social media & 2016’s nerve
Shit’s tough, man. I’m a thesis-writing, job-hunting senior struggling to eke out a meaningful existence amidst the death throes of his final semester. Moments of quiet are plentiful—more than ever before—but rarely do they offer my tortured mind any rest. Sunrise to sunset, each day is spent processing and reprocessing my choices from the previous 22 years. Identity formation, adolescent angst, failed relationships, nerdish retreats into shitty, embarrassing art—my moral investigation has thus far spared nothing. The goal is to metabolize my mistakes and regrets and convert them into life lessons. Fuel for futurity. Maybe then I’ll lead a life of will and intention.
This understood, I believe I will now sound like .87 percent less of a doofus bozo when I reveal my most recent object of obsessive existential contemplation. Perhaps you recall among summer 2016’s moderate box office successes a motion picture entitled Nerve? No? Emma Roberts and a thirty-year-old Dave Franco star as high school seniors? He sings Roy Orbison’s #9 hit “You Got It” to the customers of a late-night diner and they later share an extended sequence fleeing a New York fashion boutique in their underpants? It’s kind of got a Black Mirror for pre-teens vibe? Machine Gun Kelly has a significant supporting role playing (essentially) Logan Paul? Please tell me you remember this. Please do not render me the last remaining cultural archivist of the motion picture Nerve.
This will be humiliating, but I’ll reboot your memory. Roberts plays Vee, apparently short for Venus (her mom is played by weird-ass-cinema icon Juliette Lewis, so this checks out, actually). It’s expressive of the screenplay’s quality that 90 percent of Vee’s characterization is accomplished by making her the high-school photographer. The girl’s an introvert, doomed to observe and not participate. She even declines her admission to CalArts because her single mother wants her to stay in New York. Though she’s tight with one mawkish, Troye-Sivan-looking internet boy who crushes on her and says things like “I spend a lot of time on the dark web,” her friends are generally all cooler than her. One of them is even a viral internet mischief artist rolling in some serious bank; the plot is put in motion when she sends Vee a link.
Enter the titular Nerve—an online truth-or-dare game of dubious legality. Users can sign on to either film themselves as visible players or cough up a subscription fee and observe the antics as anonymous watchers; it’s the latter group that creates dares for players to either decline, fail (in both instances losing the game), or complete for a cash prize. Alas, Nerve sacrifices some of its already spare realism with its PG-13 rating: These teens dare each other to moon their classmates and fart in public—not to, like, stab a baby. But, taken as pure social commentary, the film’s basic import comes through. Nerve’s economy is self-perpetuating—like capitalism itself—and the game can’t be shut down because each user constitutes a server…like, y’know, capitalism itself…kinda.
Shortly thereafter, the Nerve-playing friend, frustrated at our heroine’s inaction, exposes her affections to an uninterested crush. Imagining a future of social misery, Vee instead opts to claim her agency. She’ll participate. After completing a dare by kissing “stranger” Dave Franco, the two are forced by watchers to join forces and play together. She hops on his motorcycle, they ride into Manhattan, and in no time Vee racks up even more watchers than her friend. There has been a firebrand lurking behind the wallflower the whole time; but, alas, all is not groovy. The internet is bad, folks. Vee’s dares soon reach a fierce pitch of (still PG-13) danger (e.g. cross-apartment tight-rope walking), and her agency is revealed to be an illusion when all the money disappears from her family bank account (CAPITALIS-). A conclusion is reached when the city’s watchers gather in a big arena for some reason and Vee can deliver them/the movie’s audience an impassioned monologue about why social media is evil.
Obviously, it’s a terrible movie. But listen: We don’t decide which works of art will ultimately travel alongside us. Most of my favorite films, books, and albums have not and will not alter the course of my life even a little. I don’t think I’ve had so much as a single conversation about Close Encounters of the Third Kind, whereas I can look back on Nerve and find that it has exerted measurable effect upon my human destiny. In exactly three paragraphs’ time I will have imbued this fact with significance, but for now you are free to laugh at me.
To be fair, I did truly love the film when it came out. Like Vee, I was an 18-year-old high school senior whose parents were ambivalent about my acceptance to art school. Like Vee, I’d been a quiet, mumbly goomba across 13 years of education, and I was ready to stop taking cues from the cool kids and lame parents in my life. Like Vee, I wanted Dave Franco to love-me-tender-if-only-for-one-night. And, most crucially, I hated social media. High school had been a cycle of watching Snapchat stories, seeing some party I wasn’t invited to, and devising my own Snapchat story to make it look like I’d had something better to do. Wasted energy. The film had foregrounded my classically individualist, deeply western notion of human agency—everyone’s either a watcher or a player—to show how the digital world would render it impossible. On social media, even the most fiercely independent had their moves dictated by someone else to some degree. After watching Nerve, something in me decided that I was going to live outside that system. As the aforementioned internet boy says when he logs onto Nerve, looking at his options of “watcher” and “player”: “Can I choose neither?”
So yes, I loved Nerve. I simply shared too many circumstantial nitty-grittys with the film for its obvious defects to register. This was not the case for my internet-savvy friends, who exited the theater mocking the movie. I could have joined them, but—though I did dress my earnest love for the film in irony—Nerve had taught me to hold my ground and be an individual. Part of claiming agency was deciding the terms of my own hipsterdom; coming up with highbrow excuses to enjoy low-culture garbage like Nerve checked that box. Looking at a text I sent our group chat proselytizing on the film’s behalf, I find the phrases “paper-snowflake chain of pure pixie-stick energy” and “fascinating internet-age subtext.” But spewing all that bullshit about this stupid movie had a grievous cost. I deleted all my social media right before beginning college, and it would have been too embarrassing to stop and ponder the influence Nerve held on my decision. Maybe it had none! But, because I didn’t consider the possibility, that’s something I have to spend hours of my life dealing with now..
Four years without social media was a mistake; I denied myself the internet’s obvious utility and never reaped the rewards of my imaginary escape. Arguably, I wasted even more time, as I was forced to rely on friends to send me photos of tweets, tell me about parties posted on Facebook, and inform me as to what TikTok was. When I started charting my course into the entertainment industry this year, the limits of my networking reach were stark; every alum I’ve talked to thus far has expressed horror at my lack of social media presence. They tell me to create a Facebook before I do anything else. And they’re right; I live in a digital world, and to deny this fact is pigheaded. From now on, I’m playing the game. I told you: Shit’s tough, man.
I rewatched Nerve last night; no longer a teenage nerd, the terrible movie was embarrassingly obvious. Like, Machine Gun Kelly, my god. How could I ever have accepted that? There remains, however, one interesting subtextual loop-di-loop worth unraveling. For all its evils, digital media does liberate Vee; only after understanding herself as someone worth watching does she realize she has something to say (about the evils of digital media, sure, but bear with me). As I spend these last days of my college education struggling with my past, I’ll do well to remember I live in the present. Time to log on.