Social Media, On Screen

Social Media, On Screen

by Claire Davidson

As a result of Elon Musk’s laughably incompetent derailing of Twitter within just the past few weeks, the role of social media in contemporary life has arguably never been scrutinized to the degree it is being as I write this. Yet, despite the thoughtful conversations about society’s relationship to rapidly evolving technology that often disseminate through these apps, the mainstream of film has had trouble catching up. This is for a myriad of reasons: fundamentally, the experience of finding oneself lost in the bottomless pit of scrolling through a phone is difficult to capture on film, and not all directors are canny enough to meaningfully integrate the nature of social media into cinematic language. 

Recent films that have purported to speak to “topical” questions regarding social media’s presence in our lives tend to depict its users as vapid, entitled, self-absorbed brats with integrity to waste and money to burn—in other words, an Internet comprised of influencers with no one to influence. In the past year alone, releases like Not Okay and Bodies Bodies Bodies have attempted to satirize the types of people who thrive on the Internet by depicting their personalities as little more than a culmination of these same tired, glib stereotypes, without any regard for what drives people to these platforms.

As a child of the Internet, I have always held films that I think approach social media with an observant eye in high regard, given that they seem to be such a rarity, even after a decade since the popularization of Twitter and Instagram. To provide an alternative to the deluge of shallow, reactionary depictions of the Internet age that have dominated mainstream releases for so long, I’ve compiled a list of films that articulate a deeper understanding of the consequences of the proliferation of social media in popular culture. Across the decades of film from which I’ve pulled my selections, a handful of themes begin to crystallize: loneliness; the fleeting nature of attention in a supposedly egalitarian space; and the power of the Internet’s vast amorphousness that can be utilized for both good and ill, in equal measure. A few of these films were released prior to the development of any social media platforms whatsoever. If anything, though, I think this is an even better lens through which to dissect these issues—given that the initial promise of the Internet was to democratize information, shouldn’t we seek out narratives that illuminate deeper truths about the society that produced these platforms in the first place?

Network (1976)

dir. Sidney Lumet

After Watergate unfolded as the first true presidential scandal to break on television screens across the nation, the illusion that live, audiovisual dissemination of information could provide a semblance of objective truth was obliterated for good. While this may be an acknowledgement we as a society take for granted now, the incident firmly cemented the cynicism towards the nebulous boogeyman of “the media” we know today. Indeed, the premise of Network—which came out in 1976, the same year the film adaptation of All the President’s Men was released—might well seem tame now, or perhaps the punchline to a tired joke: a news anchor announces his intention to commit suicide on the air, and, instead of intervening, his network producers decide to dedicate his nightly show to making a spectacle out of his ensuing breakdown. 

Instead, the resulting film is arguably the greatest satirical work America has ever produced, an incendiary deconstruction of how quickly capitalist impulse drives the commodification of working-class alienation, as well as the price countless people are forced to pay at the hands of the machine that salaciously turns their suffering into cheap gruel to satiate audience boredom. With the daring to address the rapid fascist swerves such an approach encourages, as well as the heart to examine what drives the moral corruption at the root of such transparent exploitation, Network provides a key into the sadistic curiosity that pervades the social media age. Though Network has inspired several other films indebted to its observations, one need only look towards current headlines to see its cautionary tale escalate in real life: from Gabbie Hanna to Kanye West, countless money-making martyrs are being made of the mentally ill every day.

Videodrome (1983)

dir. David Cronenberg

Entering into dark corners of human creation that you can’t believe exist—and, more to the point, you don’t believe you should be seeing—is an experience that is exceedingly difficult to capture in film. Morbid obsession, however, underpins all of David Cronenberg’s most fascinating works, and Videodrome is where this neurotic drive truly crystallized for the first time in his filmography. Using an underground video store as the background for a man’s descent into ecstatic, fervent libido, Videodrome is an early testament to the power of audiovisual media to sublimate previously unknown desires into all-consuming, insatiable thirst for emotion that transcends the limits of corporeal form—a theme most profoundly exemplified by the film’s final line, “Long live the new flesh.”

