During the opening credits of John Ignatius Green’s 2018 documentary Social Animals, a delicious, ironic mood is set by a montage of the most popular and over-used categories of Instagram posts. We see the classic Plane Wing Photo, the Girl’s Legs in the Bathtub Photo, the Girlfriend Pulling Her Boyfriend Along on Vacation Photo, all nearly identically staged regardless of who is posting them. Not only are these repeated images dizzying, but the montage is set to a song about marching to the beat of one’s drum, naturally. This juxtaposition is funny on its face, but points to the gradual homogenization of how people express themselves online–not by being unique or original, but by how well they conform to established visual templates.
The most disturbing film I saw in 2018 was the social media documentary The American Meme, which I previously wrote about for BUST Magazine. Its bubbly facade and interviews with tabloid-friendly celebrities like Paris Hilton and DJ Khaled masked an examination of the deeply profound sadness that is part and parcel of “influencer” culture, where insta-famous users seek out love and adoration by increasingly turning themselves into consumable products, only to be left wondering why they still aren’t happy.
Social Animals, is a decidedly less frou-frou affair, though no less potent in its exploration of the role social media (in this case, Instagram, which was also a large focus in The American Meme) plays in people’s lives. Where The American Meme told the stories of wannabe A-listers who do social media for a living, Social Animals focuses exclusively on how American teenagers use Instagram, almost serving as a fact-based mirror of Bo Burnham’s gentle, wickedly honest Eighth Grade (also from 2018).
Because young teenagers naturally spark more protective feelings than Paris Hilton (at least, they do for me), right away there’s a greater sense of urgency in the stakes Social Animals is setting. While most Instagram users aren’t going to become viral sensations, pretty much every American teenager with a smartphone is using the app, often in ways both quasi-professional and/or intimately personal. It’s not a coincidence that when Burnham researched teen social media culture for his film, he was told by the teens he interviewed that everyone was using Instagram instead of Facebook.
Green’s narrowing of the parameters to a singular app’s effect on a sole age demographic allows him to tell a different kind of story. One of the lingering criticisms I had of The American Meme (that I did not put in my review of the film) was that it focused for the most part on white, upper-middle class to wealthy influencers, without considering how Black women in particular have had their images appropriated into reaction GIFs and viral memes without being financially compensated. In contrast, Green introduces us to a much wider swath of American teenage-dom. His interviewees are racially diverse, hailing from cities and small towns and suburbs, from apartments and farms and McMansions in double-gated communities. They are clearly purposefully drawn from different walks of life to show just how ubiquitous Instagram and its increasingly codified unspoken rulebook of behaviors are becoming.
You see, I did not know until I watched Social Animals just how ritualized posting a photo on Instagram is for these teens. There are rules about how often to post, when in the day to post, what kind of photos to post when (two selfies in a row is a no-no), and how many likes you should get in an hour before deleting the post as a failure. And yet the validation is not quite as purely emotion-driven as you might think. They see this kind of performance as a job—or at least, something that’s obligated on some level. (Clearly, as someone who garners maybe 15 likes per post from my 400-ish followers, I need to step up my game. I’m being schooled by kids ten years my junior.)
While the same twenty or so teens pop up for intermittent sound bites peppered throughout Social Animals, Green traces the trajectories of three kids in particular who all follow different paths on Instagram. There’s Kaylyn, The Product; there’s Humza, The Artist; there’s Emma, The Cautionary Tale. I’m using broad strokes here, but that’s essentially how we, as a society, still see the use of social media: either you’re a self-proclaimed brand, an artistic soul looking to break out, or an example of social media gone wrong.
Kaylyn is the golden girl living in the McMansion in a double-gated community. A talented competition-style dancer in her own right, her response to suddenly becoming popular on social media has been to run with the consumable aspect of it, turning to her car dealership-owning father for advice on how best to market herself. Her goal is to be a model-slash-designer, and at age fifteen, she’s already hired a stylist and professional photographer to better help her take photos for her social media profile, which is discussed without a trace of irony on anyone’s part. Nothing seems to get her down, or give her pause, even when she’s eventually cyber-stalked by a creepy dude who turns to making suicide threats in order to try to meet her.
Humza hails from New York and is known for his daredevil photos of the city from dangerous locations like bridges and skyscrapers. He began taking these photos out of a desire to show new angles and views of the city he lives in and loves so much, but unlike Kaylyn and Emma, his use of Instagram is of a more solitary nature, even though he has managed to capitalize on it financially. Humza is also known—and reviled in some circles—for his public presence in the urban exploration community, where, as he tells us, he’s considered a “snitch” for talking about the community to the media. Whenever other urban explorer-photographers get in trouble for trespassing, somehow the conversation comes back to Humza being a snitch, and he gets death threats all over again. Affectingly, Humza discusses being stuck in what is an unenviable a no-man’s land, where the urban exploration community shuns him and his old friends think he’s gone Hollywood–even when he’s often risking his life to get the perfect shot.
The most emotional narrative in Social Animals, though, belongs to Emma, who views Instagram participation with the least amount of joy out of anyone in the movie. Raised in a rural community by parents who wouldn’t allow her to date and initially attending a Christian school, Emma discusses with candor and remarkable frankness her experiences of being bullied by her classmates on the app. At her first school, she’s smeared as a slut and a cheater, and her reputation is ruined entirely through Instagram DMs. At her second school, she starts dating a boy (initially flirting through DMs) who is more interested in sex than in her, leading her to attempt suicide. With Emma, it’s clear that Instagram has just become another vector in classic high school bullying patterns, and that the costs have far outweighed any benefit or popularity she’s received using the app. There’s less pushing people into lockers, maybe, but more targeted FOMO and lightning-fast text-gossip that spreads even more rapidly than whispers in the hallway.
After watching Social Animals, there’s an immediate impulse to tell every teenager you meet to throw away their phones, depending on how dramatic you are. Emma’s story is the most obviously upsetting, but Humza’s experience with social media as a tool of social isolation is no less thoughtfully-told, even if the expectation that he put himself in danger for these photos is treated with incredible nonchalance by everyone involved, and Kaylyn’s eagerness to commodify her life is downright chilling, as is the behavior of her dad, who comes across as gleefully opportunistic kind of Stage Mom. And yet it does seem like you can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube, so to speak—that these kinds of social media interactions are how American teenagers (not to mention adults) connect with one another, and how they come to view the world and their places in it.
Deborah Krieger is the curatorial assistant at the Delaware Art Museum and an arts and culture writer based in Philadelphia. She has written for BUST Magazine, Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art, the Philly Artblog, the Humble Arts Foundation, the LA Review of Books, and more. She can be found on her website http://www.i-on-the-arts.com/ and on Twitter and Instagram @debonthearts