Monday, January 24, 2011

The Social Network and Transformational Christianity

First: thanks to one of my parishioners for asking me if I were going to blog about The Social Network. We also need to acknowledge, from the first, that The Social Network is an exaggerated account of the events surrounding the creation of Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg. Yet, we hasten to add, it was not exaggerated enough to elicit any libel suits from Mr. Zuckerberg!

The Social Network is a fascinating study in human nature untethered to any sort of moral obligation, and casting about in the electronic equivalent of the lawless American frontier. Though he becomes the world's youngest billionaire, Zuckerberg is presented as a man unmotivated by money. According to the movie, Facebook has its beginnings in a drunken revenge stunt an obnoxious, eccentric Zuckerberg wreaks on his girlfriend. Utilizing Harvard's existing cyber social network, and using an algorithm developed by his friend Eduardo Savarin, he erects a site where people can compare the "hotness" of girls on campus.

This attracts the attention of Harvard blue blood twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. They had hatched an idea for a social network limited to Harvard, and Zuckerberg agrees to help. Presumably using their idea and funding, Zuckerberg starts out to develop "The Facebook." As is common in such dorm room startups, he appoints his friends, including Savarin, to the key positions in marketing and development.

There is no question that Zuckerberg is an eccentric genius, and he quickly becomes a celebrity at Harvard. The network begins to spread to college campuses across the nation. He meets up with Napster founder and cyber bad boy Sean Parker, and, at his instigation, Zuckerberg relocates the operation to California, where the pool of talent is larger, and hedge fund managers are eager to invest in response to the pair's audacious antics.

At the heart of the story is a gaping moral vacuum. Zuckerberg seems absolutely free of any capacity for empathy. He is unrelentingly cruel to his girlfriend, and appears to have almost an autistic detachment from her. He blatantly lies to the Winklevoss brothers, whose value to him, at least in this telling of the story, eludes the watcher. The saddest thing of all is his deep betrayal of his one loyal friend, Eduardo Savarin, who, at Parker's instigation, he writes out of the company.

Yet, there is an even deeper moral abyss at the heart of the cyber world. Zuckerberg's theory is break things in order to fix them --smart business strategy, indeed. He hosts competitions for hackers to try and take down Facebook. His goal is to be the one site that never crashes. Yet, even here we see the amoral world of the cyber genius. The cyber genius, in this case, is not motivated by success, or rendering a service, or any larger moral good (though we need to note that Zuckerberg himself has either changed in this regard, or is better than he is portrayed in the movie). Sean Parker's goal with Napster was to take down the record industry, even as he protests this will make music better (if that is the case, it hasn't happened yet). We see this in the broader world, as global financial systems and missile defenses are subjected to relentless cyber-attacks, from the relative safety and anonymity of obscure cubicles.

The whole story is told through the eyes of the deposition as both Savarin and the Winklevosses sue him for their rightful share of the Facebook fortune. In this retelling, Zuckerberg remains the genius whose real motives are elusive. He claims not to care about money. He does care very much about reputation. He winds up sacrificing reputation to make money. His motivation for his betrayal of his friend and his early backers remains shrouded in the mystery of his detached character.

All of this has me thinking about how Christians function in relationship to the world. I have the honor of speaking at a conference on this very subject this weekend. There is a rising cry in our circles to remember that we are aliens and strangers in this evil world, and all that exists is destined for fire. I would certainly affirm that the Bible teaches we are pilgrims and aliens here. Yet, and at the same time, this is God's world, and he calls us to think and act as Christians in the broader culture. He brings glory to himself as his people seek to honor him in whatever their hands find to do. Locally, we have a stunning counter-example to Facebook, albeit on a smaller scale. This is the story:

To help pay his college tuition, Joel Bomgar began working as a field network engineer for a Jackson, Mississippi-based systems integrator in 2002. When not in class, he could be found driving around the Jackson area in his 1979 Buick LeSabre providing IT support to local businesses. Often, the non-billable drive time in the air condition-less LeSabre took longer than the actual service calls. It didn't take long for Joel to realize “there had to be a way” to spend less time driving in the Mississippi heat and more time solving his clients' problems.
Unable to find an existing solution that would allow him to access and manage his customers' computers over the internet, Joel decided to take matters into his own hands and develop his own technology.

Although he was still working his way through college, Joel spent many late nights coding and eating pizza to develop a functional remote support solution. Leveraging the solution he quickly doubled the number of customers he could support and cut his rather uncomfortable drive time in half. His new technology was paying off. The instant success led him to believe there might be a market for his creation, so he made up a product brochure, launched a static web site and waited.

Much to his surprise, his wait was short as he quickly began receiving calls and orders for the product. After making $24,000 in less than two months, Joel was convinced he had uncovered a significant market opportunity, but knew he could not capitalize on the opportunity alone. He soon enlisted the assistance of two friends and fellow Resident Assistants from school: Nathan McNeill and Patrick Norman – both of whom he knew were smart, hard working, dedicated problem solvers.

The trio knew little about starting a business but decided that they could, and would, make it work. Joel continued writing code and handling customer calls, Nathan focused on sales and support, leaving Patrick to focus on marketing. In the first six months after they graduated in 2003, these remote support pioneers used 90 lines of code, a one page web site and a simple keyword campaign to grow revenue from $0 to $100,000.

Determination and Innovation Pays-Off
Bomgar's founding trio has since successfully lead the company from a dorm room project to an industry leader. They credit the success to a discipline of focus and a set of core values based in Biblical principles. Bomgar is recognized
by industry analysts, professional associations and industry publications for its award-winning Enterprise Remote Support Solution – a solution which has fundamentally changed how companies around the world deliver remote IT support.

Could there be a deeper contrast between the ways of darkness and the ways of light than the difference between Zuckerberg and Bomgar? The story itself is one repeated countless times in the computer age. What makes it remarkable is the Christian men at the core, determined to live Christianly in a secular age, and in the midst of an industry noted for its moral inhibition.

Bomgar does not discriminate against non-Christians, and operates within the admittedly-restrictive boundaries of pluralistic law. Yet, it is unashamed of stating publicly how its corporate culture and values are shaped by Biblical precepts. You can see those principles here.

It strikes me as exceedingly strange that anyone would argue this is a bad thing. Yet theologues are notorious for taking obtuse and cantankerous positions. I, myself, am grateful for Christians endeavoring to do whatever they do to the glory of God. As Eric Liddell's colleague in Chariots of Fire told him, "It says in the Old Book, him that honoreth me, I will honor." Indeed.


  1. It must be Monday --should have said "lack of moral inhibition!"

  2. but for the grace of God.....

    well, I guess now i'm going to have to add Zuckerberg to my prayer list.

    a few prayers....... eventually an angry person follows his own sinful desire and speaks the worst comment to Zuckerberg. Then the Holy Spirit uses that comment to shake Zuckerberg's whole existence, then HE causes him to stumble upon a Bible and causes him to be born again as he reads about Jesus............... and God gets all the glory. Praise the King!

    then Zuckerberg's whole life will change and he will barely know who he is anymore because he will be living by faith in the Son of God gal 2:20

    totally aweome!!!!!

    now we just ask, seek, and knock matt 7:7