‘Unfriended’ Unpacks Cyber-Sociality

By Johanna Isaacson

The film Unfriended (2015) updates the ghost story. A teen bullied into suicide, Laura Barnes, returns to cyberspace to haunt the “friends” responsible for her mortal humiliation. The film speaks to current anxieties about alienation and cruelty in the age of social media. However, although the communicational forms seen in Unfriended are hyper-modern, the film hints at a dread that reaches beyond new technologies to capitalist social relations as a whole.

The social media of the late 1980s, when I was in 9th grade, was called a slam book. Each page of this notebook, embellished with seemingly innocent teenage graffiti and doodles, bore a proper name, under which a series of anonymous writers could contribute to the description of said person. Then, as the circulation of the book went on and on, eventually the fat, smarty-pants, slut got to see her “page” and spend the following lunch period crying in the bathroom, without even her iPhone to keep her company. Back then, too, friendship was a terrifying and ubiquitous system of control, and the junior high school mean girls were just an overt symptom of the more decorous and consequential adult world. The ideology of the “friend” as a way to mask the instrumentalization of social relations is nothing new. Look back even further and you find Dale Carnegie’s best-seller How to Win Friends and Influence People, which promised popularity and wealth to the seeker of self-help, assuming that friendship and business were already perfectly synchronous institutions.

This social media-dominated age of “the friend” is not, as the hand-wringing arbiters of youth panic and techno-panic might argue, a break, but rather an ongoing and transformed logic of social alienation in which, as Jacques Cammatte argues, human separation is at its zenith and yet commodity exchange and circulation continues to provide the appearance of community. [1] The only problem with this arrangement is that friendship is coterminous with the act of exchange. After that, we are unfriended. Unfriended, in which a Frankensteinian monster is patched together from the images, sounds and sensations associated with online relationships, shows us the terror of a moment when friendship has become its opposite — the sign of abolished community.

“Our feelings have gotten lost from so many friendships,” proclaimed the widely circulated Wages for Facebook manifesto, which borrowed its framing from the 1970s feminist Wages for Housework movement, with the gamble that demanding wages for an activity can expose it as work. The naturalization of online friendships as a zone of pure play ignores the ways that these networks are imbricated with finance capital, mined for data and marketing information, implicated in new forms for extracting free labor, and made to sustain the myth of a post-work society in general. The “friend,” from this perspective, serves as an enemy to class consciousness. Further, those who express dissatisfaction with the achieved utopia of online friendship risk ostracism and social death. The fantasy of friendship absorbs the shocks and terrors of an increasingly precarious and pressurized world, dulling the desire for contestation.

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Insofar as we still have bodies, they often operate in sync with cybernetic friendship, as we spend our days friending and re-friending our loved ones and business associates, who become increasingly indistinguishable. Our bodily responses have become so tethered to this world of digital friendship that our hearts race when we are messaged or liked, an extra minute of waiting for a text stretches into a timeless misery, the brief panic that accompanies a mysterious defriending by a distant acquaintance allows us a glimpse into the stark world of unfriendedness that lurks a few clicks away. The resonant, bright, droney, and dull sounds that accompany these gestures have now become part of our nervous system, controlling and editing our moods with much more precision and minute-by-minute attunement than our anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs ever could hope to keep up with. In Unfriended all of these naturalized responses are experienced by the audience, but now as overt horror.

This is evident in a scene that has Blaire texting with her boyfriend, Mitch. When he stops answering, the film’s silence turns sinister and the improbably cheery sounds of Blaire’s increasingly worried texts are much more uncanny than any of the actual content or dialogue that follows. The film asks us to endure many such silences, and to follow the plot through reading tiny texts and catching pixelated reaction shots of characters on Skype. This seems like it wouldn’t hold an audience’s attention, but in fact, the uncanny familiarity of the ways that Blaire navigates her multiple social media platforms is a kind of realism not yet seen on the big screen. It’s riveting and visceral.

Through this dramatization of online experience, Unfriended denaturalizes friendship and allows us to admit the terrors that come along with online sociality. It does this by exploring teen relationships, the most superficial and therefore legible site of the cyber-friendship mystique. The film quickly disposes of fantasies of love and camaraderie in a world densely populated with “friends.” Instead, we see the contingency and opportunism in these friendships, which are slowly dismantled by the ghost in the friendship machine, Laura Barns/Bobbie227.

