Read: When kids realize their whole life is already online
In 2013, a film titled Noah debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and was heralded as a perfect encapsulation of “the way we receive information and the way we communicate now: constantly, simultaneously, compulsively, endlessly, and more and more often, solitarily.” The 17-minute film takes place entirely on a desktop screen and documents the life of a teenage boy as he grapples with being dumped by his girlfriend. The story is told through Facebook messages, Skype, video games, and Chatroulette. “Noah is unlike anything you’ve seen before in a movie—only because it is exactly like what many of us see on our computers all the time,” Fast Company declared.
Six years later, most teenagers—and many adults—wouldn’t think of touching Facebook, Skype, or any of the other desktop applications featured in Noah: In 2019, our social lives are manifested through our smartphones. Mishka Kornai and Zach Wechter, who directed Pocket, said Noah was a huge inspiration, but “the digital world in 2013 still felt like something we could plug into when we got home,” said Wechter. “Now the digital world comes with us wherever we go.”
That mobile transition has proved difficult for directors to capture—both because the nuances of communication have been upended in the past several years and because the medium has physically transformed. As our social lives are expressed through smaller and smaller screens, capturing daily interactions on film has been a constant challenge for directors. In 2010, the TV series Sherlock began showing text messages on-screen. Later, shows such as Glee and House of Cards followed suit. At the time, text messaging had been a prevalent form of communication for more than a decade, and show writers could no longer simply ignore it or rely on difficult-to-read, over-the-shoulder shots of phone screens.
In 2013, Facebook, then the dominant social platform, appeared more frequently on-screen, but most filmmakers still relied on filming the web version via laptop, or showing screenshots. Films such as Noah, and later Unfriended, Unfriended: Dark Web, and last year’s crime thriller Searching, are all part of a group of films that pioneered telling stories entirely through a desktop interface. While these movies do capture a fuller picture of how intertwined the internet is with our lives, they still rely on a desktop experience, not a mobile one.
Read: Why modern human interactions are so hard to film
Only in the past year or so have TV shows and movies actually made a notable effort to integrate modern, mobile-first social platforms into story lines. Some shows, such as Netflix’s social-media stalker drama You, feature characters scrolling on their phones with their Instagram feed hovering in space. Season 2 of American Vandal centers on an Instagram prankster. The movie Eighth Grade features an aspiring tween vlogger whose social anxiety is exacerbated by platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. Last month, the television show Broad City even kicked off its new season with an episode told entirely through Instagram Stories.