Posted by: Martin Scherer | 01/03/2011

The Kings Speech, the Social Network, and why the Oscars got it wrong

I guess I should be waving the flag but I think the Oscars got it wrong.

Both films have excellent scripts, acting, direction and cinematography. So what separates them? For a low budget film The Kings Speech did well, but box office success alone should not be the main criteria to judge a film. Nor should its literary merit although we know that often influences judges.

The Reithian edict that established the BBC, copied by so many and yet lacking so often, is that all media should entertain, inform and educate. The final judgement of all media should be – ‘What impact will this film have on our society?’

The education edict may seem somewhat dated and condescending to an adult audience, but we never stop learning. Society’s image of education is of something enforced, austere, should not be entertaining, and most education has a captive audience. Most who are ‘educated’, don’t really want to be there. Our schools could do well by adopting the Reithian edict. The best way to educate is to gain the audience’s enthusiastic, interested involvement. The UK’s Open University is achieving it.

Films do not have a captive audience, so all films entertain to attract that audience. Whilst many filmmakers claim they have no influence on society, that is simply avoiding responsibility for their influence. At the very least, entertaining films reinforce the audience’s attitudes and beliefs. Such films are enjoyable, reassuring and comforting. Hence, the perennial marriage film. Each have a different twist, but all reinforce our belief in marriage despite the fact that half of us get divorced.

Many films reinforce the audience’s predominant beliefs and attitudes. Others reinforce their emerging beliefs. The psychologist B F Skinner said we enjoy that most which says what we are about to say for ourselves, but hadn’t yet realised it or found the words to express it. These films create a buzz. We are more likely to talk about them, tell, and implore, our friends to go see them, if only to gain their confirmation their views are changing in the same way as ours. Such films rise above the crowd to Oscar status.

So what was the buzz about The Kings Speech? Another royalty film. There have been so many. Was it that the film portrayed a king as a flawed individual, who struggles with life just as we do? Not someone superior to us, not a god with magical awesome powers, or appointed by God, or someone with a hot-line to god who thereby knows better than us. That has been done before. Maybe a new generation needed to be reminded of that fact.

Look closer. This king endured a stammer. Something that seems so simple, yet so self-injurious, that anyone with any sense would stop it, but clearly and painfully they cannot, even if King. Science has its own fashions in explaining these things. In the 60’s behavioural scientists said, “That’s just a stammer, I can cure that.” Today, society believes such behaviours must be caused by our genes or God is punishing them for the sins of their parents. There are now so many of these impossible disorders – obesity, anorexia, homosexuality,…..Just look at the ever growing list of ‘official’ psychiatric disorders and the controversy it is causing. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Psychiatric_Association#Controversies.

No amount of psychotherapy, drugs, or even ECT or brain surgery can cure these problems. If it is true there is some ‘medical’ cause, why hasn’t science found a cure? Is it possible society is on the verge of not believing it anymore? Are we going back to the belief that people sometimes learn the wrong thing and they can learn to do it right? But what is ‘right’? That is for them to determine. That is a far more liberal and optimistic view. We can change things. Its our choice. We are not condemned to be ‘disabled’ forever. All we need is someone who can see that and help us.

That was the unspoken buzz around The King’s Speech. It can be done, a king can and must learn to speak without a stammer, and kings are human like us so we all can. The King’s Speech portrayed an early, intuitive and rather crude form of behaviour engineering. It is appropriate the film had a historic setting for historic settings always lend credibility. The layman in the audience may not be able to explain it, but he can see it and see it was done a long time ago. Are people beginning to think that the army of analysts therapists, drug manufactures and psychiatrists are all engaged in a self- deluded con? Like Freudian psychoanalysis, they never solve the problem but it keeps them in pleasant well-paid employment?

Today’s behavioural science can do so much better but the behavioural sciences have been out of fashion for half a century. Now its all about genes and cognitions. Are society’s attitudes and treatment fashions about to u-turn?

As a behavioural scientist, I find that an exciting prospect. I am not sure that many people realise it as yet, or even that the filmmakers realised what they were doing, but that is the buzz about The Kings Speech, that is why it deserved the Oscars, why the film will endure and become a classic.

So why do I think The Social Network is a better film?

The makers of The Social Network said their film was just another in the long line of stories about male competition over a new gold mine, all the underhand dealing that goes with it, and the triumph of the underdog succeeding over the privileged. The Social Network is so much more than that. Facebook fulfilled the Reithian edict in full. It entertains, it informs, and it educates.

