what Black Mirror gets wrong about social media

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This post contains spoilers for “Nosedive”, the first episode of Season 3 of Black Mirror.

I have a love/hate relationship with Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. For the most part, it does exactly what it says on the tin: offers up a dark reflection of our world (or a near-future version of it) for consideration. While the reflection is usually somewhat askew, we can still identify aspects of ourselves staring back at us through the glass, which is what makes the series so uniquely disquieting. Part horror and part satire, each standalone tale of dystopia seems to whisper: “Watch your step, because this nightmare world is just around the corner.”

However, in its quest to satirize the technological and/or cultural phenomena that govern our world, Black Mirror often fails to engage with those phenomena in a meaningful way, falling back on smug technophobia and intense cynicism to propel the action towards the most horrifying conclusion imaginable. As Kathryn VanArendonk puts it “the show’s primary crutch is too often that it uses thought-provoking and fascinating foundations in order to reach the simplest, most alarmist possible conclusion about a variety of technological innovations.”

Nowhere is this weakness more apparent than in “Nosedive”, the first episode of the newly released third season.

In Nosedive, one ubiquitous social media app rules the world. This app – which is seamlessly integrated into daily life via dedicated smartphones and contact lenses – allows you to rate your social interactions out of a possible five stars, as you would an Uber ride or an AirBNB stay. Every banal encounter, from buying your morning coffee to chatting to an acquaintance in a lift, becomes an opportunity improve your overall rating. And your rating doesn’t just affect your popularity: it also has implications for where you live, where you work and the quality of services you can access. There seems to be no way to opt-out of the system entirely, as your profile also functions as your ID and your bank card.

The result is a world that Sam Wollaston at The Guardian rather breathlessly describes as a “sterile saccharine pastel nightmare”, and also apparently only “five minutes away”. Every character who is invested in the rating system presents as clean-cut and relentlessly positive, showering each other with beaming smiles and reciprocally positive ratings as they go about their days. The flip side of this coin is that everyone lives of mutual terror of offending one another, since reprisal comes in the form of one-star ratings. This fear is not unjustified. At one point, we see a man literally being barred from his place of employment because his rating has slipped below 2.5. His crime? His relationship ended and he came off as the bad guy.

laciepoundOur protagonist, Lacie Pound, does not lead a cool or interesting life, nor does she come across as a particularly charismatic person. Nevertheless, she’s managed to grind her rating up to 4.2 by being aggressively pleasant to everyone she meets. When her old friend Naomi – a 4.8 premium user – asks her to be maid of honour at her upcoming wedding, Lacie realizes that positive ratings from a room full of “high fours” would give her a huge boost, perhaps even enough to secure a hefty discount on her dream apartment.

As the title of the episode suggests, things do not go according to plan.

This world of Nosedive is somewhat consistent with its own internal logic, but as a comment on “social media” as a whole, it makes very little sense. For a start “social media” is not a singular phenomenon. A cursory perusal of the world’s biggest social networks – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Pinterest, Tumblr – shows that each platform fills different needs and rewards certain types of social presentation over others. If I want validation on Twitter, I’ll go with snark and politics. On Tumblr, I’ll reblog Dadaist memes about depression. On Facebook, I’ll post “relatable” statuses about the myriad ways I embarrass myself in my daily life, such as falling over while playing Pokémon Go.

In terms of aesthetics and social values, the closest real world analog to the social network portrayed in Nosedive is Instagram. There are Instagram lifestyle bloggers who spend hefty amounts of time curating the illusion that they exist in sepia-toned paradise full of lattes, cuddly animals and beach yoga. Some of them have thousands, if not millions of followers who obsessively like and imitate everything they do, aspiring to a life that exists only in photos and hashtags. But while these users and their followers comprise a large community, they are still only one community on one platform. If we think of the world portrayed in Nosedive as the logical conclusion of Instagram, rather than the logical conclusion of “social media”… well, it’s still kind of creepy, but doesn’t seem nearly as imminent or inevitable.

The episode also attempts to tap into anxiety around the idea that so-called “social” media is actually isolating us from each other. Nosedive’s universal social network has flattened us into a race of pastel-clad, rictus-faced automatons, perfectly pleasant and uniform and fake in our never-ending quest for social validation. To perfect the performance of perfection, we become incapable of real connection with our fellow humans. To hammer this point home, the final scene of Nosedive shows a disheveled and defeated Lacie in a jail cell. We assume that her rating has been decimated after her last-ditch drunken attempt to crash Naomi’s wedding, but we don’t know for sure since her contact lenses have been removed and her smartphone confiscated. She notices a well-dressed young man in the cell across from her. They begin to trade insults, attacking each other’s appearance, eventually screaming and swearing at each other simply because they can. The episode seems to posit that this type of raw human interaction is only possible when we are unplugged from the social media machine that governs our lives.

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Except, you know, people insult and scream at each other all the time via social media. If anything, people tend to be less polite to each other when their interactions are mediated by a social network. They certainly do not live in fear of causing offense. The idea that social media can actually unfetter us from the repressive social contracts we observe in our daily lives is never taken into account.

