Social Media on Film: A Loveless Relationship

HOW much time will you spend on social media today? How many times will you refresh Twitter, flick through Facebook or deep dive on Instagram?

I ask because we sometimes forget the tight vice grip that social media has on our lives. A relatively one-sided relationship, at least for most of us, that distracts the mind with such regularity we often forget it is happening. As addictive as sugar or smoking, each social media refresh or notification brings a fresh hit of dopamine to fuel the social media junkie, troll or influencer.

This, we must remember, is a relationship between a person and a time-absorbing app that has developed in a relatively short period. A quick stitch into the human mind that we are still calculating the long-term consequences of – good or bad?

In the meantime, we can observe the immediate visible trade-offs of these new technologies, like connectivity for privacy and instant gratification for diminishing attention spans.

Social media may have sunk its roots deep in the mind of the populous, but only a few filmmakers have so far addressed its influence with any conviction or intrigue.

Despite its social media friendly title, teen-drama #RealityHigh was all selfie flash and no punch. Fernando Lebrija’s flick offers little beyond surface-level aesthetics and camera style, perhaps itself a comment on a vapid, image-obsessed Instagram culture. Funnily enough, the film’s poster (see below) offers more of interest than the actual film.

reality high

If anything can be gleamed from #RealityHigh’s shiny surfaces it is simply that teens take a lot of selfies and that social hierarchies of the young can now be measured in online followers and likes.

But what little is said is nothing in comparison to one cutting scene between Riggan (Michael Keaton) and Sam (Emma Stone) in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2014 film Birdman.

Sam directs a blistering monologue at her insecure father who has yet to understand the changing face of relevance in the social media age. This includes the cutting words: ‘Who the fuck are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page. You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter.’

Just like #RealityHigh, fellow Netflix original The Circle also misses the button. The film cautions a future in which a big tech company is pushing for the complete deterioration of privacy with no square-inch of the planet unseen by a camera. Mae (Emma Watson) becomes a guinea-pig for this new tech, live-streaming her every move to an interactive audience. It all comes tumbling down when the social experiment begins to tear away at her life and those around her.

Given that most of us carry cameras in our pockets and are willing to mindlessly surrender personal rights at the click of a terms and conditions button, this surveillance-friendly future envisioned in The Circle may already be upon us. Yet the film still circles around these themes in its woeful execution, wasting fascinating talking points in overdone dramatic moments.

The technophobia on display in The Circle is typical of many filmmakers’ suspicions of our social media age. Low-budget horrors such as UnFriended and Friend Request have sought to tap into the Catfish age of paranoia, exploitation and internet anonymity. The idea that the internet, now a gateway to most of our social interactions and often our deepest secrets, can be turned against us to make one’s life tortuous.

Skype horror in UnFriended

Kristen Stewart’s character is a victim of this in Oliver Assayas’ Personal Shopper as a series of anonymous messages claiming to be from her deceased brother send her into a nervy state of doubt and insecurity. Like many of us, Stewart struggles to simply turn off the phone and disconnect: the lure of the phone – and of knowing – is too strong. The upper hand is thus firmly in the grip of the aggressor or tormentor – after all the internet is a fine hiding place.

Personal Shopper is a film sprung from the same roots as Satoshi Kon’s visionary 1998 tale of internet-obsession – Perfect Blue. A film that anticipated the new dangers of the internet and social media in the infancy of the technology. More specifically its ability to warp reality and dangerously distort personal identity.

Julia Ducournau’s Raw, too, touched upon the social weaponization of social media and its damaging repercussions. She depicts a scene in which camera phone footage of a character goes viral and causes great personal embarrassment.

During a Q&A discussion back in April 2017, Ducournau gave an insight in why she felt so passionate about including this story tread. She revealed: ‘Nowadays when we want to humiliate someone we do it by filming it and by putting it on the internet to go viral. Potentially the whole planet can laugh at you and it can last for months. This is called psychological harassment. We are no longer talking about pointing and laughing. This is a big crime to me.’

Notice also, as Ducournau pointed out, that women are often the victims of this culture. This has been reflected on the big-screen as every film I have mentioned (apart from Birdman) features a female lead character.

You can add young Eve (Fantine Harduin) from Michael Haneke’s Happy End to that list. She bookends the film by filming disturbing moments on her iPhone, a corruption of youth through smartphone that is just the latest psychopathic mutation in a severely damaged family.

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless likewise shows social media as another wedge in the family setting.

In a scene of quiet pervasion, we observe disconnected mother Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) swiping through an app on her phone while her neglected son sits alone in his room. She is completely absorbed and with each mindlessly scrolling reveals her internalised, cold nature. One that eventually drives her son to run away.

Zhenya pays attention to her phone in Loveless

Over the last year, filmmakers (particularly European) have offered moments of meditation on the impact of social media and the internet have on the individual. Yet we are still awaiting a film that dissects this new landscape in a deeper, more transcendent manner.

For the time being, film must bow to its smaller-screened sister. Television’s Black Mirror, among others, is doing a far better job.


  1. Great article. I must say having seen Personal Shopper recently at no stage did I think the texts were from her brother. It’s a distraction trick by the writer placing the “stalker” plot next to the ghost plot and the two failed to merge in my view. I would have preferred the ghostly element of the story to play out emotionally as the other story did not successfully merge for me. I guess it’s open to interpretation but it felt like the filmmaker was telling two stories which did not hold together successfully.

      1. Sounds good. Of course, it’s a great character study open to interpretation. Maureen’s whole character is open to question as to whether much of what is occurring is real or paranoia. It doesn’t help that Assayas muddies the narrative by leaving all exposition and a couple of important scenes cut out; especially where the “murder” is concerned. Still, it’s certainly a fascinating cerebral work of cinema.

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