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Posted by on Sep 21, 2010

Catfish, Social Network and Artistic Representations of Digital Culture

There are two films coming out soon that seem to be some of the initial attempts to create narratives specifically from social media, namely the culture that exists within social media and in general online. Both seem to adhere to the William Gibson dystopia version of online culture having negative implications, but to their credit, these new movies use these darker elements as vehicles to describe ancillary aspects of digital culture. The darker elements, in essence, revolve around suspense (Catfish, which is essentially a distorted homage to Hitchcock) and economic struggles (the Social Network, which seems like a younger version of Wall Street, judging by the trailers)

The first of these, Catfish, discusses the “realness” of online relationships courted via Facebook and other social media channels. What is real? What constitutes emotional connections? What is the truth? The trailer itself even asks these questions and they resonate in the actions of the protagonist, who spends the majority of the trailer developing a relationship with Megan, a character that is never seen nor heard from except for the protagonist. The use of social media here does not appear to be merely aesthetic; the Facebook buttons, the Google Maps Street Views, these are the symbolic structure of our generation and they have indeed been mapped on our physical world.

The second, the Social Network, is familiar to many of us as the story of Mark Zuckerburg of Facebook fame and his rise to power. I think what it does that might be of interest to students of digital culture is the relative unexpectedness of its success; it exceeded all expectations instantly. This immediately establishes the notion that the network (or indeed one can even substitute the culture here) is greater than the individual. Indeed, no group of individuals can control it to any effective degree; it is greater than the sum of its parts. It demands aggregation, but most importantly it demands decentralization. The angle that the movie pursues appears to be one of pure cutthroat capitalism, but the surprise at which this service expanded is resonant even today.

In fact, the most poignant part of the trailer is the photo montages at the very beginning, which speaks to the construction of self online (how we want to be portrayed) and indeed are willingness to be represented online (merely being there is a social act, a social statement). It also speaks to Facebook’s earliest  “killer app”, which was the sharing of photographs.

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4 Comments

    • Good question, James. I wonder about these seemingly counter-culture responses to Facebook megalithic type services. Privacy is important, data protection is important, certainly, but how important is it? Alternatives should exist; that is just healthy for everyone’s sake. I wonder how data protection will play out. I suspect Facebook will make concessions, but to what end. I think this will become more of a furor in another 5 years, when one’s social media imprint acts as a tattoo on all that they are and do both in the virtual and physical worlds.

  1. Hi Michael,

    I enjoyed the soundtrack used in the ‘Social Network’ clip, particularly in the opening section, which as you described, involved the photo montage. The lyrics of the song (original version Radiohead I believe), seemed to speak of a desperation for attention and notoriety, which is interesting to consider in terms of the mass appeal of social networking (rather than Zuckerberg story of dubious interest). I guess this innate desire to form social bonds can be viewed as both idyllic (utopia) and demoralizing (dystopia) when feed into the amplifying engine of digital networks. I also get the sense of something out of control. Perhaps it is, as you suggest, Facebook that is out f control, with no central management. But is there something more in this opening scene? Is it the sense that it is us who are out of control, who have bought into something without realising the implications, sold our ‘souls’ (intimate pictures) to the network?

    • Agreed, Jeremy. There is something profound in that opening sequence that I just can’t properly articulate. Certainly the director is making it out to be slightly absurd/naive/innocent with the images, the lighting, and indeed the music.

      I guess this innate desire to form social bonds can be viewed as both idyllic (utopia) and demoralizing (dystopia) when feed into the amplifying engine of digital networks. I also get the sense of something out of control. Perhaps it is, as you suggest, Facebook that is out f control, with no central management.

      I agree. I suspect social networks are augmented realities, so to speak, with your amplified (well put) personal details forming the blood that courses through the otherwise empty vessel. Its ferocity is in our willingness to continually supply it with details. I would lean more towards utopian as it does allow for meaningful social engagements where none might have existed before (on some level, the conversation we are having now might be an example). The decentralization as you mentioned is something of a sticking point. I struggle conceptually with decentralized engines like this; it just doesn’t “seem” right. But whatever they are, they contain massive amounts of energy for building constructs.

      But is there something more in this opening scene? Is it the sense that it is us who are out of control, who have bought into something without realising the implications, sold our ‘souls’ (intimate pictures) to the network?

      That point is interesting as well. It is once again people’s willingness to participate, to provide the raw materials for this fission, that often surprises me. I am on most social media channels and participate actively. However, I am relatively modest about what I share. Intimate pictures are not one of those things I would share consistently. But many do. Does that signal a willingness to sell one’s soul for amplified recognition, for modest fame? Perhaps. I also think it signals a lack of understanding of exactly what it is they are sharing. It may be intimate, but at the same time, perceived as having little value to the person sharing it. Strange contradictions all around.

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