathy for the Zuckerberg character than most people do. He's a smart guy who made a lot of money by writing some software, and he didn't let others get in the way. He has some problems dealing with people, but his personality defects are similar to my own. When I walked out of that movie, Mark Zuckerberg was my hero.

He's not a perfect hero. He misled the Winklevosses, and he betrayed his best friend. I am neither excusing nor ignoring Zuckerberg's dark side, but there are relevant lessons here too. First, if you can't make your thing yourself, and you are counting on someone else to make the thing for you, you are in a precarious position. Second, be careful about who you let help you.

The Social Network sticks in my brain because it keeps reminding me of the importance of making stuff. It's important to daydream, to exchange ideas with others, to learn and hone your craft, and to organize your life to give you the time and energy to work, but what's really important is that you have to work. You don't get points just for being smart.