The first episode of this new season of Netflix’s Black Mirror is an extended cautionary tale about excessive reliance on the social media affirmations now embedded into our daily lives. And while sure, Twitter is a terrible place, the episode has a major blindspot to the many benefits offered by social media, especially to creative and self-expressive individuals.
The show is very good at giving the nihilists and finger-waggers a collective sense of self-righteousness (which will promptly wilt the second they get a new Tinder notification). And sure, while much of social media encourages its users to present the version of themselves they’d like to see rather than an accurate reflection, there are plenty of people who use it for the complete opposite reason.
“Nosedive” follows Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard), a conscientious member of a society in which every member is ranked from a 1 to 5 based on their social media performance. This number determines more than their personal feeling of self-worth; it extends to how they’re regarded in the world at large, meaning that a higher number means better food, better apartments, better airline rates and more respect from the people around you. Through the course of an hour, we see Lacie’s descent from a low four (not bad, but not good enough for her) to prison as she desperately attempts to get to the wedding of her former best friend, who is now a high four, and rack up the approval of high-ranked users so that she can move into an apartment for 4.5s and above. Of course, she fails, losing her number and sense of self in the process, dystopia, et cetera.
The episode, with a story by creator Charlie Brooker and written by Rashida Jones and Michael Schur, by and large suggests that there is absolutely no value or weight to Lacie’s interactions on social media. For many people in the real world, however, social media has been a lifeline and outlet for self-expression. Inverse spoke with several users who have derived great value from their online interactions.
“I talk about my depression on twitter sometimes and get a lot of DMs from people who feel the same,” says Twitter user and writer Emma Stefansky.
“I tweeted about panic attacks,” user @dkp00p (I know) followed up, “and got lovely replies from people I knew IRL that really helped, and also made U.S. friends.”
Earlier this year, the #WhatYouDontSee hashtag blew up on Twitter, opening a major dialogue about depression on a national scale. After Trump’s “grab her by the pussy” tirade hit the mainstream several weeks ago, thousands of women took to Twitter to tweet about everyday sexual harassment under the #notokay tag, providing a sense of solidarity among assault victims and perspective for those not as at risk for it. Social media has also been critical in galvanizing grassroots movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and protests for the defunding of Planned Parenthood in the past five years.
Granted, the same tools have been used for far more sinister purposes, whether it be the often-discussed cyberbullying (which this Black Mirror season touches upon) or providing users an open space to express hate for other genders, races and religions. But “Nosedive” doesn’t really address this side of the aisle, either. Instead, Brooker’s story hinges on the assumption that these platforms aren’t being used as channels for vulnerable feelings and thoughts, damaging or not, and that one’s desire to be loved can be their own downfall. Interestingly enough, he’s already tackled the same issue from a more thoughtful vantage point in past seasons of Black Mirror.
“I lived a lot of my coming to terms with passing of my dad through social,” Twitter user @goodmanw explained, citing the complicated, bizarre process of mourning online that Black Mirror addressed in a far superior episode, season two’s “Be Right Back.” In it, a young woman mourns her deceased boyfriend by bringing him back to life through an android that recreates his personality by pulling from his social media posts, prompting alternating feelings of comfort and conflict that can come with seeking solace online in a time of mourning. In “Nosedive,” this nuance is absent, choosing style over substance at nearly every turn. (Also, can we all agree that Lacie’s wedding meltdown absolutely would have gone viral?)
By telling cautionary tales on such a grand scale Brooker risks flattening a complicated beast like the role social media plays in modern life, for better or worse. While there are certainly plenty of amplified downsides of the medium portrayed in “Nosedive” — a slow sink into social obscurity, projecting a false self, a pressure to conform — there’s not one element of sincerity of worthwhileness shown in the one-hour production. Sure, Lacie draws all her self-worth and joy from the Instagram-style app that runs her life, but there is not one mention of the massive community there is online for all things felt with sometimes embarrassing sincerity.
Instead, “Nosedive” is about the immediacy of pleasure that comes from the internet, ignoring all else. Its point about the sheer burst of energy that accompanies a post that receives a flurry of “likes” is dead-on, but the assumption that any given post is vapid and without substance is a gross underestimation of how social media can be used. Without addressing the complicated push-and-pull nature of being a person on the internet, the whole episode reads more as a man shaking his fist at the kids to get off his lawn, wondering why the young people keep Insta-bobbing pictures of their got-damn breakfast.
At the end of the day, it’s just one guy named Charlton’s opinion. While it’s certainly compelling to watch Lacie’s life unfold over the course of a few days because of her reliance on the social media that dictates her every move, it’s not a full enough picture of the medium it’s criticizing to stick with a viewer the way that pieces like “Be Right Back” does. Like anything, social media is potentially insidious or life-changing depending on how it’s used and applied, and Brooker’s choice to only present the negative instead of a compelling conflict makes for a decent thriller, but subpar storytelling.