When I need to get a lot of work done, I go somewhere quiet, turn off alerts on my phone, close every program except Emacs and the terminal, and crank up the soundtrack to The Social Network. I know I’m not the only one — a lot of work gets done with this album playing on loop in the background. There’s probably a tight correlation between how much market value a company creates and how many times employees stream “In Motion” after midnight. Some of this is because of the album itself — it’s just phenomenal work music, up there with Ratatat’s Classics Overwerk’s Canon, and Bach. But it’s also because the association is so strong: The Social Network, for all its flaws, was a really well-done movie that forced a step-function increase in the social status of programmers and startups.
You know what’s cooler than being worth millions at the box office? Being worth billions on the Nasdaq.
It’s hard to tie changes in broad social phenomena to the arts, since popular tastes are a lagging indicator. Especially in movies and TV, where production takes an eternity. It’s easy to overrate a cultural moment when someone got lucky enough to tap into it: Springsteen didn’t invent post-Vietnam cynicism with “Born in the USA,” he just tapped into it. Shane seems to have made “Shane” a popular name. Top Gun got more people to sign up for military service, but our wars in the decade after that movie were constrained by PR, not manpower.
The Social Network didn’t invent the startup founder mythos, but it definitely portrayed it better than previous attempts.
What The Social Network Did
The tech industry relies on two finite inputs:
There’s overlap between the two, but it’s not total, and a world with lots of engineers who dutifully sign up for forty-year careers at Fortune 500 companies is a world of incremental gains in efficiency, not of step-function changes in how business is done. On the other hand, there’s an unlimited supply of ideas and of theoretically ambitious people who want someone else to make them happen. To get anything done, you have to write some code.
On both counts — raising the number of engineers, and raising the number of founders — The Social Network had a meaningful impact. When Dan Wang wrote about the dearth of CS majors, he saw the positive inflection in the mid-2010s. At Princeton, 10 people got CS degrees in 2010–11. Four years later: 29. Y Combinator’s application count soared after the movie came out, and has continued to grow since.
We haven’t had a situation like this — where an important industry receives a sudden windfall increase in the availability of its most limiting input — since the discovery of Ghawar.
There are several ways you can push back against this thesis, and they’re all wrong:
Isn’t A Life Decision Based On a Movie Kind of Lame?
This is generally a good negative signal: people who change their life based on two hours of mass-market entertainment are not to be trusted. What if next week they shut down their startup because they saw American Sniper and decided to become a SEAL? But some movies are more of a blasting cap than a payload. Vladimir Putin decided to become a spy because he saw a spy movie, but that just turned out to be a good career decision.
And it’s not just a matter of someone watching the movie and getting inspired; other people watched the movie and decided it looked cool, but wasn’t for them — they’re the people who will think more highly of founders from now on.
Conversation with parents circa 2010:
“I’m going to start a tech startup!”
“Oh? Like Pets.com? I remember what that did to my 401(k).”
Conversation with parents circa 2012:
“I’m going to start a tech startup!”
“Oh, like that movie?”
“With slightly less debauchery, but yes.”
The people who started companies because they saw The Social Network may not do especially well. But the people who didn’t not start startups because their friends, parents, romantic partners, and professors saw the movie — they’ll do fine.
There’s a paradox, where you really want to bet on people who make an extremely contrarian move that later becomes less contrarian, but good luck identifying that phenomenon more than a handful of times in your entire career. The next best thing is to make a bet on someone who is making an increasingly non-contrarian move, especially if you think its increasing popularity is a move closer to equilibrium. (In retrospect, there was a clear economic inefficiency in the mid-2000s, when anyone could start a consumer-facing website or, later, an app, and have roughly the same burn rate as someone who was merely unemployed.)
Wasn’t the Movie Wrong?
For a movie that had an obsessive desire to get the facts right — right color t-shirt, right kind of headphones, right brand of beer, the one correct text editor — The Social Network really whiffed when it came to describing the motivations of the people involved. I blame Hollywood: it’s hard for a moviemaker to understand the idea that you could build a cool product just because you wanted something cool to exist; it’s especially hard for them to understand the concept of a deal where somebody made money and it wasn’t by screwing somebody else over. Basically the only emotion the movie captured well was the frustration at missing something big — an emotion media big-shots in a world of tech’s cultural hegemony know all too well.
The movie messed up a bunch of details, but here’s what it got right:
- Good companies are started by obsessives.
- They hire other obsessives.
- There should be a death penalty for interrupting someone who is wearing headphones.
- Writing code to make a system do something it didn’t quite want you to do is a lot of fun.
- Working hard will put stress on everything else you care about.
- The adrenaline of building something cool that works will spill over into other parts of your life.
- Success is a combination of an endless painful grind and a couple lucky breaks.
Sure, there are a bunch of party scenes. You can’t make a movie entirely out of coding scenes. But in the movie, the parties are the place to be because the hosts are coders — and they’re also the kinds of parties where people are talking about product strategy when the cops get there.
The movie portrays a lifestyle that isn’t sustainable, but everyone eventually develops this sense that after a couple years you’re either going to stop working so hard or stop playing so hard, and one of these choices is more pathetic.
Weren’t Movie’s Heroes the Villains?
Artists who want to portray villains have to make a Faustian bargain: if they do a good job, they make the villain look cool. Really cool. Sometimes, the artist’s commitment to verisimilitude means that when they portray a more complex figure as merely bad, the good traits shine through. I suspect that that’s what happened in the movie — you could watch it and say “I don’t get the exact motivation, here — couldn’t he just find another girlfriend? But what he did was pretty awesome, not gonna lie.” Of course, startup history nerds know that Zuckerberg was dating his now-wife before he started the company; the main character’s motivation in the movie had nothing to do with the subject’s motivation in real life.
It’s a better story that way, I’m sure. But there’s something kind of meta about making a profitable movie about a villainous, amoral character — by amorally slandering a real person.
Even aside from that, there’s something appealing about all the ostensibly bad characters. They’re not merely bad; they’re badass, too. It’s not an unambiguously good feeling to blow off social obligations because you’re working on something cool, and it’s a really bad feeling to lose friendships over it. A level of drama that gets compared to “Hollywood” is not helpful, but zero conflict means you’re not striving. If you’ve never worked on anything so awesome you’d make huge sacrifices to get it done, consider the possibility that you’re wasting your time.