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In 2010, The Social Network already knew the internet would become an advertisers’ playground

It’s an eerily prophetic look at the future of the web.

Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network
Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for April 1 through 7 is The Social Network (2010), which is available to digitally rent on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, and Vudu.

Among other things, this week the House voted to allow internet service providers sell information about your browsing history — that is, the stuff you look at online — to advertisers and other third parties. As Vox’s Timothy Lee explained, they’re actually currently allowed to do this, but legislation that expressly prohibits the practice, passed during the Obama administration, was set to take effect later this year, and now won’t. Lee wrote:

The Republican bill simply preserves the status quo, which allows ISPs to sell customer data to advertisers. And while the law currently allows ISPs to do this, most aren’t currently doing it.

What the bill does do, however, is open the door for ISPs to sell customer data to advertisers in the future. Which means that customers who don’t want their ISPs sharing this kind of information with advertising networks are going to have to do some extra work to opt out of any programs their ISPs eventually put into place.

This is a helpful reminder that the internet — and especially social media, which last summer accounted for 20 percent of all traffic — is not just a helpful way to get information: It’s a tool companies can use to figure out what they can try to sell to you, with remarkable accuracy. The more information they have about you, the more specifically targeted their advertising can be.

The sale of consumers’ personal information and targeted marketing is a key plot point in Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle, which is set in the pretty near future and has a film adaptation due out later this month. Reading the novel is a great way to see some of the implications of advertisers having increased access to your information.

But nothing about this concept is new — or at least it’s not new in the context of how fast things move and change online. Waaaaay back in 2010, David Fincher’s film The Social Network (with an Oscar-winning screenplay by Aaron Sorkin) starred Jesse Eisenberg as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who’s now an increasingly visible philanthropist and public figure. (It also starred Rooney Mara, Armie Hammer, Justin Timberlake, and Andrew Garfield.)

Rooney Mara and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network
Rooney Mara and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network.

The Social Network is one of my favorite movies, partly because Zuckerberg and I are rough contemporaries; when he was at Harvard, coding the night away in his dorm room, I was just a few states over doing the same thing. Looking over his shoulder in the film feels nostalgic for me.

But it’s also a tightly written movie, one that plays almost like a thriller, except a thriller about nerds starting a website. The accounts the film is based on were still in dispute when it was released (the Winklevoss twins only really moved on in 2013), but the core story is still completely relevant: What if, finding the real world inadequate for our social needs, somebody created one online that leveled the playing field and categorized us all according to a dataset that comes from the mind of Mark Zuckerberg — or anyone else?

The Social Network is also the subject of one of my favorite essays of all time. Written by Zadie Smith and titled “Generation Why?” it was published in the New York Review of Books a month after the movie released. In it, Smith wrote about the kind of “flattening” of people that happens in the film, and how the internet and Facebook were contributing, in her view, to people conceiving of themselves in a different way. It reads almost prophetically. Back then, Facebook was just about to release the “Groups” functionality. As Smith wrote:

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.

With Facebook, Zuckerberg seems to be trying to create something like a Noosphere, an Internet with one mind, a uniform environment in which it genuinely doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you make “choices” (which means, finally, purchases). If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out. One nation under a format. To ourselves, we are special people, documented in wonderful photos, and it also happens that we sometimes buy things. This latter fact is an incidental matter, to us. However, the advertising money that will rain down on Facebook—if and when Zuckerberg succeeds in encouraging 500 million people to take their Facebook identities onto the Internet at large—this money thinks of us the other way around. To the advertisers, we are our capacity to buy, attached to a few personal, irrelevant photos.

One nation under a format, to be farmed by advertisers. Smith’s essay (and Fincher’s movie) felt a little hyperbolic back in 2010, but seven years later, it sure seems spot-on.

Watch the trailer for The Social Network: