The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Musings on the danger of using social media in movies

with 12 comments

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Within a short period of time I’ve seen two movies where usage of social media is an essential element of the plot.

In Frank Twitter and YouTube was used to build an audience for a rock band. In Chef social media basically rule the world. That’s where careers are built and ruined and if there’s anything you can take away from this otherwise lacklustre film, it’s the crash course in how to handle Twitter and Vine.

Two examples aren’t enough to call something a trend, but I suspect they’re not the only ones we’re going to see this year. And I must say that I’m a little conflicted about it.I can see what they’re trying to do there: be relevant to a young, contemporary audience. There are hundreds of thousands active Twitter accounts in Sweden alone, which is a very small country. 54 percent of the population is on Facebook. Of course social media matter and why wouldn’t they matter to the characters appearing in your movies, provided they’re not hobbits or elves living in a fairy tale land where messages are sent by magical orbs or butterflies.

The traps
But for how understandable it is that you include them, I think it also is a little risky.There are traps to fall in if you don’t beware.

One is that a middle-aged screenwriter may have an idea about how different social media work, but isn’t necessarily an expert user. It’s so easy to get some detail wrong. I’m not necessarily thinking of the actual mechanic of it, such as how long a tweet is or how people respond to or forward certain messages. That’s fairly easy to make a quality check on. What can be a bit trickier is to make it believable. Is it likely that a such and such tweet will catch fire in the way it does in the movie? Is the tone right? Does it spread at a likely pace? Or is it obvious that it’s sprung out of someone’s idea about social media rather than coming from their own experience? If you get it wrong, you’ll rub all those young expert users the wrong way with your clumsy attempts to be modern.

Another risk is that you’re tempted to make too much of a deal out of the social media. If it starts to dominate the movie rather than being a part of people’s everyday life, it gives the movie a silly, unbalanced feel. And it also signals: “hey, I’m a middle-aged person who just discovered social media, isn’t this a remarkable thing?” Very uncool.

A strong timestamp
But the biggest problem, of course, is that it sets such a strong timestamp on the movie. The development in this territory goes at a crazy speed and within a year or two so much can happen that the movie you had spiced up with that magic social media ingredient now all of a sudden looks hopelessly outdated. If telephones an computer design age quickly, it’s nothing compared to what social media does. And the question is: does it age with charm, the way that old cars or space pyjama suits from the 60s do? I can’t know for sure yet, but I suspect not.

My suspicion is that the filmmakers are perfectly aware of this danger, but it’s not such a big deal. They’re not aiming for making a new Brief Ecounter, which can be enjoyed by generation after generation of film lovers. They have their box office race running over a few weekends, and under that brief period their chosen social media isn’t likely to go anywhere.

I’m curious to see what we’ll think about today’s movies with social media in fifteen years. Will they have aged the way that You’ve Got Mail has? And if so, will they likewise have charm enough to make up for it?

photo credit: kelly.sikkema via photopin cc

Written by Jessica

September 12, 2014 at 1:00 am

12 Responses

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  1. I hadn’t given it much thought aside from just the datedness when it was brought up on the Matineecast (great episode by the way), but I completely agree with both using it the right way and that it does quickly become dated. Even something fairly recent like Kick-Ass in 2010 had a large plot point of him having a MySpace page for Kick-Ass which became very successful even though MySpace was basically non-existent by 2011 in favor of Facebook. And it always bugs the hell out of me when a movie decides that their video will go viral and yet has no idea how YouTube works in reality, or has a video that is so banal that it is completely unbelievable that it would ever become viral.

    Bubbawheat

    September 12, 2014 at 3:35 am

    • Yay, somone listened! 🙂 I had completely forgotten about MySpace (who hasn’t ?) and indeed, references to it make movies that are just a few years old feel VERY old. Similary I wonder about Bing. I think they sponsor their way into movies, so you see it used there every now and then. I know no one who uses it in reality. I bet in Sweden very few have even heard of it. It always looks odd to me when characters use that in movies. But in a few years time, won’t it look even more odd?

      Jessica

      September 12, 2014 at 7:42 am

  2. It’s a tricky question because it is going to date the film, but it also sets it in a specific time and place. It’s like the giant phones on the X-Files. They make me chuckle, yet they feel familiar since I lived at that point. I think it all comes down to execution. With Chef, it was set up for comedy. In a different era, someone would have recorded him on tape and mailed it to friends. It will definitely date the film, but it’s not a big thing for me. There are notable exceptions, though. Something like The Net or Hackers (where the technology is central to it) are hard to take seriously now.

    Dan Heaton

    September 12, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    • I agree: a strong timestamp isn’t necessarily always a bad thing. You’re not always going for timelessness, a movie can also be like a snapshot from a very precise time. But it can become a bit of a distraction too. You may end up thinking more about how things were a few years ago than you think about what the movie was intended to be.

      Jessica

      September 13, 2014 at 9:09 am

  3. While watching Chef, and actually House of Cards too, I was thinking about your second point – using social media and current technologies heavily in any for of film or TV does give it a timestamp and maybe an expiration date. Though, I’d hope the content of the film/tv show is strong enough to bypass that.

    But on the other hand, it’s often nice having a definite timestamp on a film. Almost reassuring. Knowing what era it is firmly cemented in.

    Funnily enough, You’ve Got Mail was on TV here the other day, and the whole way email is handled in that film is incredibly amusing now.

    Jaina

    September 12, 2014 at 10:33 pm

    • It’s reassuring, but it also makes you feel so old, doesn’t it? Things that my children think are way back in ancient history are things that I remember vividly because it isn’t that long ago to me. And yet it’s hopelessly outdated. What does that say about me?
      There was nothing amusing about the emailing in You’ve Got Mail when it was launched (apart from the AOL thing which I couldn’t relate to as a European). And look at it now! The world is so different now. We haven’t aged 15 years, it’s rather 150.

      Jessica

      September 13, 2014 at 9:13 am

      • Yes, incredibly old. I remember getting my first email address and it being something special. Something that was still fairly unique to have. Same with mobile phones.

        Technology has moved so fast in the last decade. Now with wearable tech we’re almost living the future some films predicted.

        Jaina

        September 13, 2014 at 10:06 am

        • Indeed! It does put the science fiction genre in a strange spot. Of course there are new worlds to be imagined out there, but still… it’s weird to live in the middle of what we perhaps imagined – but in a far distant future.

          Jessica

          September 13, 2014 at 10:09 am

          • Just wondering what sci-fi genre films are doing now that will be a reality for us in a decade or two.

            Jaina

            September 13, 2014 at 10:11 am

            • Robots, AI, drones, machines taking over the jobs from people, causing a crisis in the way we’ve built our societies… That’s themes that are pretty likely to get close to what will happen in reality.

              Jessica

              September 13, 2014 at 10:17 am

  4. Yes! That’s all I could think off while watching Chef. All the social media talk (and it was A LOT) will do nothing but date the film. Besides, it was all so clumsy and heavy-handed.

    fernandorafael

    September 15, 2014 at 7:50 pm


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