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Film Review: The Social Network

by Pat Dwyer | February 25, 2011

What Does "The Social Network" Have to Do with Discernment?

If you’re reading this reflection online, then it’s safe to assume that you are probably on Facebook.  And if you plan to watch the Academy Awards this Sunday night, then it’s probably also safe to assume that you’ve seen, or at least heard of, The Social Network, the semi-factual film about Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg.  The movie was one of the biggest box office and pop culture hits of 2010, and it’s one of the favorites in the Best Picture and Best Director categories this weekend.  So, the question is, does it have anything to say to us about discernment?  I think it does.

Seeing the movie recently led me to reflect on two different but interrelated questions:  What does the movie and its semi-facts say about Mark Zuckerberg?  And, what does the incredible growth of Facebook say about the rest of us?  In both cases, I think the answers deal with the process of becoming the people we want to be and the way in which we involve others (and God) in that process.  So let’s consider Mark Zuckerberg first.

In the movie’s opening scene Zuckerberg attempts to talk to (and conceivably impress) his girlfriend, a student at Boston University.  Zuckerberg, who goes to Harvard, comes across as arrogant, awkward, and mean (whether that meanness is intentional or unintentional is one of the interesting themes running through the movie).  This encounter is juxtaposed against the brilliance that Zuckerberg shows almost immediately afterwards, as his virtuosic gifts for computer programming are unleashed, first creating a site called “Face Mash” and later, “The Facebook.”  As the site gains popularity and brings success, promise, and fame, Zuckerberg continues to struggle to find a balance between building relationships with others and building his business.

One way to view Mark Zuckerberg, then, is as a person, who has this amazing gift, is aware of it, has developed it, and is putting it to use.  That sounds like a pretty good description of “vocation” to me.  Furthermore, the creation of Facebook seems to be an almost unbelievably fruitful example of one’s deep passion meeting the world’s deep need.  By sharing his gift, Zuckerberg impacted the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world, including indirectly playing a role in helping to bring a democratic revolution to Tunisia, Egypt, and now potentially other nations in the Middle East.  A vocation that has the possibility to transform the world is incredibly powerful. 

Despite these similarities to the idea that we may have of vocation, the movie’s portrayal of Zuckerberg’s “vocation” is clearly missing something, namely: God!  Obviously, this is a secular movie, so we probably don’t expect explicit references to God.  Nor do I know anything about Zuckerberg’s faith life, and so I want to be clear that I do not mean to speculate as to either his religious and philosophical belief or the true motives underlying his actions.  At the same time, we see in the movie’s final scenes how, despite remarkable financial and technological success, Zuckerberg finds himself isolated and unhappy.  The reasons for this go back to the nature of vocation and discernment.  His personal mission did not have a purpose that was truly oriented towards serving others.  He let his own ego and insecurities drive him in a way that alienated those around him.  Ultimately, though he knew the extents of his vast talents, it doesn’t seem that he was using them from a place of love.

While these may seem like obvious points, they can still be instructive for us.  We all have gifts that are waiting to be shared with the world, but our vocation can best be directed outwards only after we have done the difficult interior work of discernment.  We all feel self-doubt and insecurity, but these should not drive our actions.  Rather, by bringing these weaknesses before God with an attitude of prayer, humility, and reconciliation, we are actually able to offer our brokenness along with our strengths as a complete package of our giftedness.  Finally, we must always remember that other people are not simply characters in our story, but rather our source of life in community.  Our vocation is not solely ours, it is something we develop in cooperation and conversation with others, and it is something we live for the mutual benefit of ourselves and others, and for the greater glory of God.

Despite the movie’s portrayal of a less-than-idealistic inception, the Facebook phenomenon has taken hold in our lives.  So how does social media play a role in our discernment?  I think that this is a question that has not yet been answered, but that we are shaping even as we go through our own processes.  To what uses will we put this unprecedented ability to connect with others who are asking the same questions and considering the same choices as we are?  How can we together with others share our vision for our lives and for the world in a way that will be authentic and compelling?  With so many more choices readily available and easily accessible, how do we feel confident in making important decisions about our lives?  Finally, how do we ensure that connecting online does not take the place of connecting in the real world?  Answers to these questions are just beginning to emerge, and we each play a role in shaping them.  Even our experience and engagement with Catholics on Call can help to shape the future of vocations.  By staying connected to each other in real life and online, we begin to build a vocational network that will benefit us, others like us, and the broader world in which our vocations will be lived out.

The Social Network actually offered me a unique metaphor of discernment that is applicable to each of us.  Throughout the film, Zuckerberg and others continually talk about how they don’t want to stifle the growth of the site when they “don’t even know what Facebook is going to be yet.”  It was something new and different, possessing limitless potential to change the world.  In many ways, that description also applies to each of us. That does not mean that we are reduced to what’s on our Facebook page.  It means that, though we don’t yet know what we will “turn out to be,” we do believe that we are each unique, blessed, and loved by God.  It also means that we must continue the authentic process of listening for God’s call in our lives, because the only way our true vocation can be realized is by taking the steps God calls us to, one at a time.  With that step-by-step approach, both our own vocation and our impact in the world can grow in a way that has the potential to exceed that of even the growth of Facebook.  Amen to that.

Author information Pat Dwyer
Pat is a Bernardin Scholar at CTU, working toward his MA in Justice Ministry. He graduated from Boston College in 2003 with a BA in Philosophy. He has an MS in Elementary Education from Northwestern University and taught middle school for six years at St. Malachy school on the west side of Chicago. He currently work as Director of Teacher Support Programs for Inner-City Teaching Corps.
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