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Edith Wharton on Facebook

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Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg Social Network movie scene
Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network (2010).

Class consciousness in The Accidental Billionaires

I just finished reading The Accidental BillionairesBen Mezrich‘s 2009 book about the founding of Facebook. Putting aside the book’s literary merits (the story’s compelling, at least), I was struck by the undercurrent of social and class mores that run through the book.

I grew up in a distressed area of a downtrodden city in the middle of Canada (okay, it was Winnipeg). In my family, the idea of going to university was as remote as going to Israel to live on a kibbutz – actually, the kibbutz probably was more likely. If it wasn’t for my own initiative, I probably never would have gone on to post-secondary education (about which the less said, the better).

So reading The Accidental Billionaires I couldn’t help but compare my own circumstances to those of these entitled Americans, even if I’m a couple generations off. These guys—whether Mark Zuckerberg or the Winkelvoss twins or any of other characters populating the book—were all destined to walk a gold-paved road. It was hard not to hope one, if not all, would develop a crack habit.

It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that we actually feel sympathy for (some of) these guys in The Social Network. I was less affected by the story (i.e., Zuckerberg’s betrayal of his friend Eduardo Saverin, his supposed ripping-off of the Winkelvoss twins) as presented in Mezrich’s book, however. No doubt that this was at least in part because of actors like Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield, and Aaron Sorkin’s script.

But it is instructive reading Edith Wharton afterwards. In House of Mirth (1905), To stay afloat, Lily Bart must navigate upper-crust of New York. What she goes through a century earlier than the events in The Accidental Billionaires is really not that different from the way Zuckerberg and Saverin must negotiate their way in Harvard’s hierarchy.

Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz in House of Mirth movie image
Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz in House of Mirth (2000).

Reading the two books back to back, I’m struck by a couple of thoughts. One, that the class system in North America, which has always been with us but seldom actually acknowledged, is finally a part of the greater conversation. And two: has the Facebook generation found its Edith Wharton yet?

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  1. A great post, and I agree… especially about wanting them to develop a crack habit. I only saw the movie (Social Network) and haven’t read House of Mirth, but you’ve inspired me to add it to my list.

    Isn’t it interesting that the leadership of the early United States made overt and concerted efforts to abandon royalty and nobility (by forbidding Congress the ability to award titles, for instance) and yet were limited by their own prejudice and democracy?

    What is today’s painful 1%/99% festering sore if not the end result of the “always with us but seldom acknowledged” American class system?

    • It’s probably not as bad in Canada as the U.S., but here the government and other institutions are still over-run by crony-ism and the old boys’ network. That’s life, I suppose; what bothers me is that people like to pretend “democracy” and “fairness” are the same thing, which they’re not. Success breeds success, and this idea of a level playing field is b.s. that people only seem to be acknowledging. Then again it’s all relative – I had a friend tell me this past summer that he had been envious of me growing up, ‘cos my family had an actual house (and he grew up in a community housing project).

      • HE had a community housing project! When I was a lad, we lived in a SHOE BOX. And our mothers made us lick the CHEESE GRATER because we couldn’t afford toothpaste!

        Yep, all relative, absolutely true.

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