They Live (1988)

dir. John Carpenter

In the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, John Carpenter directed a film about the horror of culturally ubiquitous advertising. Following the saga of a man who finds a pair of glasses that allow him to plainly see hidden messages imbedded in his nearly every frame of sight, They Live clearly illuminates the dire consequences of allowing the purposely divisive and exclusionary rhetoric of capitalist philosophy to distract from working-class organizing, even if subtly—after all, you never know who’s truly committed to the struggle until it counts. That social media has provided numerous outlets for advertising to become more discreet—and, in turn, more inescapable—only reaffirms the film’s relevance; the central premise of the film having become a meme is even further proof.

Perfect Blue (1997)

dir. Satoshi Kon

The first entry on this list to deal explicitly with the concept of Internet fandom, Perfect Blue had the foresight to observe the isolating duality of persona before certain pop stars started to weave it into their entire brands. Fan speculation on insular forums provides the spiraling momentum to this animated thriller about a former girl group diva enmeshed in her own pop cultural phenomenon, to the point where she is unable to distinguish the artificiality of her performance for the world from her internal sense of self. In hindsight, Perfect Blue is prophetic: in an age where the imitation of star quality can bring upon a virality as powerful as genuine talent, relevance in the masses is more fleeting and more unstable—and potentially even more dangerous—than ever before.

Pulse (2001)

dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa

The Y2K panic surrounding computer bugs populating the entirety of the technology that builds our world began to translate literally into the horror genre at the turn of the century. J-horror provided the bulk of ideas for this creative burst, a handful of which would be given the American remake treatment that would occasionally supersede the reputations of their originals. Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, a remake of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, is the most widely recognized example of this trend, but the original Japanese version of Pulse, helmed by Cure director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, more intimately engages with questions of why lonely, isolated young people become attached to the digital ephemera they hold dear. As aimless, miserable wallowing begins to spread through a group of friends like a virus, each one turns to their computer as a means of escape, exploring the novelty of various programs before being introduced to a series of cryptic images that pull them into an even deeper pit of engulfing despair. One of many films on this list to tackle the warping, seductive power of images that multiply and mutate upon themselves, Pulse was potentially ahead of its time in recognizing that when one tenet of interpersonal community collapses, the entire network goes with it.

All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001)

dir. Shunji Iwai

Stan Twitter users are far from the only people to have ever assigned entirely too much meaning to the works of a pop musician who happens to have a broader artistic taste than most. All About Lily Chou-Chou is a film that understands the fine line between appreciation and obsession—and, even with that knowledge, refuses to condescend to its subjects in examining their transgressions of its boundaries. As a group of pre-teens come of age by facing their fears, their bullies, and even their rapists, there is a perpetual sense of loneliness that guides the sprawling, oneiric perspective of the one constant in their life: their dedication to posting anonymously on a fan forum created to unearth the depths of the titular pop star’s supposedly transcendent albums. Anyone who has ever read a book or watched a movie to better understand their favorite artist’s influences at a young age will innately connect with these kids’ unceasing curiosity in discovering the secrets of someone’s discography as if it’s a code to be cracked, a concentrated acclaim that culminates in the assumption of supernatural phenomena caused by the object of their affections. It’s an abyss that provides its visitors a sense of instilled understanding that can never be undone.

The Bling Ring (2013)

dir. Sofia Coppola 

At the time of its release, The Bling Ring was met with critical and audience ambivalence towards its unwillingness to succumb to the full debauchery that was expected of its shameless premise ripped from the headlines. Instead, director Sofia Coppola, in what is decidedly the most under-examined film in her catalogue, constructed her characters as vacuous ciphers for the increasingly ephemeral and empty fame they’ve seen reflected back at them since the advent of tabloid culture. Using social media to propel themselves to a covert form of Internet notoriety, the titular group finds a myriad of ways to wrench away the material possessions—and, in turn, the envy they inspire—central to the modern socialite’s cult of personality and reclaim it for themselves, if only to instill their sterile Calabasas lives with a bit more energy. It’s a cunning, deceptively nuanced display of how easily the performance of celebrity can be hijacked by those just smart enough to understand how to mimic it.

