Where's the tech in The Social Network?

With last week's release of The Social Network, Facebook has become, to the best of my knowledge, the first social networking site to be adapted to film. It's a well-deserved honor, as Facebook is an unparalleled technological feat for a social media service to host 500 million members. Imagine the challenges inherent in maintaining such a complex database, or the servers needed to accommodate all those tagged photos. A film that gives us a behind-the-scenes look at this intricate hardware and software would surely be a geek's delight!

If that was your expectation, you were doubtless disappointed: The Social Network is really not about Facebook at all — it's about the people and personalities that gave birth to the service, and the personal relationships that rose and fell with Facebook's success. There's nary a reference to the computers or network that actually power the service.

Yes, at the beginning of the film, we watch Zuckerberg write perl scripts in the emacs editor to break into Apache servers and exploit PHP security holes with the wget command. Those details are accurate but token, present only long enough to establish Zuckerberg's computer wizardry. With that mission accomplished, there's no need to continue with a rapid deployment of tech terms. The ideas behind Facebook are more important to good storytelling than the method of execution.

That may explain why the movie enjoyed a critically successful opening weekend: the film is no more for IT geeks than Facebook itself. With a script by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame, The Social Network features clever characters and witty, fast-moving dialogue. By skimping on the tech, Sorkin and director David Fincher are able to focus on shifty corporate dealings, double-crosses, and other dramatic elements that have meanings to even the 5.5 billion people who aren't on Facebook. Geeks should especially appreciate that decision, as The Social Network has few computers clichés to upset nitpickers.

Technology can be riveting, even more so than its creators, as anyone who's read Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon's Where Wizards Stay Up Late knows. But Facebook's tale of lies and deception transcends IT, as reflected by its box office profits.

What tech films do you recommend for the geek demographic instead?

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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