Social Media and Identity Formation in Bo Burnham’s Film, 'Eighth Grade'
Rather than moralize, critique, or make grandiose statements about "digital natives", writer-director-wunderkind Bo Burnham brilliantly visualizes what it means to live in a world in which social media is omnipresent.
If you experience Eighth Grade (2018) from the far side of middle school, you most likely watch the movie as an anthropologist. Older audiences see a foreign world in which 13-year-old Kayla (brilliantly played by Elsie Fisher) experiences everything and everyone through the frame of social media, including Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, and a host of other digital windows into dynamic social worlds unfolding "live".
The definition of "older audiences" is relative and perhaps even minimal. In a telling scene from the movie, a high-school senior tells Kayla that despite the mere four years separating the two in age, they live in different worlds. In fact, the high-school student posits that the two don't even share the same "generation" because he and his immediate peers remember their childhood unplugged and disconnected from social media. In contrast, for Kayla and her peers, there is no outside of social media.
Social media is the brave new world that sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors, public health professionals, politicians, therapists, teachers, and parents everywhere are trying to understand, moderate, regulate, and in some extreme cases trying to abolish, as if we are not already reduced to data that is peddled and sold to companies and corporations.
Social media is the brave new world in which kids are now thrown and in which older generations can offer little to no guidance.
It's easy for critics to make absolute claims about social media. The number of books and articles denouncing social media as Apocalyptic—as heralding the death of civilization, the death of childhood, the death of civility, the death of privacy, and the death of personhood—could occupy a large section of the Library of Congress. Of course, such arguments are reductive and false. Every time a new medium (the singular of "media") is introduced, a loud army of critics, weaponized with words and credentials, declare that such a medium is the downfall of civilization. This was true with video games, rap music, television, comics, and even novels. Leaping back a few centuries, Plato expressed grave concern about the deleterious impact that a then newer medium was having on social life and institutions: the medium of writing.
Elsie Fisher as Kayla (still from A24 trailer)
Throughout Eighth Grade, writer-director-wunderkind Bo Burnham brilliantly visualizes what it means to live in a world in which social media is omnipresent. In one scene, the graduating middle-school class gathers in the high-school auditorium. If this was a nostalgic movie romanticizing the past, students in such a scenario may have been shown as attentive to the principal at the podium. But in this new digitally-mediated world, everyone's eyes are glued to their personal screens. Burnham's camera is positioned high, offering an overhead view as the camera sweeps down the vast auditorium. Despite the students' differences—their diverse races, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, sizes, and shapes—they all have one thing in common: they are nearly all engrossed in digital media.
Older audiences may isolate this scene as evidence that the modern world is "fallen". (This "recognition" of the present as "fallen" is one of the oldest aesthetic tropes, one predicated on romanticizing the past as a "golden age" from which the present is contrasted. This trope is prevalent from pastoral poets such as Hesiod writing in 700 BCE to present-day chants to "Make America Great Again".) Rather than moralize, critique, or make grandiose statements about "digital natives", Burnham does something more profound and lasting: he explores what it means to navigate this digitally-mediated world and what it means to forge an identity in this new social reality.
Indeed, Eighth Grade dismantles the soft-thinking humanism that posits "universal" experiences and ahistorical narratives. Life is always historically and materially mediated in specific, concrete ways. "Eighth Grade" does not signal some universal threshold and experience. Rather, how eighth grade is experienced depends on a range of ever-changing factors, including the technology that shapes and mediates the present.
During the assembly—when all the students are engrossed in their personal digital devices—the principal announces that each student will receive the "time capsule" each of them created at the beginning of middle school. While social media may be the most conspicuous media in the movie, Eighth Grade is replete with other media forms. In fact, the time capsule (in this case, a shoe box) is itself a medium that houses other media such as cassette tapes, journals, and magazines clippings.