Hellaware (2013)

dir. Michael M. Bilandic

Before YouTube was commodified by executives looking to capitalize on the notoriously fickle concept of attention on the Internet, it was a playground for kids and young adults to express themselves in their most unapologetic capacity. Of course, with that freedom comes the impetus to start posting cringe, which is what Hellaware is all about. An art-world satire about an embittered slacker just barely getting by who stumbles upon a video of teenagers waxing edgelord with punchlines that’d get them kicked off of 4chan, Hellaware conjures the lowest-hanging fruit of Internet punchlines about the losers and freaks of the world, and yet still manages to imbue them with a shocking amount of dimension and understanding. You’ll have a hard time finding a comedy that speaks more aptly to the question of what is to be done about white kids rapping.

Eighth Grade (2018)

dir. Bo Burnham

Perhaps the ur-text from which all cinematic depictions of social media would subsequently derive, Eighth Grade quickly made a splash upon its titular target audience thanks to the arresting, painfully accurate detail it forged in its portrayal of crushing teenage ennui. A heartfelt coming-of-age movie forged in lonely nights of YouTube binges, Tumblr rabbit holes, and endless Instagram scrolls, very few works of art have so intimately understood the ability the Internet has to make teenagers see the world as suffocatingly small and overwhelmingly big. Yet, for all its moments of all-too-familiar cringe, it’s a film that sees hope in periods of terrifying transition, knowing that the curiosity to embark on new experiences is one step in the journey to gaining the maturity to feel less anxious about them. Comedian Bo Burnham, who directed this film primarily as a passion project, seems to have moved on to more directly inward-facing reflections on a very online life, but even if he were to continue down the path of obnoxious musical comedy for the remainder of his career, it wouldn’t matter—once he started taking his work seriously, he unintentionally created a generation-defining film, one from which other entries in this list are already borrowing.

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018)

dir. Jung Bum-shik 

On the very last day of 2017, Logan Paul uploaded a YouTube video to his channel that depicted a dead body found in Aokigahara, also known as the “suicide forest” due to the location’s popularity as a site for people to take their own lives. Aokigahara is never shown in Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum, but it is referenced, an offhanded name-check from one member of a collective of YouTubers bragging about her fearlessness in the face of haunted locales. As the group embarks on a challenge to search through a mental institution famous for its supernatural phenomena, they quickly begin to realize that the grotesque history of the building’s patients are far beyond comprehension from their exploitative perspective, as the wrath of the victims begins to annihilate the cameras that eroded their ability to understand that in the first place. It’s only fitting that the film’s most terrifying scene be an inversion of ASMR. As a horror movie, Gonjiam is not the most high-minded, but as a demonstration of the degree to which a mentality of doing anything for fleeting clicks can thoroughly divorce one from reality, I’ve yet to see a more pertinent evisceration. 

Cam (2018)

dir. Daniel Goldhaber

Even more rare than the film that understands social media is the film that understands sex work—luckily, Cam has a vested knowledge of both. Elaborating on the foundation laid by Perfect Blue surrounding the duplicity of persona, Cam follows a popular cam girl (Madeline Brewer), whose rise to becoming the most famous face on her website is hijacked by the presence of a doppelgänger, whose sinister flirtations with death quickly usurp her lookalike’s rise to the top. Its aesthetic replications of camming sets and the repertoire between online sex workers and their customers is uncanny, a stylistic flair that is lent stark eerieness through the transmission of unsettling forces through a supposedly impenetrable relationship. Crucially, Cam understands what both social media and sex work have in common: the creation and maintenance of distance from the consumer, a somewhat artificial bond that allows for an impression to be cultivated rather than an intimate knowledge. The film’s lack of a finite ending has been criticized by its dissenters, but the reality it depicts is grim in its honesty: ultimately, navigating an online career means adapting to whatever is marketable, regardless of sustainability.