In a new twist on what has become a central myth in horror film, Laura, who was bullied online and subsequently committed suicide, gets revenge on her callow tormentors by ingeniously killing them off one by one — but not without mobilizing this cyber sensorium to scare the shit out of them in a drawn out game. What is new in the film is its mise-en-scène, which is entirely online. The film is focalized through the screen of Laura’s former frenemy, Blaire Lily, and it makes a significant leap in representation by capturing the ways that contemporary subjectivity shapes and is shaped by online experience. Actual death becomes a way to euphemize the phenomena of social death, as we see the friends’ technological savvy, cool detachment, and attractive self-branding disintegrate at the whim of this new form of “the other,” the unfriended.

The idealized personality in this culture of friendship is cyber-literate, popular, and calculatingly laid-back. In the figure of Laura, Unfriended externalizes the dark side of these qualities and holds them up as a mirror. Through the doubling of the protagonist and the monster, we see the perfect isomorphism of the friended and the unfriended. Blaire, whose name might refer to the popular character in the classic teen flick The Breakfast Club, begins as the ideal subject of cyberspace sociality. Popular and pretty, she is contentedly and flexibly friended. She seems to always be in touch with her friends, but not particularly close to them. She sexts with her boyfriend but (ostensibly, at first) is a virgin, showing her adjustment to the repressive desublimation of the time. She navigates the landscapes of technosociality with skill and innovation, but also with an air of casual enjoyment and laid back cool. As we are introduced to her, she is the model arbiter of constantly attentive yet detached feminized technical and emotional labor.

On the other hand, Laura Barns/Bobbie 227 is a sociopathic troll. She has no friends and instead stalks the group video chat of teens, invoking urban myths of cyber-predators masking themselves as teens and the moral panics that follow these myths. Her form of monstrosity also points to Edward Snowden, the disruptive killjoy hacker, who has somehow gathered personal information about Blaire and her friends, and uses it to upset their carefully constructed image brands. She also has the ability to infiltrate and change the contours and functions of various interfaces, interfering with the group’s self-image as technically savvy and adept. While the teens all represent themselves with flattering pictures that emphasize their gendered attractiveness (Blaire’s boyfriend, Mitch, for example, has an avatar that features himself in a muscle builder’s pose), Laura Barns/Bobbie haunts the screen with a generic, sexless avatar and an androgynous name.

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Seemingly, Blaire and Laura couldn’t be further apart. And yet, as the film goes on to reveal who Laura was and why she killed herself we come to see teen and ghost as doubles, rather than opposites, showing the necessarily sinister dimensions of even the most well-adjusted “friend.” The exposition in the very beginning of the film starts this process, which is cemented later on. The film begins with an unseen user clicking on a video that shows Laura shooting herself while a horrified crowd of teens look on. From there, the user, which turns out to be Blaire, hesitates by hovering her curser, but finally clicks on a link to the video that is said to have caused Laura’s suicide, labeled “LAURA BARNS KILL URSELF.” Here we encounter a fairly mundane scene in which Laura aggressively fights another girl at a party, but which wouldn’t explain the suicide at all. And before we can finish the video, Blaire is interrupted from her viewing by a call from Mitch. Even in this initially brief glimpse of Laura, though, we see that she is not a typical victim/loser of slasher films, in the vein of Jason or Freddy. She is not the watcher, the outsider, but rather the insider and seemingly powerful within a ruthless social pecking order. She is pretty and resembles Blaire closely. Further, we come to recognize that she is not being bullied, but is rather herself the bully, upsetting the consensus by reviewers of the film who see it as a story of cyber-bullying.

Instead, one could argue, the film allows a glimpse into the ways that moral panics about bullying and youth practices in cyber culture occlude larger questions about the state of the social in an age of what Nick Dyer Witherford calls the “cyber-proletariat.” [2] In the film, the question of bullying as an obstruction to productive sociality gives way as we see that beneath the thin veil of chumminess, it turns out that all of the characters are without exception bullies. They lie to each other, cheat on each other, turn each other into the cops, secretly tell each other to kill themselves. Throughout the film the characters are not only unfriended, they are “disliked” with an intensity that makes it clear that this dislikeability is structural to their relationships.

