clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Was Aaron Sorkin Right About the Internet?

The ‘West Wing’ and ‘Social Network’ screenwriter was an early and vocal opponent of online discourse. It turns out … he was on to something.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

They say it’s a sign of maturity to admit when you are wrong. I admit, for example, that it was premature of me to call kombucha “trash tea,” as I now find it refreshing and non-trash. It was wrong of me to believe that metallic bodysuits were appropriate daywear from 2006 to 2012. And you know Aaron Sorkin? Writer, director, crafter of crackling dialogue, notable enemy of modern technology? I used to think he was a snob with an ax to grind who was wrong about technology. But it was I who was wrong. Aaron Sorkin is a snob with an ax to grind who is right about technology.

Long before backlash against big tech companies went mainstream, Sorkin was a loud, proud hater of Online. Both through his characters and directly in interviews, he dismissed people who used the internet to communicate as reclusive cretins, lonely “pajama people” barely worthy of pity and certainly worthy of mockery.

In interviews and public appearances, Sorkin was an aggro Luddite. He dismissed a young female journalist who admitted to liking Twitter as “internet girl.” He called the internet itself a “bronchial infection on the First Amendment.” Through his characters, Sorkin was no kinder to the World Wide Web, giving his verbose creations monologues about how lonely and unsuccessful fans of the internet were. (He frequently gendered these trolls as women.) His vision of Mark Zuckerberg is that of a man who may know that a million dollars isn’t cool, but who will also always be, deep down, an internet-addled dork. His characterization of a female social media manager morally bankrupted by her passion for clicks on The Newsroom provoked ire from critics. “Sorkin is clearly terrified of the internet and the floodgate it opens for non-white-male voices to be heard and taken seriously, and he truly, laughably believes that we’d be better off without it,” Emily Yoshida wrote for The Verge.

Sorkin’s critiques of digital life looked especially off base in the 2000s and early 2010s, when the internet was a less broken place than it now is. The platforms looked like tools instead of weapons, and Sorkin looked like a boring crank. Now, though, instead of an old man yelling at the sky, Sorkin looks more like a middle-aged man yelling at a mountain of trash emitting toxic fumes. He’s still not offering any productive solutions, but he’s not incorrect.

With this in mind, a reassessment of Sorkin v. The Internet:

“One of the things I find troubling about the Internet, as great a resource tool as it is, and as nice as it is that we can all communicate with each other, and that everybody has a voice—the thing is, everybody’s voice oughtn’t be equal.” —Aaron Sorkin, Chicago Tribune, January 19, 2007

My response then: What an elitist!
My response now: While this is not the most elegant way to say it, Sorkin has an underlying point. If people espouse hate and violence, their arguments do not deserve amplification. And we should not treat information provided by proven liars and racists with the same credulity we treat information given to us by organizations and individuals with trustworthy track records for accuracy and fairness.
Verdict: Sorkin was right.

“There’s just too much bad information getting out there, and I have to believe that’s mostly the fault of the Internet, which isn’t held to any standards of accuracy. … I have to tell you, I don’t feel like I had any trouble getting information before. Every morning two newspapers were literally thrown at my house. All I had to do was open the door and get them. Anyway, I’m not quite getting the Internet.” Aaron Sorkin, New York, September 17, 2010

My response then: What an elitist!
My response now: Sorkin’s defense of accuracy standards is fundamentally sound and speaks to how deeply the internet has punctured the concept of expertise.
Verdict: Sorkin was right.

“I do think that socializing on the Internet is to socializing what reality TV is to reality.” Aaron Sorkin, The Colbert Report, September 30, 2010

My response then: What an elitist!
My response now: This still sounds like a comment from someone who has never socialized on the internet or watched a reality TV show. While online communications are frequently mediated by the user experiences designed by giant companies, inventions like email and video messaging have been lifelines for relationships and communities in ways that shouldn’t be dismissed. Also, reality TV is entertaining. What an elitist prick!
Verdict: Sorkin was wrong. (Can’t win ’em all.)

“From time to time I’ll read some of the comments under stories … to get a sense of what it must be like at a Klan meeting.”Aaron Sorkin, The Atlantic Wire, May 18, 2011

My response then: What an elitist and a drama king!
My response now: Sorko really called the whole imminent-rise-of-white-nationalism thing, and we should have listened to him.
Verdict: Sorkin was right.

Sorkin’s fictional mouthpieces for his vendetta against the internet also fare much better in the harsh light of 2018. The Social Network is as snappy, stylish, and engrossing as it was when it first came out in 2010, but watching it today, the critiques it lobbed at Zuckerberg look quaint. Sorkin painted Facebook’s CEO as a dorky dude who created his social network to get back at a girl. Fictional Zuckerberg was a bad friend and a creep, yes, but he mainly hurt people in his immediate circle. Real Zuckerberg, on the other hand, has done damage on a far grander scale. And while The Newsroom’s heavy-handed moralizing about big, bad Twitter is still tough to watch in 2018, it’s clear now that the message wasn’t the problem so much as was the way it was delivered, from out-of-touch sermons from middle-aged actors representing the Embattled Elite. Jobs, meanwhile, gave us fictional Steve Jobs as a terrible boss and person, but provided him with a tidy redemption arc connected to his eldest daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs. The real Jobs, meanwhile, is the subject of a new memoir from Brennan-Jobs that undercuts Sorkin’s mellowed finale. If anything, Sorkin could’ve gone a lot harder on the tech bosses he has portrayed.

The fact that Sorkin got so much heat for so long for pointing out what now look like obvious downsides to a mass-communication revolution is a testament to how much damage smugness can do. Had Sorkin delivered his unfortunately prescient sermons about the internet’s suckage without the glib attitude, The Newsroom might be going into its eighth season, and we might not be trapped in a dysfunctional information hell vortex controlled by cash-hoarding nerds with troublingly loose relationships to the concept of democracy. As it is, though, I’m looking forward to The Social Network 2: I Told You So.