Social media has taken control of the world. Almost all of us have a smartphone and we’re wired into either Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat etc… or all of them. The open communication of the internet has made us desperate for ultimate, constant connectivity. It’s an idea that across this decade, as social media has fully taken hold over Western society, the movies have begun exploring.
Inevitably, and perhaps appropriately, cinema has largely taken social media to be a new and dangerous playground. Much as the technology is used by people of all ages (yes, even some of the elderly), apps, games and innovations remain primarily the province of the young and impressionable. Social media is attractive, not just for the fact you can build a virtual profile that presents a picture of who you would like the world to *believe* you are, but it provides a gateway to thrills and social taboos. Hence why adults are consistently reminded, and parents are scaremongered, into believing social media is a corrupting evil that will warp and destroy the minds of our children.
Filmmakers on the whole don’t quite see it that way. Many seem to consider social media to be one enormous, conceptual cautionary tale, sometimes fused a with futuristic morality play. An entire sub-genre now exists of pictures often starring, and certainly aimed at, the young, but to classify them specifically as horror films—as some have—does them a slight disservice. Those directors and writers who are interested in the pervasive effect social media has on our lives seem more keen to portray the internet, and all its myriad labyrinthian contexts, as something that will only destroy us if we misuse it or refuse to pay it enough respect.
Nerve, which came out in 2016 to little fanfare, is a fascinating example of how social media is portrayed in cinema. Originally a darker book by Jeanne Ryan, Nerve has a deceptively simple concept: a game, which exists across ghost web pages called ‘nerve’, sees ‘watchers’ who pay real money to see ‘players’ take on dares to win cash, all controlled by the voyeuristic whims of the thousands of underground viewers. Much like Fight Club, the first rule of Nerve is that you don’t talk about it, lest you become a ‘snitch’ and the watchers turn on you with significant real-world consequences; cleaned out bank accounts, leaked photos, smear campaigns etc… in other words, social and societal shame.
The book was adapted by Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman, a filmmaking duo who are perhaps among the most significantly interested in the social and moral effects of media on the young. They gave us Catfish, which later spawned an MTV series, and seeped a little into popular culture as the buzzword for a dupe or con job to some extent. Catfish was a unique little picture; sort of a cod-documentary, with the directors playing versions of themselves, which explored a Facebook mystery concerning an online romantic connection which in the end takes an unexpected turn.
Now if you want to enjoy Catfish on its own terms, skip this bit, but ultimately Joost & Schulman don’t present a snake in the mailbox at the end of that movie as the trailers suggested they might, and their slight of hand filming veers towards. Their direction itself is almost a ‘catfish’ on the audience themselves—the watchers—because the conclusion is oddly bittersweet and, if not exactly happy, then presents an intriguing moral message: don’t judge a book by its cover. An old message but one, given how people use Facebook to present an idealised version of their lives, which since 2010 has lost none of its relevance, indeed could well be gaining in stature.
Joost & Schulman therefore understand the relationship between viewer and player when it comes to social media, which is what Nerve is all about. They understand that social media inherently is a modern voyeuristic medium; if you meet a boy or girl on a night out for example, once you get their name you can instantly spy on their Facebook pages, look at their photos, learn what they like or don’t like, and build up a picture almost immediately based on what they present of who they are. Or, certainly, who they want you to *think* they are. Social media can at once be a short cut to connection or a raft of fake news.
Nerve as a thriller is much less interesting in terms of plot and characterisation than the concepts and ideas underpinning it. Not a great film but potentially a prescient one; Joost & Schulman make the point that when they were making the picture, Periscope was just launching via Twitter which allows people to ‘stream live’ via their account as, in the corner, an eye presents the amount of viewers you have. Facebook Live is essentially the same thing and in Nerve, within the game of dares, this is how the watchers are presented: the more you have, the higher up the rankings you go and the more popular you are.
Popularity is key to the psychology of social media. Charlie Brooker’s TV show Black Mirror presented this quite brilliantly in third season episode ‘Nosedive’, a dark fairytale in which Bryce Dallas Howard’s middle class woman is stripped of her entire life thanks to an escalating set of faux pas in a world where every action is liked, disliked, up-voted or down-voted by the masses. In Nerve, popularity and youthful peer pressure are what drag Vee (Emma Roberts), an intelligent young woman with a promising future, into the game; attempting to prove she’s not the thing teenagers dread the most: being seen as boring.
