The Quest for Belonging: The Social Network and “The Inner Ring”

Longing to get in

The Social Network (2010) tells the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s, founder and CEO of Facebook,  meteoric rise from a socially estranged computer-nerd, Harvard undergrad to the world’s youngest ever billionaire .  The main narrative structure is built on two lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg by fellow Harvard students who claimed a stake in Facebook riches: one brought by the first CFO of the young company (and Zuckerberg’s closest friend at Harvard); the other by a group of students who charged him with stealing the idea of Facebook from them.  This group belonged to an ultra-exclusive social club – the Phoenix S-K club – which essentially functions as an elite fraternity into which Zuckerberg craves admission, even to the point of obsession.  It is the young entrepreneurer’s obsession with belonging to the upper crust of Harvard society that forms the subtext of the plot.

The sudden, explosive success of Facebook on the Harvard campus makes Zuckerberg an instant campus celebrity of sorts.  Yet his success comes with a cost:  alienation from his truest friend and business partner, Eduardo Saverin.  Not surprisingly, this same desire for social inclusion fuels the popularity of Facebook  :  its main appeal initially was the exclusivity of belonging to Harvard, as only members of the Harvard community could connect on the site.   Even as it spread to other campuses, Facebook distinguished itself from its predecessors like MySpace in allowing users to choose who to include and exclude.

Though Facebook and other social networking media are 21st century phenomenon, the innate human drive for social acceptance is as old as human history, being innate perhaps to human nature.  Author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis describes this drive in a speech, published as an essay, called “The Inner Ring” (1944), which, though difficult to describe precisely, is something we all understand intuitively:

“You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone.  You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it; and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it.  There are what correspond to passwords, but they too are spontaneous and informal  A particular slang, the particular use of nicknames, an allusive manner of conversation, are the marks.  But it is not constant.  It is not easy, even at a given moment to say who is inside and who is outside.   Some people are obviously in ad some are obviously out, but there are always several on the border-line…one of the most dominant elements [influencing people’s lives]  is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”

Such exclusive relationships are not immoral and dangerous in themselves:  all friendships, for instance, have a degree of exclusivity by nature.  The danger, Lewis contends, is “our longing to enter them, our anguish when we are excluded, and the kind of pleasure we feel when we get in.”  This longing may lead us to neglect and eventually reject “friends whom you really loved and who might have lasted you a lifetime, in order to court the friendship of those who appeared to you more important, more esoteric.”  This theme is portrayed starkly in the film as Zuckerburg follows the alluring Sean Parker (founder of Napster) to the glamour of Silicon Valley only to estrange his real friend Eduardo Saverin, who has provoked Zuckerberg to envy by his acceptance into the Phoenix club.

But the real danger of this desire, “one of the permanent mainsprings of human action,” lies in its deceit:  it inevitably fails to deliver what it promises.  Thus, Lewis observes, “The circle cannot have from within the charm it had from outside.  By the very act of admitting you it has lost its magic.  Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends.  Why should they be?  You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humor or learning or wit or any of the things that can really be enjoyed.  You merely wanted to be ‘in.’  And that is a pleasure that cannot last.”  Once we penetrate the Rings we long to be part of, the acceptance loses its allure and we search for other Rings to embrace us.

The vanity of this quest is illustrated in the film.  In the first scene, pre-Facebook Zuckerberg is dumped by his girlfriend (who did not attend Harvard) because he is an insensitive jerk.  The indelible emotional wound caused by this rejection is manifested at the end when he finds her on Facebook, by this time a worldwide success, and sends a “Friend” request, hitting refresh repeatedly to see if she “Accepts.”  Zuckerberg’s story, as portrayed in this film, reminds us of a timeless principle: “It is the very mark of a perverse desire that it seeks what is not to be had.  The desire to be inside the invisible line [of the Inner Ring] illustrates this rule.  As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want.  You are trying to peel an onion:  if you succeed there will be nothing left.”

If this desire comprises such a profound aspect of our nature, how can we not be governed by it?  How cannot it not cease to be a fundamental motive behind our actions?  In the speech, Lewis only hints at an answer that points us in the right direction:  “Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.”  If becoming the youngest billionaire in history does not conquer this fear, what will?  The fear of being an outsider is diminished only by the strength of the security of the acceptance we live for.  The acceptance we gain from these Inner Rings is by its nature insecure because we have to continue to perform to keep it.  And in the end these Rings come and go.  But ultimately, there is only one Inner Ring that matters because it is the only circle that endures forever: the Ring of God’s family.  The Bible promise that all who trust in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ are given “the right to be called children of God” (John 1:12).   Inclusion in this ring is absolutely secure because it is not gained or kept by our performance, but entrance is merited by the work of Christ who alone deserves a place at the table.  When we live for the acceptance of this club, given only by grace and not by our merit, the security of God’s love conquers our fear of being an outsider.

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2 comments on “The Quest for Belonging: The Social Network and “The Inner Ring”

  1. I watched The Social Network lastnight and the first thing I really have to say about this movie is that I don’t believe that there has ever been a movie that has been more over hyped than The Social Network has been. Read More: http://www.shawnmichaeladamsonline.com/2011/03/social-network-apache-servers-and-my.html

  2. Great job using Lewis’ analysis of the longing to be part of the Inner Ring – in fact,when you consider the fact that Lewis was speaking to the graduating class at King’s College, University of London, it becomes more applicable to the dangers described in longing to be a part of the Inner Ring. Of all the topics to choose from with respect to addressing the graduates, Lewis felt this warning to be of the utmost importance. If you have never read the Inner Ring, you can go to this link to do so: http://www.lewissociety.org/innerring.php

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