Even reviewers who liked the film generally found the characters’ detestable personalities to be a flaw. However, I want to argue that the characters’ uniform unlikeability undermines the surface themes of bullying and turns our attention to more deeply embedded forms of alienation. Bullying, it turns out, is an integral condition of what Paulo Virno calls the “grammar of the multitude,” the way that collective knowledge is shaped and harnessed to the needs of contemporary capitalism. Opportunism and cynicism are central “emotional tonalities” in this moment, not choices but “a fundamental mode of being” (84). In response to contemporary forms of “urban shocks,” as Georg Simmel characterizes the disorienting condition of modernity, a nihilistic personality type has grown, replacing the rationalization of previous forms of production. In this context we all become mean girls, in the name of basic survival and functionality. In the face of a totality characterized by “unexpected turns, perceptible shocks, permanent innovation, chronic instability,” cynical self-interest is the only possible position to take (87). Thus, opportunism cannot be analyzed through a moralistic template but rather has to be seen structurally, as coterminous with precarity itself.

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To see Unfriended through the lens of morality is to enter a handwringing culture focused on cyber bullying and panics surrounding subaltern youth. The containment of the mise-en-scène  in Unfriended to social media and cyber-space underscores that there is no outside to this world of social terror. There are no “mature” forces to counter the youth in the film. Without this fantasy of maturity, it’s hard to read the film as a condemnation of youth culture in the name of a rational outside. It’s more productive to see Unfriended in the lineage of films of the 1960s, such as Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider — both of which saw youthful rebellion, no matter how nihilistic, as both a sign of refusal and a mirror of a generally corrupt society.

As in these 1960s films, the youth in Unfriended are not positively critical of their environment. They act through pure refusal and negation, and this drives them to a certain kind of truth. Until it is impossible to ignore, Blaire, Mitch, Adam, Jess, Ken, and Val deny that Laura/Bobbie227 could possibly be supernatural or a real threat. Instead, they hopefully classify her as a glitch that can be thwarted by the collective cyber-literacy of the group. This reduction of the monster to a “glitch” frames the group as sharing a general cultural delusion: that intractable problems can finally be overcome by technological reason. The core of this belief is that that this age of cybernetics constitutes a transcendence of previous eras of inequality. This is a correlate with the theory popularized by Frances Fukuyama that, with the demise of the Soviet Union, we have reached the end of history, and that the flaws we still detect in the system are merely residual glitches from communism, fascism and other inadequate ideologies. Thus, even after Val, the outlier of the group, is killed by the inexplicable ghost in the machine, the cute and clueless Jess says, in response to the inability of the group to get rid of Laura’s avatar, “weird internet stuff happens to me all of the time.” Laura/Billie227 continually sabotages the groups’ efforts to kill viruses, shut down applications, or to generally make the internet work. In the face of this, the group continues to repress the fact that they are not free users in the ready-made democracy of the internet but rather, as Nick Dyer Witherford calls the “cyber-proletariat,” “positions on the vampire food chain” (9). Until she kills them, and they are brought face to face with the horror, they insist Laura Barns is a glitch.

As the ideology of techno-triumphalism denies class, it denies the body. And yet, bodies still exist while we are messing around in cyberspace, and those bodies are still abused, overworked, starved, denied medicine, raped, and killed in wars. Laura Barns appears through the film as a ghostly avatar, but we seen in the footage that led up to her death that she has a body, and that body is gendered and vulnerable. Well into the plot, the video that we partially saw at the beginning of the film is further revealed and it becomes clearer why Laura killed herself. The footage continues to show Laura passed out and when the camera scans down between her legs we see a large puddle of what could be menstrual blood or liquefied shit. This is captioned with the words “LEAKY LAURA KILL URSELF.” It becomes clear that this publicized humiliation drove Laura to suicide. Here, we see this seemingly razor-edge contemporary film linked with its classic predecessor, Carrie, in which a young girl is mercilessly taunted for her ignorance about menstruation, and by association, excessive female embodiment.

