Earlier this month, Instagram and YouTube “celebrity” Essena O’Neill—a 19-year-old model from Queensland, Australia with more than 600,000 Instagram fans following her every move—announced that she would be quitting both platforms and forgoing her social media career. Creating a personal brand, she said in a video, left her feeling miserable. “I’m the girl that had it all,” she says, “and I want to tell you that ‘having it all’ on social media means absolutely nothing to your real life.” It’s that idea producer Kerith Lemon explores in A Social Life, her directorial debut.
The short film follows Meredith, a young girl with a burgeoning personal life, a boyfriend, and a love for fitness—at least according to her status updates. In reality, she’s holed up at home, orchestrating new photos and posting old selfies in anticipation of likes and comments. We’ve all been there (no way our breakfasts/lattes/morning papers look that beautiful without a little help), but that doesn’t make the trend any less alarming. “A Social Life isn’t meant to be a cautionary tale to tell people how to live their lives,” Lemon says. “It is a mirror of…what is happening to me emotionally by being connected 24/7.” Lemon talks here about social media depression, the redeeming qualities of life online, and being present in the moment.
This film is your directorial debut. What inspired you to get behind the camera for A Social Life, and why now?
I’ve long been behind the camera as a producer in my career, always being really hands on, but at the end of the day I was telling other people’s stories. I reached a tipping point in my career where I wanted to be in control of the end product, and this story of social media spoke to me. In terms of why now, I had noticed that I’d become overly connected to my device. It felt like a bad habit to me. At the same time I started noticing that stories of social media depression and jealousy were being discussed in the media. Once I was able to put a name on something I’d been feeling but wasn’t really sure where it was coming from, I turned to write this script to explore further. I’m very interested in the topic of women’s identity and self-esteem and how that plays out in media, and this project fulfilled that curiosity for me.
What do you find to be dangerous about curating a “brand” on social media? Are there any redeeming qualities to social media?
We have a very complicated relationship with social media, which is why I felt this film was so important to make. I wanted to debate and discuss the complexity to create more personal awareness. Danger is an interesting thing—to me it’s perceived more as a physical threat, and as far as I know, there are no physical dangers of curating your brand online. The slippery slope is when the time and effort of curating your brand overtakes the time and effort of actually living your life, and that’s what I think Essena is speaking out about. The true emotional danger is in linking your self-esteem to the attention you’re receiving from putting your “brand” out there. Social media can be tremendously positive; there are brands creating good (Dove, Always), there are social movements that would have taken so much longer to get off the ground via traditional media or word of mouth (#heforshe, #blacklivesmatter, #alsicebucketchallenge). Social media is what you make of it, good or bad.
Meredith barely ever leaves home, instead choosing to doll herself up and post selfies ahead of fake social engagements, like a date. Do you think kids are actually doing that? Is there a difference between people like her and people who share pictures of themselves out and about in large friend groups?
No, I don’t think there are many people that are purposefully creating fake social engagements, but for the purposes of the film I wanted to show how easily that could be done. To me there is not a huge difference between creating fake engagements and posting picture of yourself at various functions all the time. It’s a very fine line between sharing what you do and doing just to share, the latter of which I think happens a lot. I had an interesting discussion with a celebrity once about how fans today will come up and ask for a selfie without ever making eye contact, the photo is more important than the actual interaction. This is the issue that I wanted to discuss: when the photo is more important than the experience.
Do you think Los Angeles as a city perpetuates a need to be well-liked on social media?
No, I don’t think that it’s city specific. Though I’m sure people in L.A. or visiting L.A. might have a higher chance of taking the kind of photos that they think are going to get them likes (celebrity photos, red carpet events, etc.) given the industry that exists here.
At the end of your film, Meredith drops her phone and leaves her house. What are you hoping that message achieves?
The ending has caused some debate with viewers, which I did on purpose. I wanted to leave it open so that the audience could be left to decide what she goes to do next after living through her phone for a whole weekend. I want people to think twice about what and when they’re posting—to be present in real life. Based on your own personal experiences, I believe you will form your own unique opinion about this film.
A Social Life will be available online in Spring of 2016. Follow the film on social media for updates on its release.