You’ve Got Mail is one of the best films about social media. Apparently. Going further down this list, at number eight, it’s Tron, and holding up the middle is The Matrix. As you’ve already gathered, there are a few flaws here. This is no critique of the author. They’ve got the ugly task of creating a countdown that even Buzzfeed would balk at. The problem is there are not enough films to choose from, despite the central role social media takes in all of our lives. With the release of Unfriended this week, it’s time to look at the relationship status between film and social media.
Inspirational videos and posters will often bemoan how social media has “taken over” our lives. There is some evidence to support the hypothesis that it’s an all-consuming phenomenon. The numbers speak volumes. On Facebook, there are 936 million active users; that’s the population of Europe, with at least 200 million people left. The pulse of social media is forever quickening. Every second, there are 9,073 tweets sent, 2,025 photos uploaded onto Instagram, and 1,898 Tumblr posts published. As for Facebook, not even they have been able to gauge – publicly at least – their users’ incredible activity levels.
Yes, we all know “social media” is not a phase. It’s the way we all live our lives – no matter the number of stirring monologues we may watch. More importantly for the industry, it’s the way we talk about their pride and joy. 72% of social networking users discuss their opinion on movies on these platforms, a higher percentage than politics (34%), sports (56%), and the products they use (37%). Twitter claimed that 3 in 5 users (61%) were influenced by the platform when deciding to see a film. The film industry has noticed. The production studios can no longer stand upon the parapet, and dictate from above. They need to get down in the mud, and engage one-to-one with the masses. For a film to survive, it needs to thrive on social media.
Just look at Fast & Furious 7. No doubt an enticing prospect from its trailers, having 60 million social fans on the film’s official social pages helped. And what of the stars? Vin Diesel has the fourth most popular page on Facebook with a staggering 91 million likes to his name. On top of this, you’ve got Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (67m fans), Jason Statham (49m), Ludacris (32m), Tyrese Gibson (28m), and Michelle Rodriguez (14m) – even the late Paul Walker’s channels remain active, contributing a further 45 million fans. Although some fans will be present on several pages, the potential social media audience of the cast is touching on 350 million users. That could go some way to explaining how Fast & Furious 7 grossed $1 billion in just 17 days.
Such heady numbers raise intriguing social questions. How can one person be liked on such a grand scale? For example, a group of people larger than the population of Germany like Vin Diesel’s Facebook page. In particular, it’s the behaviour of the fans that fascinate with streams plagued with desperate pleas for attention – in the form of a follow, a favourite, a comment just to say a celebrity noticed their existence. This desire for attention has caught moviemakers’ imagination. It’s become the new narrative vogue, as writers and directors dive into their own fascination with the control and impact social media has in all our lives. More often than not, they taken the path of pointing out how damn evil the whole thing is.
The reason why the likes of You’ve Got Mail storms to the top of the list is down to the likes of Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children. The director’s latest is a drab affair, and its treatment of the Digital Age is extraordinarily heavy-handed. By the film’s one-sided logic, Facebook equals familial detachment, which leads to the misery for all and inevitable human disconnection. This is not the only film to show this; David Schwimmer’s Trust and Cry_Wolf have, poorly, highlighted the dark power of social media. Social media does have the potential to have terrible life-changing consequences for individuals, but it should be treated as something more than the novelty bogeyman of our time.
It’s time the platforms that can inspire great acts of global connectivity should be championed, and treated as more than a phase. Birdman, this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, utilises Twitter as nothing more than a narrative aid; a simple, non-obtrusive 21st-century support. Perfect. Chef, meanwhile, may not have been a great film, but it began to highlight the positivity of the tools. Jon Favreau plays Carl Casper, a failing LA chef who eventually sets up a food truck, and has his life destroyed – and eventually salvaged – by social media. Noah Gittell, from The Atlantic, aptly summarises: “Chef turns this broad social function into a personal one, offering us a positive spin on a phenomenon we – and Hollywood – are just starting to understand.”
Nowadays, audiences are accustomed to seeing on-screen text messages and tweets integrated into plotlines — a shortcut that can define a character. It’s now time that Hollywood tries to treat social media as its friend rather than a distant, novel relative. The Social Network and Birdman are just the beginning. Unfriended’s social media campaign caused a tremendous stir ahead of its release but whether the film will return the favour is yet to be seen. At present, it’s complicated.