Nothing marks the digital age quite like a documentary that explores the complexities of young people and Instagram. “Social Animals” sets out to do this, and it does so brilliantly.
The film tells the story of three Instagramers and how the platform has completely taken over their lives. Each of them comes from different backgrounds: a mansion in California, the projects in New York, a Midwest country home. All use Instagram for different reasons. While one wants to be a model and start her own fashion line, another does it out of a love for photography, and yet another does it to fit in at school.
They’re all teens, making their way through life, and the added stress of keeping up with Instagram isn’t making that any easier.
It’s a life their parents struggle to understand. There are new rules for everything previous generations once knew: dating culture, friend wars, school bullying. All of it feels like an unfamiliar monster gradually seeping into our culture, leaving behind nothing but nostalgia for a time when people argued face to face and flirted over phone calls.
Two of the three individuals are “Instafamous.” At one point, their celebrity status is questioned, and the model specifically says she doesn’t see herself that way.
Technically, they have fans and are in the public eye. It’s scary how some of their followers feel a sense of ownership over them. Instagram accounts often allow them to create a brand for themselves as well.
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So are they celebrities?
Maybe, but whether they actually fall into the category of celebrity is irrelevant when they’re being treated like one.
And even though Instagram is available to everyone with a smartphone and can seem like a trivial platform used for pictures of your dog or your french toast, there’s a level of skill involved in doing what they do.
“Social Animals” also dives into this generation’s desire for validation. At the heart of every social media account, no matter the individual, is a person counting their likes. It’s almost like a drug in that sense: addictive and used to create an alternate reality.
However, with each new batch of followers comes a price. The film doesn’t shy away from the level of harassment and bullying experienced through Instagram that can take a toll on a young person. For the teen who just wants to live her life and foster genuine friendships, Instagram makes school a cold, harsh place. Her hardships caused by social media cover a portion of the documentary that will truly have you tearing up. It’s an upsetting, frightening reality that followers don’t always equal friends.
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With all their widespread popularity, the other two subjects are not without their social media issues, either. While the model is ogled by creepy, old, obsessive men, the photographer experiences how easily followers can turn sour.
A good documentary doesn’t necessarily answer questions or pose solutions, but rather raises more questions. No hour and a half film was ever going to provide a complete analysis of the repercussions of social media, if such an anomaly can even be reckoned with in the first place. It’s a complex issue we’re only now being able to scratch the surface of.
That being said, 20 to 30 years from now, whether Instagram is still popular or not, this film will stand as a great documentation of the problematic role social media plays in this generation.
“Social Animals” had its world premiere Friday at South by Southwest and screens again at 11:30 a.m. March 14 at Alamo South Lamar. Grade: A