In 1997 in Santa Cruz, California a man named Phillippe Kahn invented the modern camera phone. But he didn’t just solder a tiny optical device to his Motorola ﬂip phone. He did something far more game-changing. He built a back-end system that would take that captured photo, and through the connection to the internet provided by the cell phone, immediately share it with hundreds of people. Real-time, portable, electronic image sharing. He eﬀectively invented a new paradigm of sharing one’s experience, the paradigm that would, over a decade later, become social media’s most emotionally powerful tool. For over a century the telephone has allowed us to tell people in real time what and how we are doing. With Kahn’s invention in our pocket, we can visually broadcast our lives, just like the people on live TV. And with Instagram, more than any other platform, the moment a person downloads the app, they are transformed into a channel.
When I started making this ﬁlm, the first generation born into Kahn’s new world was starting to graduate high school, digital natives that had never known a world without the rapid capture and sharing of images as part of their daily social experience. That fascinated me because high school is awesome, but it also sucks. It’s that stage of life when you’re really figuring out who the hell you are and it gets messy. These teens are going through that development with technology embedded into the journey. Instagram, and its close social media cousins, are so impactful because they access two innate facets of our nature. We are social animals, and we are visual animals. And now we are both of those things digitally.
I’m convinced that the pressure to construct a digital self is a wholly new thing in our history, and in our high schools. While peer pressure and sexual exploration and gossip and pissing contests and popularity and every other layer of the teenage maturation gauntlet has been around for a long time, these emotionally complicated experiences are being played out in a new way on this platform. Some argue that social media only drips fuel on all the flames that have always been there. There’s nothing new here. But a blazing forest ﬁre is different than the flicker of a candle in more ways than simply scale. We are living in a new era.
Neil Postman made a similar argument about the invention of television in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death which has been a huge influence on my own thinking around this topic. (How I wish he were here today to tackle the impact of social media, but plenty of contemporary writers have very competently taken up the task.) Sherry Turkle’s books Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation are hugely insightful explorations into the impacts of technology on our relationship to self and to others. And Nancy Jo Sales book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers is as raw and riveting as Larry Clark’s film Kids was for me back in the late 90’s.
It was my first inclination to engage intellectually in this conversation throughout the ﬁlm. To that end, I interviewed many of these thought leaders on the topic, including inventor Phillippe Kahn. But when I juxtaposed a PhD talking head next to my endearing teenage characters recounting their experiences, two things became immediately clear; these elements could not live together in the ﬁlm I wanted to make, and there was no question which one was expendable.
What remains is a film about three teenagers told largely from their own points of view. Hopefully, it is neither didactic nor overt in its message. I’ll let audiences decide. Instead, it intends only to provoke a more earnest and well-rounded conversation about the benefits and costs of the many technologies we continue to integrate into every facet of our lives and our relationships. In our age, the seductive convenience and power of new technologies is often embraced and adopted without examination. But the unexamined life is not worth living as one smart guy once said. I believe it is our sociality that preserves our humanity, yet without balance and context has the potential to strip it away.