Catfish, Social Network refresh our ideas about Facebook

Snappy, engrossing movies provide status updates of the online zeitgeist

"We lived on farms, we lived in cities and now we're going to live ... on the Internet!" Web entrepreneur Sean Parker proclaims in The Social Network. That may be true, but it's like we're moving en masse to our new home and then trying to establish law and order after the fact. Social networks, online communities and other computerized substitutes for personal interactions take place in a constantly changing environment that can hurt people in advanced new ways.

David Fincher's docudrama The Social Network and the documentary Catfish take the supremely popular Facebook and scrutinize it from different sides of the telescope. Fincher's film tracks the broken relationships that accompanied the creation of an Internet business that brought 500 million people together. Catfish reveals the ability of Facebook and the rest of the Internet to deceive, and then untangle deceptions. Both prove to be entertaining, thought-provoking films that hit us where we live.

Fincher, director of Fight Club and Zodiac, uses his flair for conveying obsessive personalities and dense amounts of information to profile Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), a brainiac Harvard student as adept with computers as he is inept with human beings. He takes an obsession with Harvard's most elite clubs and applies it to his idea for a campus social media site, for which you have to agree to "friend" people. The film's first act contrasts the top-down hierarchy and glitzy parties of the old-money clubs with the bottom-up democratization and "coolness" of Mark's venture, initially called "The" Facebook.

Mark turns to his only real friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), to provide start-up funds and interface with real-world issues, but silently seethes at Eduardo's popularity with Harvard's "in" crowd. The film wittily riffs on the Revenge of the Nerds formula by giving them two outlandish antagonists: rich, Aryan-looking twin athletes Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both amusingly played by Armie Hammer) who believe, with some justification, that Mark stole their idea.

Fincher brilliantly casts Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker, the visionary but broke creator of Napster, who sees Facebook as a billion-dollar idea and tempts Mark away from Eduardo's idea of a more sensible, incremental rollout. As a hipster salesman who struggles with his own demons, Parker serves as the film's equivalent to the devil, but Facebook's success indicates that he was also correct about the company's billion-dollar potential. Much of the film crosscuts between Facebook's rise and the hearings at subsequent lawsuits against Mark over Facebook's origins and ownership.

Eisenberg portrays Mark as a fascinatingly asocial individual, within whom pride constantly wars with insecurity. He's smart enough to win any argument, but not savvy enough to win people over. When Mark grows angry or upset, his lower lip draws inward and his eyes darken ominously. The film implies that Mark becomes increasingly isolated with Facebook's success, despite the superficial glitz. But the character seems to recede from The Social Network's last act, up until its arbitrary ending. Perhaps the film shows less sympathy to him because Zuckerberg didn't cooperate with Ben Mezrich's original book, The Accidental Billionaires, which the movie was based on.

Catfish holds so many fascinating surprises that it's best to know little about its content going in. Suffice it to say that the premise depicts charming New York photographer Nev Schulman becoming involved in the lives of an attractive, creative Michigan family he meets via Facebook. Documentarians Henry Joost and Nev's brother Ariel Schulman follow practically at Nev's shoulder as he discovers that almost nothing is what it seems. Catfish unfolds like an ingenious mystery story — but not the Blair Witch-style thriller of the misleading trailer — in which Google Maps provides a crucial tool for detective work.

Catfish demonstrates the Internet's ability to create and sustain a false persona, as well as the willingness of online friends to project imaginary qualities onto people they don't actually know. Catfish's critics question the film's authenticity, but even if the charges are true, using an "old medium"-like film to stretch the truth, to advance a story about the misleading potential of new media, kind of proves the filmmakers' point. Either way, high schoolers should be required to watch Catfish as a cautionary tale about the value of knowing who your friends really are.

Arguably, Nev walks into a trap that Facebook's creators didn't know they set. Both films essentially criticize the Internet's ability to objectify women. Mark gains campus notoriety — and crashes Harvard's server — by creating a popular program for voting on co-eds' hotness. When Facebook becomes a Harvard sensation, then an international college fad, Mark and his programming partners surround themselves with gorgeous, underage, drug-using groupies. Facebook features such as profile pictures and "relationship status" were inspired by the male desire to assess women's looks, learn their availability, and possibly hook up. In Catfish, Nev relies on these very functions, and naively allows himself to be manipulated by them.

Catfish's final scenes prove more generous than you might expect and touchingly testify to the value of face-to-face interaction, unmediated by monitor screens and file servers. Ironically, Catfish also makes you want to check out the Facebook profiles of its subjects. Both films capture the pleasures of using the Internet while discouraging viewers from relying on it too much. Plus, they're both snappy, engrossing movies that provide status updates of our online zeitgeist. Where can I click on the "like" button?