What The Social Network told us is what the internet is about; why Microsoft is waning; why Google overtook Yahoo; why MySpace is dying and Facebook exists – what the consequences are, what they must do to survive and what the future will be for us all. We all know the internet, we all use it, but nothing has revealed it to such a wide audience or as clearly as The Social Network.

Go back in time. There have been many social networks. The American alumni sites into which Facebook founders tapped. Go back 20 years in the UK. There were several social network ‘friends’ websites but none got off the ground until Friends-Reunited.com. Why did Friends Reunited take off when so many before had failed? Friends reunited got massive free national and local TV and press coverage. You could not miss it. The kind of advertising every web site dreams of but cannot not afford. Friends Reunited went viral before the word was invented. Why?

Simple. Friends Reunited encouraged pupils to put up comments about their teachers. That sent teachers into a panic. What privately happened in the classroom became public for all to know. Teacher’s unions were up in arms, governments concerned. Every similar authority felt threatened. Who would be taking secret notes or twittering about courtrooms, committee meetings, as they happened with the ability to tell the world? Teachers took former pupils to court and various authorities tried to shut FRU down.

So why was Friends Reunited been overtaken by Facebook? Because Face-book came from Harvard. Facebook tapped right into social snobbishness. If anyone is anyone, they must have been to Harvard. Through Facebook, everyone felt they could be a part of Harvard or at least rub shoulders with people who were there. Facebook could only have been established by someone in the in-crowd. Some people will do anything to get into the in-crowd. That fact is brilliantly portrayed in the film in the sex scene “We’ve got our own groupies.’ The under-dog computer geek is now the pop star. Facebook is about exhibitionism and voyeurism. No different to all the celebrity gossip media, except that with Facebook everyone can be a celebrity, everyone can be the centre of their own in-group.

Celebrities have a shelf life. At one time pop stars hid their marriages for fear they would no longer appear to be ‘in’. The moment celebrities behave in some way that breaks the unspoken rules of being in, they are out. With an almighty thump. That explains Microsoft, Yahoo and MySpace today. The moment users felt these sites were run by mighty corporations merely out to exploit, then they fell out of favour. That is why Facebook held off advertising, why it has since got into trouble and why the moment The Social Network was released, the original investors started dumping their shares. They feared Facebook was about to loose its shine. Like sheep, the Facebook audience might wander into the next field where the grass looked greener.

They were wrong, they were unaware of the reason Microsoft grew so big, so fast. Like Facebook, Microsoft’s original programmes were not the best. There were better, but the better ones failed against Facebook and Microsoft. Bill Gates success is not due to the computer programs he wrote but the way he sold them. For $1. To IBM. Everyone had been waiting for the industry to standardise the PC and everyone knew IBM had the muscle to do it. MS Basic was the cheapest and so became the software standard. With the money to do it, MS could keep ahead of the race with Office and Windows. Bill Gates once wrote, if your programme is not based on Windows operating system, you are bust, never mind how good. Standardisation occurs in every industry. Governments and corporations have tried to break MS’s grip, but failed. In a dictatorship they would have succeeded but in a democracy is freedom of speech.

Facebook has become the standard. It is now the dominant market social network software. No longer a snobbish exhibitionist, voyeuristic, tool, Facebook is now the communication standard enabling text, photos, sound and film. Look at the young peoples’ revolution it enabled in Arab lands.

Facebook is driving revolutionary social change but Facebook is merely a new technology. The mechanisms of social change and social group formation have been known to social scientists for decades. The Facebook revolution should not have been a surprise to anyone who has studied the social sciences. It was predictable to all social scientists who kept abreast of technological development. Perhaps too predictable.

We are blessed with two remarkable films this year. Both will effect significant social change. However, The social change revealed in The Social Network is more relevant to more people around the world. The Social Network revealed why Microsoft, Yahoo and MySpace waned, what Google and Facebook must do to keep ahead of the pack, how the internet will evolve and what our futures will be.

If you understand the lessons of Facebook, you will also understand why the Oscars chose the wrong film as the best film of the year. The Socials Network may be the best film of the decade.

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Responses

  1. Laughing is so good, that is why we are here.

  2. I was certainly surprised that the social network didn’t win more awards, and I agree that we should be paying some more heed to what is relevant to us as a society- but doesn’t that suggest the judging criteria of the Oscars is not social relevance? Yes the social network was an informed film, but to many who scratched the surface I’m sure it appeared to be simply a glorified documentary with an appearance from Justin Timberlake. The Kings Speech was a rich cinematic, tearjerking, quintessentially British film. And it was Colin Firths ‘time’ to win after missing out for A Single Man last year.


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