Feels Good Man (2020)

dir. Arthur Jones

A documentary outlining the rise and fall of one of the most damaging and repugnant memes to emerge of the 2010s, Feels Good Man archives the story of Pepe the Frog for all to see, from his emergence in a mid-2000s comic series to his perversion into a smug, often racist shorthand exchanged in the detritus of 4chan, to a culturally ubiquitous image that represented the rise of a swiftly-growing fascist uprising in America. Where Feels Good Man most clearly succeeds is its willingness to fully embrace the bizarre elements inherent to its premise, at one point even bringing in an expert on chaos magic to provide an explanation as to how a group of embittered shut-ins managed to “meme a man into the White House.” On a philosophical level, the film can’t really answer all of the questions it poses about artistic ownership, but as a time capsule at the intersection of the darkest and dumbest times the Internet has ever seen, it’s an unforgettable ride.

The Hater (2020)

dir. Jan Komasa

Speaking of fascism, The Hater surrounds itself with the consequences of fractured connections, of isolating members of a given community and embroiling them in a trap of fatalistic obsession with an invisible enemy. Focusing its approach on indicting a public relations company for the guileless, abhorrent tactics it uses to manipulate and disenfranchise the masses, The Hater grounds its mirage of incendiary posts and white supremacist riots through the eyes of entrepreneurial grad student Tomasz (Maciej Musiałowski). It’s an enthralling depiction of how easy it is to detach from one’s own identity through the algorithmic tunnels that are impossible to navigate once lost in their clutches. More than that, though, it’s an unsettling reminder that, so long as the Internet can be bought and sold, it can be used to capitalize off of the nascent remainders of bigotry—those that never really die so long as they’re permitted at all.

Homeroom (2021)

dir. Peter Nicks

Gen Z has consistently been lauded for their ability to channel their wit and compassion into genuinely energized activism, but what’s excluded from even that flattering narrative is the reality that, at the end of the day, kids should still be allowed to experience a normal coming-of-age. Homeroom, a documentary following the student body of an Oakland high school as they protest the addition of police officers to their staff, contends with this contradiction frankly, showing the sharp juxtapositions between casual jargon and high-minded theory that these students have absorbed from the Internet. It’s clear that their timelines are filled with both levity and laborious displays of protest across the globe. As a portrait of teenagers struggling to come to terms with the gap between their vocabularies and their experiences, it’s a more affecting watch than its straightforwardly inspirational marketing would suggest.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021)

dir. Jane Schoenbrun

The culmination of so many themes running throughout this list, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is not only a strikingly dense portrayal of seeking solace in isolation, but it’s a film that announces a brilliant new talent in director Jane Schoenbrun, whose tenderly affectionate homage to the cryptic allure of creepypasta and Internet myths has rightly been acclaimed by critics in the know as one of the best films of the decade thus far. Surrounding a depressed, likely queer teenage protagonist (Anna Cobb) whose home in the Midwestern middle-of-nowhere provides no comfort, the film constantly questions whether the titular challenge in which she participates is actually having tangible effects on her, or whether she’s just convincing herself of strange phenomena to distract from the increasing bleakness of her day-to-day. Using unknowable, uncanny collages of unrelated images to craft an accurately absurd portrait of how genuine misfits attempt to cope with the emptiness of life through satiating their most foolhardy fascinations, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair ingeniously utilizes dread to direct its audience towards the gentle, welcoming hand at its core.

The African Desperate (2022)

dir. Martine Syms

The film industry is more than overdue in accepting social media as a mundane, incremental force in shaping how people view each other in contemporary life. If there is a film that  reflects the nonchalance with which social media has dissipated into the everyday, it’s The African Desperate, which flips the art school satire on its head by allowing its languishing ennui to coalesce through an aesthetic of vibrant color, hyperreal editing, and even the occasional flash of an impact font meme from c. 2013. Director Martine Syms has consistently been fascinated with the power of film to breathe life into the limitless ways in which the Internet has contorted our perception of language and time; her 2020 short film She Mad: Bitch Zone depicted a gleefully absurdist reality in which the terminology of social justice has been completed derived of its power by corporate models. The lexicon of The African Desperate, Syms’s debut feature, is coaxed through both theoretical exploration and deadpan sarcasm, forming a language both literal and visual that’s mesmerizing in how it conveys the collage of reference points integral to niche communities and popular culture at large. Perhaps the most discursively urgent aspect of the film is its determination in proving that the arbitrary barrier between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” has always been ripe for disruption.

Social Media, On Screen references Jane Schoenbrun, another Syllabus contributor.