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This continuity argues against another myth of techno-triumphalism, that it is an era of post-feminism, when technical development has evened the playing field between men and women. Carol Clover argues that Carrie signifies both the power and failures of second wave  feminism, and that audience identification marks the ways that men both fear and identify with that figure of power and failure. Unfriended’s construction of the monster is feminized, born out of menstruation, and yet at the same time androgynous; most of the characters call Laura/Bobbie227 “he” for the bulk of the film. In its gender vacillation and its figuration of the monstrous recrudescence of the feminine, the ghost points to a new feminized underclass. The age which gave rise to such manifestos as “Wages For Facebook” has a kinship to the Wages for Housework movement in which emotional, feminized labor began to be recognized as work, and struggles formed around reproductive labor that had traditionally been dismissed as natural tasks of women. The film’s monstrous feminized force, figured as a blank avatar, both represents this class position and points toward its unrepresentability.

Unfriended, then, can provide a critical realism, shedding light on persevering forms of class and oppression that get lost in the discourse of techno-triumphalism. However, when we take a step back, we can see Unfriended as a symptom as well as a diagnosis of this condition. Intrinsic to the myths of techno-triumphalism is the fantasy of creative labor, as Sarah Brouillette and others have outlined. The film, with its small budget, innovative storytelling form, and wide appeal, ballasts this myth that capital supports independent creative projects. However, its producer is Timur Bekmembetov, the director of Night Watch, the most successful movie in Russia to follow the end of Soviet cinema. His production company Bazelevs produced Unfriended along with many international blockbusters. In an interview with the director and the writer, Levan Gabriadze and Nelson Greaves, it emerges that the concepts behind Unfriended came from Bekmambetov. The idea came to the producer because of his own global cyber business practices, which compel him to network and Skype day and night. Thus this ostensible indie film is actually funded by and the brainchild of a high ranking global capitalist, whose production company marks the end of socialist cinema. On their web site, the company boasts “Bazelevs has been integrating brands into films, taking full advantage of product placement, cross promotion and merchandizing.” Unfriended, as an independent film, is both part of this branding and, as we will see, represents innovative new forms of merchandizing.

This synthesis of independent art and branding brings to mind the vagaries of the experimental “footage” in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition. In the novel, the footage is a mysterious and evocative independent film that gains a cult fascination and an on-line following. In the end, the occult distribution of the film turns out to be an innovation in advertising, dreamed up by a rising member of the post-Soviet Russian capitalist oligarchy, Andrei Volkov. The resolution of the quest for the footage has the result of bringing together a forward- thinking US venture capitalist, Hubertus Bigend and Volkov in a marriage plot that projects a future, higher imbrication of culture and capital. Unfriended, too, enacts this escalation of branding and product placement, even as it, like Gibson’s “footage,” provides the viewer with a compelling new form of realism. The pretty, hip, popular Blaire unravels throughout the film, but not without first consolidating her brand in a way that exhibits the possibilities for future product placement. Throughout the film we see the tabs open on her screen that stand as a sign of her tastes and shopping preferences. These include Facebook, Forever 21, iTunes, Free People, Teen Wolf, Johnny Cash, and Cyberbullying. This all works diegetically as a form of description of the world we’re in. However, these diegetic tabs also work as advertising in a canny way that already takes the viewer’s skepticism into account. The insertion of the hip clothing stores Forever 21 and Free People, in the mix of her general signifiers of “good taste” is both a blatant and hidden form of advertising. Moreover, the film was promoted through social media in self-reflexive ways, such as creating a Facebook identity for Laura Barns.

In a final evaluation, I would continue the comparison of Unfriended to Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. Both works are ingenious in creating a cognitive map of new forms of sociality. This realism is admirable, providing tools for critical insight. At the same time, both works seem more enamored with than critical towards the forms they have so skillfully depicted. Pattern Recognition’s marriage plot which compares the merging of US and Russian forms of venture capitalism to the love relationship of its protagonists, seems to find the newness of these forms to be cool and interesting rather than terrifying. Unfriended similarly mobilizes the cyber-hell it has created to weave in ingenious forms of product placement and exploit its own formal innovation. Both works wish to be “friended,” to make money, to be popular, and who can blame them? Still, once she is conjured, the ghost in the machine cannot be fully abolished. After the spectacle, Laura Barns remains to trouble the friend industry in a way that’s hard to shake.

 

Works Cited

[1] Camatte, Jacques. Capital and Community. London: Unpopular Books, 2006. Print.
[2] Dyer-Witheford, Nick.Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. Print.

[3] Virno, Paulo. A Grammar of the Multitude. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. Print.

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