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The Social Network: Etiological Myth Done Proper

Behind every foundation myth, there is a kernel of historical reality.
Me: So?
Friend: Well, it had all the necessary elements of a good foundation myth.
Me: What elements?
Friend: For starters there is the George Washington, the Joseph Smith, the Father Abraham: Mark Zuckerberg.
Me: You’re telling me that if you were at the foundation myth market, you’d throw all those guys in the same knapsack?
Friend: Founding fathers, yes.
Me: What about Ellen White?
Friend: Ya, Adventism is weird.
Me: Why?
Friend: The founding “father” was a woman.
Me: Why is that weird?
Friend: Well it’s different; maybe that’s a better way to say it.
Me: So you’ve got the founding father…
Friend: Then there’s the legendary, even preternatural feats: Washington chops the cherry tree and then cannot tell a lie, Abraham’s smoking firepot vision, the golden plates Joseph Smith finds and translates (with help from the angel Moroni), or Zuckerberg’s FaceMash creation in a drunken and vengeful coding frenzy.
Me: I suppose you can add Ellen White’s visions.
Friend: Yes, there’s that too.
Me: Speaking of Ellen, Adventists tend not to like the term “myth” very much.
Friend: I think Adventists tend not to like it because they don’t know what is meant by it.
Me: You’re probably right. So you’ve got the founding father (or mother) the legendary actions, and…?
Friend: Well, Social Network provides the how and why of a mundane occurrence–something like how the zebra got its stripes or why mosquitoes buzz in people’s ears. In this case, the story of how facebook became the dominant force it is. But here’s the thing: like every good foundation myth, the details of the story may be fanciful…artistic license taken to make a specific point. For example, the movie invented Zuckerberg’s girlfriend, who supposedly goaded him to create and to expand facebook.
Me: Ya, the girlfriend doesn’t feature prominently in “Accidental Billionaires.”
Friend: Right, and Ben Mezrich doesn’t include the name “Erika Albright,” just a blanked out space instead of the name. Who knows how much of that part is based on facts.
Me: I didn’t like Mezrich’s telling. To me his prose was plodding, pedestrian and irritating. His adjectives cliche. The characters speak with Mezrich’s voice, not their own, and Mezrich apparently doesn’t know the difference between “careen” and “career.” On the other hand, Aaron Sorkin’s adapted screenplay was snappy, snarky repartee–sharp as broken bottles. In this case, the film is way better than the book, as far as I’m concerned.
Friend: I mostly agree. And Jesse Eisenberg is probably a more interesting Mark Zuckerberg than the real Mark Zuckerberg. That’s the point of founding myths! And like I was saying, the story that the movie tells and the story that the book tells are two different stories. Somewhere underneath those two competing narratives, there is a kernel of ontological truth–the real events and actual conversations that took place between Mark Zuckerberg and the Winklevoss Twins and Eduardo Saverin. The “true” story, in the historical sense, is what the lawyers actually said in the deposition hearings, and what Mark Zuckerberg really told Sean Parker. Those events and conversations are probably lost to posterity forever. We’ll never know the “true” story. It’s the founding myth itself that lives on in religion or folklore long after the ontological facts are buried beneath millennia. And anyhow, the precise historical facts are beside the point.
The Social Network is etiological myth done proper because it is not about just conveying facts. It is about arranging facts, expressing ideas, creating impressions through the retelling of a now familiar story. And it’s true, even if it’s not.
Me: You mean etiological myth can be true, even if it’s not strictly factual?
Friend: Ya, exactly. In the sense that parables are true, or the Chronicles of Narnia series is true, some might say. And speaking of Adventists again, that’s another idea they struggle with.
Me: That something can be true even if it isn’t strictly factual?
Friend: Ya.
Me: So here’s the thing that makes Social Network different from other founding myths: Most of the time, the founding fathers or mothers are heroic figures, but this movie makes Zuckerberg look kinda villainish. I counted three times someone referred to him as “a-hole.”
Friend: Well, as Rashida Jones’s character puts it in the movie: “Every creation myth needs a devil.”

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