Other pictures within similar genres present popularity in different forms. Unfriended and Friend Request, both of which share a lot of common DNA and are much more directly horror films, throw their characters into deadly, murderous situations based on their own sins being visited upon them by high school figures they tormented. Unfriended is the better of the two because it frames the entire film through Skype and other web pages, making us even more the watcher than the audience normally is, but in both examples privileged kids are punished for, often unknowingly, inflicting misery on someone who suffered and via supernatural means is taking their revenge.
Though sometimes these approaches stretch credulity, they’re always framed around social media. Unfriended, as stated above, heavily uses connected Skype conversations to frame the characters lives and crucially the requisite jump scares; no longer are kids being stalked in haunted houses or lost in creepy woods, now they’re being haunted through web pages, iOS apps and social media accounts. The internet and its terrifying ‘Dark Web’ has become the new province of spectral terror, an almost mythical and primal setting which can allow all kinds of practical and supernatural horror to come seeping through. In Friend Request, as the title states, its the rejection of connection through Facebook which leads to a darker horror.
What is it about the need, the craving, to be popular through social media? Filmmakers seem at pains to suggest this new playground has just replaced the school yard, with its cheerleaders and jocks swaggering around, with geeks, nerds and EMO’s in the corner. Last year, though much more of a major action-adventure blockbuster, the adaptation of Ernest Cline’s prescient, pulp novel Ready Player One from Steven Spielberg portrayed a dystopian world where the young actually go to school ‘virtually’, through a networked online system called the OASIS. In that world, young people can create ‘avatars’ based on their real-world selves and present themselves even more overtly as who they want to be.
This happens now in the real world. Snapchat and Instagram filters can make a horrible picture either glamorous or funny, taking away the harsh reality. Facebook profiles can show an endless stream of holiday photos, fun times, successes and relationship loves, editing out the heartbreak or failures or that day on holiday where you got food poisoning and spent all day on the toilet! Cinema is reflecting these honest affectations but the mirror isn’t showing a world out of control. Everything on social media we *can* control, and that’s precisely the point. Where filmmakers create their fiction is by taking it one step further and removing that sense of control from the players.
The suggestion is that the players have got themselves in too deep when they could have made a wiser choice. In Unfriended, they can’t turn off the social media apps when they try to because some visiting supernatural force wants them to face their sins, similarly in Friend Request. In The Den, a forerunner to Unfriended which uses Chatroulette as the social media device through which to frame terror, a sociological study the main character could have stopped undertaking when things became too disturbing proves to be her undoing. Social media is equally presented as a rabbit hole these players send themselves tumbling down in film, often with deadly or dangerous consequences.
Nerve feels a little different because the control always is in the hands of the watchers. There is no supernatural force pulling the strings, there are only anonymous voyeurs who feed money into a system which then feeds it back out again to the players, but they are controlling this underground, micro-capitalist system built on risk, adrenaline, facing fear, pranks and breaking social taboos. Joost & Schulman, wanting this to play as something of a morality tale and commentary for the youth market using the kind of apps Nerve could pop up in, cut a ‘dark sex scene’ to prevent the film being too weird for a 12a rating, proving conceptually a game like Nerve could go in any direction.
Even more interestingly, Nerve presents the watchers as not just modern voyeurs, but a combination of the modern Roman mob and classical secret society. At the end, much like in the Colosseum of ancient Rome the mob would have raised a thumb or lowered one whether a gladiator might live or die at the whim of an Emperor, here they use their smartphones to vote whether one character should shoot dead another. Life and death hangs in the balance of an anonymous mob who just want to watch and observe other people tap into the kind of darker human excesses or rushes modern society won’t allow, often by the rule of law.
Equally, in one scene, Vee enters an arena filled with watchers after giving a passcode to a watcher on the door, just in the manner one might gain entry to an occult ritualistic society of the kind we may have seen in films such as Polanski’s The Ninth Gate or Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. The masses, the unnamed populous, become the ultimate rulers of the game, a secret collective of people who through the power of social media and open capitalism can manipulate and control the lives of people who may get sucked into the mechanism. Only the threat of exposure causes them all to dissipate and, in the end, none of them face any consequences for their actions, even though a message literally tells them they are ‘accessories to murder’ (they’re not, but that’s a failing of the happy ending).
Social media therefore has power in cinema and one suspects filmmakers are going to continue tapping the well as technologies develop and, quite possibly, some of these conceptual ideas start straying into reality. The supernatural horror approaches to social media are dark fantasies and are likely to remain so, but the continuing, pervasive expansion of the Dark Web into our lives as a new, scary, unknown playground in which situations such as those portrayed in Nerve could come to life, are likely to be reflected in cinema for many years to come.
The question is, will anyone learn from these cautionary tales? That social media is a choice, and how we use it defines how it uses us.