Another scene that rings particularly hollow is the catastrophic altercation in the airport. Lacie arrives at the check-in desk only to be informed that her flight has been cancelled and she can’t get a seat on the next one (because, shock horror, her rating has fallen just below the 4.2 threshold needed to access premium seats). Lacie tries to maintain her cloying levels of composure as she explains the urgency of her situation to the increasingly passive-aggressive desk attendant, but eventually snaps: “Can’t you just fucking help me!?” Immediately, people in the queue barrage her with one-star ratings, presumably because she’s disrupted their picture-perfect existence with this outburst of real frustration.

In our world, yes, maybe some folk would have given her a one-star rating for her use of profanity. But others would have given her five stars for refusing to put up with such truly abysmal customer service. In our world, Lacie herself would perhaps jump on the airline’s public profile to leave a scathing review, garnering dozens likes and comments, because social networks tend to thrive on drama and conflict far more than they do on simpering pleasantries. But in the world of Nosedive, businesses are not beholden to social networks in the same way individuals are, which is a distinct reversal of the reality most of us know.

If there’s one common thread that defines our usage of social media, it’s that the vast majority of us use it to seek tangible and quantifiable social validation. Many of us have felt the addictive little surge of dopamine that comes with seeing that fifty people have liked our new profile picture or a semi-famous Twitter user has retweeted our hot take on the issue of the moment. Nosedive gets this aspect of social media entirely right. But its portrait of humanity locked into a single social network fails because it relies on the assumption that all humans are (at least potentially) seeking the same type of social validation, through the same performance of the same lifestyle at all times. To put it another way, it assumes that we are all nascent Instagram lifestyle bloggers and anyone who refuses to comply with the dominant #aesthetic of #pastels and #positivevibes will be pushed to the fringes of society.

The universality of this narrative falls apart when you consider how dependent it is on gendered notions about who uses certain types of social media and why. The fact that our two main characters (and much of the supporting cast) are female is not a happy accident, nor is the dominant palette of pastels and pinks, nor the fact that the central conflict is structured around a wedding, a cultural event often typified as the pinnacle of female vanity and frivolity. Any realism found in the world of Nosedive is heavily dependent on age-old gender stereotypes that cast women as inherently false, manipulative and shallow. It would be much harder to make such a superficial social order seem plausibly close to our own reality if the two main characters were straight men.

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Ultimately, social networks are defined by the people who use them. Even on platforms populated by hundreds of millions of users, we curate our own social smaller communities within the behemoths, each defined by their own values and behavioural norms. This is something that humans have always done, social media just makes it easier to quantify. If a platform is defined by the people who use it, then it stands to reason that a near-universal social platform will contain multitudes, thousands of communities with different standards for acceptable social performance, all as messy and diverse and subject to flux as human culture itself. That’s why Facebook has achieved near-ubiquity, but not total ubiquity and why new challengers for the top spot of “World’s Biggest Social Network” continue to emerge year after year.

In Nosedive, one of the few moments that reflects this chaotic reality occurs when Lacie discovers that her shitty rental car is low on battery. She has a brittle but polite exchange with an attendant at a recharge station, who informs her that she needs an adapter to charge her vehicle and no, he doesn’t have one, so she should ask around. As she walks away, he throws her a two-star review. She spins around and confronts him, demanding to know what she did to deserve such a low rating. He shrugs and says, “It wasn’t a meaningful interaction.” This man, we might imagine, is not a part of a community that places value on vapid positivity. Maybe this man would have been spurred into action by a Lacie who screamed “Can’t you just fucking help me?” in his face. In our world, this man probably wouldn’t be on Facebook but maybe instead he’d be seeking meaningful interactions on Reddit or OKCupid.

Nosedive isn’t a portrait of a world ruled by “social media”: it’s a portrait of a world ruled by one specific social network with key features that include content sharing and a universal rating system. And believe it or not, there was almost an app for that. The world of Nosedive was just around the corner; it was called Peeple. Described by its creators as “Yelp for People”, the app allowed you to rate other people out of a possible five stars. And, as it was initially conceived, there was no opt-out option for people who did not want to be rated by their peers.

If you’ve never heard of Peeple, it’s probably because it never got off the ground in its intended form. The creators were inundated with almost universally negative responses to the core concept, and particular concern over its sky-high potential as a vehicle for bullying and harassment. After disappearing under this wave of hostility last October, the watered-down version of the app was launched in March 2016, notably lacking its most controversial features. There’s no longer a rating system and you can only review people who’ve opted in by creating their own profile. In other words, it’s been stripped of the two features that eventually drive Lacie to the brink of her sanity.

So there you have it. We have peered into this particular black mirror and rejected what we saw there. The diverse and messy phenomenon that is social media is certainly taking us somewhere, but it’s not towards the sterile and saccharine world of Nosedive.

3 thoughts on “what Black Mirror gets wrong about social media

  1. I think you’ve missed some of the important facets of this episode and Black Mirror in general. It’s never really just a simple critique of a tech or cultural patterns but of both in exaggerated form as the tech is utilized as a form of power. Nosedive is an imagining of what a life defined by social media would be like if a particular platform become a means of defining who gets what – that is, doing politics.

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  2. I enjoyed the episode though it seemed far fetched in a lot of ways. The main message I took from it was that you shouldn’t care so much about what other people think about you, and just be authentic. Instragram and facebook can be so fake with photo shopped photos and people rarely mentioning the bad stuff in their lives that it makes other people feel inadequate and insecure. I liked truck driver lady in black mirror who was just herself and real and wasn’t trying to impress people.

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