Black Mirror Nosedives Into Social Media Anxiety

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I’ve quit Facebook. In a different reality that wouldn’t be worthy of an opening sentence in any article, but since leaving not a day has passed without someone messaging me to ask what crack in the earth had opened up to swallow me whole, and when would I be climbing out of it to comeback. I won’t. I don’t have the energy to keep engaging in that forum, or any other like it. Facebook and social networks like it withdraw too much time and psychic energy from its users, taking what was seen by many to be a diversion and making it into a lifelong occupation that requires constant monitoring. With a discerning eye it’s clear that it’s almost never enjoyable; it feeds envy and antagonism towards strangers and estranged friends. Black Mirror’s first installment of its new season perfectly captures the infectious spread of this social disease nightmare, but not without providing us hope for a cure.

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In “Nosedive” Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas Howard) lives in a near-future USA where the whole of social media has merged into a single platform that manifests in real life, turning every social interaction into a trade of up and down votes depending on their satisfaction with the other person. It defines everyone’s social standing and self-worth, making faux pas of any kind a potential drag on their rating, costing them friends, romantic relationships, and even desired apartments. This is good news for social media managers that boost their clients’ ranking with proven social engineering methods. Even Lacie gets a helping hand from this industry, though she’s always been content to be gracious to those who don’t deserve it, force smiles and small talk with cashiers, and spend absurd amounts of time learning all the public details of acquaintances’ lives so she can stand out in their memory. All for a good rating.

With a decent 4.2 rating, Lacie plans on moving into an exclusive gated community but needs a 4.5 to afford it. Thankfully her childhood friend Naomi, a solid 4.8 and climbing, is getting married, giving Lacie an audience of high-fours she can impress with her bridesmaid speech and reach her desired ranking.

The moment Lacie steps off her small pastel-drenched community and into the greater world of 3’s and lower, her rating plummets and she’s violently ripped away from the social network that has defined her life, giving her an opportunity to see the world, and people, without filters for the first time.

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“Nosedive” is a Black Mirror episode I’d label as required viewing for anyone looking to make sense of unattainable expectations in the modern western world. The obsession with status checking on social media is immediately recognizable; checking smartphones while exercising, cooking, orĀ  working truly captures how this online thing has become tangible through its users. It’s a future we’re living already, have a look at those around if you need to double check.

In my own estimation, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Vine, all serve the same purpose as the social network that has arrested Lacie’s attention, which is to promote well-manicured profiles that draw envy or admiration from an audience that cannot help but latch on in hopes of being part of an influential sphere of prominent users or become one. Social media has become instrumental in making sense of our society and how people respond to it, and a prime factor behind the collective anxiety and dissatisfaction among its users experience. Particularly in the case of young people, though no one is exempt from its effects.

In the case of “Nosedive” Instagram is the closest approximation for its social network, which is arguably becoming the egregious offender of the aforementioned list of crimes against the human psyche. Instagram operates with idolization in mind. While celebrities of the common type can be found interacting with fans on this platform, there’s a new breed of Idoru has organically manifested there, engendering hate and love in equal measures.

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Whether it’s video of trips to exotic locations, snapshots of foie gras for dinner on a yacht just beyond the reach of Marseilles, or sexy bodies pretzeled into yoga poses, Instagram’s success relies upon the presentation of profiles that suggest that the person featured is living a life of absurd luxury and privilege that the follower would kill to have. Even if it meant killing themselves it might be worth it. Though many will settle for following with the expectation that their Idoru of choice will rhetorically reward their adoration with “love”. Or at the very least a glimpse into their impressive lives. Lacie’s no exception.

In “Nosedive” it’s Lacie’s brother Ryan who first points out the smokescreen thrown up by everyone on the platform; Naomi’s behavior online and how she treats Lacie now are not consistent with their relationship when they were younger. But on social media, the disingenuous get a pass so long as the facade presented is pleasing enough.

On Instagram, there have been no shortage of profiles stealing images and videos from other successful profiles in an attempt to make themselves worthy of following. This is different but no less dishonest than people manicuring photos and exaggerating (lying) about their adventures in life to expand their reach and grow their audience. But even when people are called out for their dishonesty they’re typically forgiven because everyone does it. How can anyone exercise a little shame when everyone is determined to be shameless?

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Let us assume for a moment that every social media post is written with complete and total honesty. Does anyone actually care that you bit that cookie just the right way? How creative the art in your latte is? That you just went for a jog? The short answer is no. The bulk of social media communication is vapid and of little to no consequence to your personal life, which makes the seriousness attributed to it absurd. Lacie figures that out eventually but not before agonizing over the idea that strangers might see her fail to live up to the inflated expectations she set for herself by promoting false images of herself and her life and forcing interest in every person she comes across.

For so many people the status they’re awarded by providing something to gawk at does more than promote something to envy. It’s something that affects both dedicated followers and their Idoru. Anxiety.

Lacie, like so many people on social media, was on a mad dash to some promised end, an accumulation of things, perhaps experiences and people, that would signal reaching a game-ending stage that rewarded all that effort spent on social media. When Lacie tries to explain that absurd meaning of life to a one-pointer truck driver that chose to live in an analog world, it really puts things in perspective; the contrast between an actual life lived and an existence tailored puts the pointlessness of social media dedication on full display.

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It’s appropriate that Lacie’s downward spiral ends in a facsimile of “Facebook jail,” where she’s no longer penalized for bad behavior but disconnected from the social network entirely and isolated in an analog cell, adjacent to another offender who’s itching to test out his new freedom. The trolling that ensues from these two former users is like expelling bile. Not just because they’re finally able to vomit meanness at one another without fear of penalty, but that they’re able to communicate without restriction now that the illusion of a point system determining their social and self-worth has been dismantled. No longer is Lacie competing with the image Naomi wanted her to idolize; the dreams of a gated community with a fitness model boyfriend and a loyal following were exposed for the fantastic lies that they were. By choosing to be honest and interact on a human level Lacie willingly made herself a pariah that’s no longer held by the standards of “good behavior.”

While social media may not be the greatest poison to weaken the fabric of society, and it may connect individuals who otherwise would’ve never met, there is still plenty wrong with it and how we allow it to affect us. Everything in “Nosedive” touches on the uptick in social anxiety in response to the ubiquity of social media. It’s a growing problem for users who look to social media as a primary means of communicating with peers and finding new social cliques, forcing them to habituate disingenuous behavior in hopes of receiving affection, interaction, or even hate. Any reaction, really, can encourage people to dedicate the time and emotion required to build a profile worth following, and as a result, influence the individual on a fundamental level.

If you find yourself in that state, concerned over the life you’ve built through pictures, vines, tweets, comments, and all other forms of insincere communication because of how another user(s) may react, take a step back, look at your screen, tell the platform of your choosing to fuck off, then log out. You’ll be better for it.

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