Harvard and The Social Network

I have a longish list of coincidences between my life and Mark Zuckerberg’s. It extends beyond going to Harvard and founding a startup but does not include success. So watching The Social Network was unsettling, to say the least.

That’s not what this post is about. This post is about how accurately the film portrays Harvard. Note that there may be spoilers below, so read at your own risk.

Anyhow, it’s easy to point out what the film gets wrong. Life at the Harvard I knew was not driven by final clubs and rigid social hierarchies. The notion that Zuckerberg screwed Eduardo Saverin because Zuckerberg was jealous about Saverin getting into the Phoenix is just slightly more plausible than Barack Obama being born in Kenya. That opening scene where’s there some musical prodigy playing violin outside in the courtyard? The only person I knew playing violin outside at night was homeless. And he sucked.

I think this misses the point. What The Social Network gets right is the mythology of Harvard. Yes, the mythology doesn’t accurately reflect what Harvard actually was (or is), but Harvard students were intimately aware of it. To the extent that the film portrays how out of place that mythology is within the real world, it captures the zeitgeist of the Harvard.

A case in point from my actual Harvard experience: During my freshmen year, I was having lunch with people from my dorm. This guy wearing a sweater-vest and the college equivalent of a comb-over nervously taps the shoulder of one of my dorm-mates.

“So … uh, you know how you said you were a sixth generation Harvard student? I checked the records and I couldn’t find you there.”

“Dude – third-generation. I’m a third generation Harvard student.”


Mr. Sweater-Vest wrinkles his nose and quickly backs away. The rest of us have a good laugh at the absurdity of the situation. And that was the Harvard I knew, not one where Mr. Sweater-Vest somehow oppressed the rest of us “normal” folk, but one where he was this awkward yet quintessential piece of the school.

The Social Network gets this. Remember that first scene where all the girls are bused to that party at the Porcellian (or maybe it’s the Pheonix)? And the guy at the top of the stair case welcomes them all to the “most exclusive” club in America? He’s wearing a baseball cap on backwards – yeah, real old school classy. And the Winklevoss twins? They’re the recurring punchline. That scene with the crew race in England? It’s set to the Flight of the Bumblebee In the Hall of the Mountain King. I humbly submit that any scene set to the Flight of the Bumblebee In the Hall of the Mountain King is not meant to be taken seriously. [Random aside, a link to my friend’s post about product placement in that scene]. Moreover, keep in mind that all these scenes of Harvardian prestige are set alongside scenes of women’s organizations throwing a fit over Facemash and animal rights group angry about Eduardo Saverin’s chicken. A scene where Bill Gates gives a talk about “becoming the next Bill Gates” is followed by Zuckerberg meeting a student completely unaware that the speaker was actually Bill Gates.

This is the essence of Harvard – the awkward juxtaposition between what people think Harvard is and what it actually is.

To put it another way, these things are to Harvard as cowboys are to America. Cowboys are far from representative of the U.S. but they are somehow quintessentially American. And just as this American mythology affects how Americans interact with the rest of the world, so does Harvard’s mythology affect Harvardians.

And that’s a big part of what’s driving Zuckerberg in this film. He might as well be saying, “I got into Harvard, one of the most prestigious schools in America and now I’m at a Caribbean-themed party at a Jewish frat looking at a video of Niagra Falls. What the fuck man?” Now, most Harvard students would simply laugh and do one of the following: (1) prolong the absurdity by going to grad school; (2) sell their soul to a consulting firm, investment bank, or equivalent in the hopes that they can retire within ten years; (3) toil in the lower ranks of some political campaign or public cause in the hopes of (a) making a difference or (b) becoming someone worth bribing or; (4) wander the wilderness trying to “find” themselves.

Mark Zuckerberg picked option five: “Fuck that. I can do better.”

Incidentally, that’s the credo of Silicon Valley.

Update (10/30/2010): It’s the Hall of the Mountain King, not Flight of the Bumblebee. Whoops.