Friday, October 8, 2010

Is the Movie "The Social Network" Bad for Understanding Both Innovation and History?

There was a really interesting article in my favorite paper, The Washington Post, today, in the business section (which is not usually my favorite section).  In "Where the next Facebook will come from," Ezra Klein claims that the current movie, "The Social Network," does a disservice to those who are trying to understand how Facebook became such a worldwide phenomenon.  According to Klein (and I'm just going on his word and what I've read in the reviews, because I haven't seen the movie myself), the movie depicts Facebook founder Mark Zuckerman as the quintessential computer nerd genius who is connecting the world through his technical expertise, his singular vision, and refusal to surrender to more socially-adept competitors.  However, in real life, there were many Facebook-like experiments that were percolating along at the same time (a process known as "simultaneous invention"), and it was as much luck as anything that it was Zuckerman's concept that won out (although Klein does credit him with developing a cleaner interface than the alternatives).  Klein argues that while we as humans find it easier to latch onto the idea of a person coming up with an idea rather than the idea manifesting itself as part of an evolutionary technology, we need to focus more on the latter approach if we are really to understand the nature of break-through innovations.

This point of view is seconded by Steven Johnson, a writer/historian/internet innovator who you may know as the author of the book "Everything Bad is Good for You," (one of those books that are on my list but I haven't gotten to it yet).  His brand-new book, "Where Good Ideas Come From:  The Natural History of Innovation," examines successful transformational ideas from evolution to You Tube to see what the key factors are for fostering innovation.  But Johnson apparently (again, I'm going from reviews and interviews here, because I haven't read this book yet either) agrees with Klein, stating that innovation is almost never the result of an "Eureka!" discovery by an isolated genius.  For a short (just over four minutes) synopsis of Johnson's findings about good ideas, see his clever and fast-paced You Tube video at .

So, OK, I haven't seen the movie or read either book, and business innovation is far from my field.  But I'm easily swayed by this argument because it lines up with something I've long disagreed with about the teaching of history.  I think, particularly in the United States, our approach to teaching history is too heavily oriented to what I call "The Great Man" (expanded to "And Great Women" in more recent years) approach.  That is, I think by personalizing history as much as we do, children growing up thinking that without Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson we wouldn't have declared Independence, without Washington we wouldn't have won the war, without Lincoln we would still have slaves, etc. etc.  And while these people were all great people, and there is no telling what would have happened if they hadn't had the positions they had, they also had those positions because they were representatives of a movement larger than themselves.  Certainly they effected history, but they were also manifestations of the currents of thought and activity of their times.  I think we do students a disservice when we focus too much on the representatives of the times and don't look at the undercurrents that brought those particular representatives to a place where they had the opportunity to turn those thoughts into actions or policies.

After all, isn't "The Social Movement" movie actually about really recent history?  And if we do that to people who have only been in the public eye for under 10 years, what are we likely to do after a century or two?

It's funny, because the Washington Post's movie critic, Ann Hornaday, gave the movie a really good review, calling it a "parable for our age" and comparing it to "Citizen Kane" and "The Great Gatsby."  But, of course, those works are fiction.  Too often, I think, when we focus on the people rather than the environment of the era, we end up fictionalizing our history as well. 


  1. I like history when it talks about patterns, even if they are represented "with a face and a name" of an archetypal character. Without patterns, there is no rhyme or reason to it.

    It's pretty frustrating to invent things nobody else is inventing at the time. The amount of energy it takes to explain what you even mean is too much. We just talked about it with Dmitri, seeing some of the projects we attempted to start in the nineties gaining momentum just now. In the last couple of years, I have been working hard on changing my messages from, "To boldly go where no one has gone before" to, "This idea is really similar to X, Y, Z but taking it further one step." With links to existing communities a must. This is limiting, but overall in a good way.

  2. When I was working with a multimedia educational courseware developer in the 1990's, we were always striving to be on the leading edge without being on the bleeding edge (although we seemed to end up on the latter more times than not). It's no fun being first. You want someone else to pave the way a bit, then you come along with your added twist and turn their trickle into a torrent.