Wednesday, October 20, 2010

In Defense of Geeks (Again)

I went to see the fabulous movie The Social Network last Sunday night. I saw the film in Canada (which I like to believe is bedbug free) with a group of 4 friends and our reviews were all positive -- go see the film, it’s great. But after the movie reviews were over a quintessential question emerged: Is Mark Zuckerberg a jerk?

Before we begin the debate: a brief disclaimer: This is not an essay about Mark Zuckerberg the person because I’ve never met him. This is an essay about Mark Zuckerberg the movie character because that dude sat in the back row of my Analysis of Algorithms class, I’ve been on scads of awkward first dates with him, and some days... he is me.

He is not, apparently, my friends (all of whom found him repulsive and annoying). I was shocked because I thought I had mostly self selected a group of super nerds to hang out with. They all work in software, all save one are active Settlers of Catan players. And yet -- Mark haters all of them. It seems that, despite their own geek cred, each had been burned by the surly geek before and was ready to banish him from their lives. As I pondered how my friends were not like me it slowly became clear that back in 1993 I was the only true nerd of the group. All of them had dates for prom, one was a cheerleader, even the most nerd-core among the bunch had to admit that she was a bit of a campus queen in high school. There is no chance that any of these people would have talked to me in 9th grade. For my friends, and for everyone out there who thinks Mark Zuckerberg is a huge asshole, welcome to another edition of what is basically an ongoing series on this blog defending the geeks of the world.

When you’re a smart eight year old and everyone is mean to you at soccer practice your dad will tell you to forget about those kids because you’re so much smarter then them. One day, they’ll see. If you’re anything like me this little grain of pride and spite can sustain you through being pants-ed in the cafeteria, cystic acne, and a Homecoming dance where all of your friends refused to hang out with you because you arrived dateless. But even for the most patient geek waiting for fate to deliver on the “I’ll Show Them!” promise can be tedious.

Enter the young Zuckerberg. He’s annoying. He’s awkward. He’s bitter. But this nerd is not messing around waiting for fate to prove his tormentors wrong. He’s making things happen. He’s doing the geek equivalent of kicking ass and taking names. Mark Zuckerberg is the Terminator of computer hacking and the Robocop of staying up all night drinking Jolt Cola and laying down punishing lines of C++. Action heroes have never spoken to me but I think what I felt while watching The Social Network was the same catharsis that others find in exploding cars and sniper fire. The good guys were winning and they had no shame.

Yes, Mark is kind of a jerk. We never see a young Zuckerberg in 7th grade getting tossed into a locker but I don’t think it’s overly presumptuous to assume that taking his share of noogies and wedgies is at least partially responsible for his persistent attitude problem. I also don’t need to see him lying on a shrink’s couch to accept the implied Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis. I’m not at all surprised that the smart kid was tormented to the point of feeling a need to prove his self worth. I’m glad his weapon of choice was lines of code and not a gun. Despite his abrasive exterior I can’t bring myself to dislike Mark in the role of rags to riches geek superhero.

(Incidentally while I can’t bring myself to hate Zuckerberg I can almost bring myself to hate Sean Parker. But not totally, because even if he is the jerk that the movie makes him out to be he’s still a smart jerk and he’s still right -- he brought down the (evil) record industry. He also won by somehow convincing studio heads to cast Justin Timberlake to play him despite the fact that no one has ever accused Parker of bringing sexy back, not even a nerd fetishist like myself.)

Can anyone really blame a guy for screwing the Winklevie of the world? They’re not only good looking, popular and arrogant but they’re rich! Isn’t screwing them every geek’s dream? It has certainly been mine. There are a lot of stupid jerks in positions of power many of whom have prospered by hiding their idiocy and mean-spirtedness behind toothy grins and firm handshakes. As a former geek who somehow managed to (mostly?) grow out of her awkward stage I wouldn’t mind cutting some slack to the smart jerks (especially the smart jerks with a genetic disorder that at least partially accounts for their jerkiness).

The other day I received the following blog comment (on this post): “You are an idiot and your blog is sooo boring and shows you are not so smart but think you are because you like computers and ironic t-shirts.” It’s true. I think I’m so smart. And sometimes I think this excuses me from being a jerk. Just like Mark Zuckerberg seems to think that being smart and successful somehow excuses him from being a complete asshole to his friend Eduardo. Obviously, we’re both wrong. I think the most revealing scene in The Social Network is when Eduardo’s lawyer tries to make a point about the $18,000 plus an additional $1000 that Eduardo had invested in The Facebook after which Mark makes a huge todo out of checking this simple math. Mark can only see the lawyer as a tormentor and his only tool for dealing with a tormentor is to make a show of just how smart he is and how stupid she is. The scene is funny because for a moment it feels like this is another instance of the geeks winning. The scene is sad because Mark can’t hold back his flippant response even if it means further distancing himself from his only friend.

There are a lot of reason why I didn’t grow up to be Mark Zuckerberg. Firstly, I’m not smart enough. Most importantly I don’t have Asperger’s Syndrome. And I’m also not 19 years old anymore, neither is Mark. Perhaps we were both huge jerks at the end of adolescence but hopefully adulthood will let us set aside our bitterness and find sympathy for our tormentors (both real and perceived). Hopefully, as adults, we’ll overcome the disorder or personality trait that keeps us from expressing gratitude and love. After all, we won. We have cool jobs, we go on fabulous trips, we can do lots of complicated math problems. Hopefully we’re both much happier than we were freshman year of college.There’s not much to be gained by being a sore winner.