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The Social Network

[META] The Social Network Fandom: RPS of Professional RPF?

Over at Obsidian Wings, Doctor Science has posted an analysis of The Social Network using a fannish vocabulary. I’ve been overwhelmed by the range, quality and quantity of fan activity surrounding the film, and I thought that Doctor Science’s post would provide me with some great material to discuss in my first post for the Symposium Blog.

The idea that The Social Network can, strictly speaking, be understood as as Real Person Fic (RPF), is, in the words of Doctor Science, complicated. The argument in favor is fairly common, and can be a frustrating conversation to have with outsiders to fandom: there are discrete traditions of professional fiction written about real people and RPF; this film belongs to the former, hence the easy and ubiquitous comparisons to Citizen Kane. I don’t say this to undermine the extent to which the film’s depiction of real situations made Doctor Science “uncomfortable,” but surely there is a difference between this huge-budget Hollywood film and the fanfiction inspired by it, only some of which is, strictly speaking, RPF. (And much of the Social Network RPF is actorfic, e.g. Jesse Eisenberg/Andrew Garfield, rather than RPF about the real people behind the real facebook.)

The author nevertheless points out an interesting irony in Aaron Sorkin’s decision to write a kind of story that could be understood as more properly belonging to female-dominated fan communities online, considering the writer’s fraught history with online media fandom. I wasn’t a West Wing fan myself, but the story of Sorkin’s reaction to the TWOP messageboards is widely-circulated as an example of why creators shouldn’t crash the party. Doctor Science is shrewd to draw attention to the connections between the sexism of the film’s narrative of the founding of Facebook and Sorkin’s history of misapprehending the gender politics of digital space.

Unlike the real Mark Zuckerberg, I was not concerned with the movie’s refusal to display the actual mechanics of building Facebook, although I would have liked to see more from the perspective of users, particularly female users. Certainly, as Doctor Science outlines, the film represents female characters as more interested in actually using the site than male characters — it’s not LiveJournal/Dreamwidth, but certainly women are at least as active on the site as men.

But I’m less interested in critiquing the film in this post than I am in drawing out this connection between the gender politics of the film and the gender politics of storytelling in the age of the internet. I don’t believe that it’s helpful to label The Social Network as RPF, because it does a disservice to the thriving RPF being produced in response to the film, and thus inadvertently discounts users once again.

Aaron Sorkin made specific decisions about his representation of the founding of Facebook , presumably in collaboration with legal advisors with experience in communications law, intellectual property, and libel. Fic writers are beholden to a different set of standards, and thus, produce a different kind of work, a kind that, it should go without saying, is at least as addictive as Sorkin’s dialogue. One of Doctor Science’s critiques of RPF in general, here referring to the larger concept of stories based on real life, is one that has been voiced repeatedly by critics of the film; the Doctor describes the erasure of Mark Zuckerberg’s real-life long-term girlfriend, Priscilla Chan, from the story as “cringe-worthy.” In the context of the film, this erasure was necessary for Sorkin to tell his story about the palpable connection between Facebook’s surveillance culture and the anxious masculinity that he believes drives innovations in tech.

But the critique has been made in the context of RPF proper, too, particularly RPS (Real Person Slash, e.g. Mark/Eduardo). There are those in fandom who find it just as cringe-worthy that primarily female fic writers would repeatedly produce situations in which real-life wives or girlfriends are erased in the name of two (or more!) attractive men finding True Love with one another. There are few enough complex female characters in mainstream media, the argument sometimes goes, and fic should serve as a space of rectifying mainstream media’s oppressive erasures, rather than taking them to their logical extension by erasing the women altogether. Of course, many fans take the opposite approach: fic should be a space of exploring the fullest possible range of ideas excited in readers by the media texts we love, and there’s no reason to regulate anyone else’s kinks.

After all, there are no limits on the amount of fic that can be produced from a sourcetext: if you want to read more about the women of The Social Network, write more. While it’s true that, in some fandoms, certain slash pairings come to dominate, I think that it’s up to members within those fandoms to articulate their own values about what this means, rather than anyone from outside. RPF/RPS writers understand that they are producing fiction, rather than producing an idealized social world. Particularly because RPF/RPS is controversial even within fandom (perhaps especially, because only within fandom are people aware how much of it there is!), I think that it’s fair to assume that writers are aware of potential objections readers might have. This doesn’t mean that one has to like or actively support it, but rather that it deserves to be understood on its own terms, in its own context. As one might criticize Citizen Kane‘s representation of media history, so can one criticize The Social Network‘s. But RPF proper must be understood in the context of other fannish productions, not in comparison with Hollywood films.