Time capsules allow a person to preserve their identity in a mediated form. All media, Eighth Grade understands, is deeply tethered to the project of identity fashioning and formation. All media—from writing and drawing to Instagram and YouTube—are platforms for individuals to create and recreate their identities. We all fashion and refashion ourselves through various media—through letter writing, framed photographs, résumés, e-mails, shared stories, diary entries, YouTube videos, etc. Through different media, we craft the "self" we want the world to see, to know, and to discuss behind our back. Crafting our public self in and through social media—and all media, by definition, is social—is a project, to some degree, of fiction. We all highlight aspects and features we want people to see and conversely, we conceal what we perceive to be flaws and failures.
Elsie Fisher as Kayla, Josh Hamilton as Mark Day (Photo by Linda Kallerus / IMDB)
Eighth Grade opens with Kayla creating a "self-help" video to upload to her YouTube channel. In her visual self-fashioning, Kayla uses makeup and strategic lighting to cover all skin blemishes and erase all teenage acne. Moreover, she projects a self that contrasts her non-digitalized self. Within the digital frame of the video, Kayla projects a confident, "cool", popular, gregarious kid who gives advice to adolescents about how to navigate the complex world of middle school. Kayla gives advice about how to be confident, how to be fashionable, how to be cool, how to be the best version of "you".
These performances for social media can be judged as a fiction. This "YouTube Kayla" seems the opposite of the "real Kayla" we see slouching through the hallways of middle school and through her hometown. Outside of these YouTube videos, Kayla is a painfully shy, lonely adolescent who desperately wants to make friends. Kayla has no best friend. In fact, she seems to have no friends. Her use of social media is a yearning to make connections, to become someone she is currently not. She wants social media to live up to its title as "social". But the videos she uploads to her YouTube channel have virtually no likes or followers. Social media is not always social. Sometimes, as in the case of Kayla, it can be a lonely voice desperately wanting to be heard. And failing to be heard.
The movie may suggest a binary between "YouTube Kayla" and what may be identified as the "real" Kayla. But Eighth Grade rejects such reductive binaries predicated on the damaging concept of "authenticity". There is no "authentic" Kayla outside of social media. YouTube and other forms of social media are not sites of inauthenticity made legible by the "real", unmediated self. In fact, it's the latter that's the ultimate fiction. Where do we locate the unmediated self? When are we not performing? When are we not on stage? When are we not mediated? There is no authentic self that is hiding behind layers of fabricated mediation. The self is a mediated fabrication. We all attempt to control our narrative through manipulating given media. We all try to perform our best self. We all do this. Every day.
One of the tremendous strengths of Eighth Grade is how it rejects the logic of authenticity, so central to coming-of-age narratives. So many coming-of-age stories remain entrapped in a logic of authenticity, of characters searching for their authentic self and looking for someone who is authentic. In contemporary coming-of-age stories, there are myriad ways to signify authenticity. Acoustically, such is typically signified by a soundtrack featuring music that is ideologically unplugged and delinked from a digital modernity. This logic is exemplified by Garden State (2004). The love between the protagonists (Zach Braff and Natalie Portman) blossom over an acoustic soundtrack that eschews electronic music. These two outsiders, misunderstood by the surrounding world, bond over the music of Simon & Garfunkel, Nick Drake, and Remy Zero. The Postal Service's electronic song "Such Great Heights" appears on the soundtrack as an acoustic remake by Iron & Wine. Authentic music is predominately unplugged and, it should be noted, predominately white.
In contrast to the ideological sound of authenticity, Eighth Grade features a score that is entirely electronic. The digitalized score by Anna Meredith is not alienating (the reactionary take on digital music), but rather, warm and enveloping. Digital media is the dominant medium through which Kayla must learn to fashion herself. There is no unplugging and retreating to some fictional "outside".
Rather than a divide between Kayla's digital and non-digital self, the two are inextricable. An argument can be made that Kayla's "putting yourself out there" videos posted on YouTube are what give her the confidence to experience new situations. When Kayla becomes "invited" to a popular girl's birthday party by the latter's mother at the last minute, Kayla has every reason not to attend the party. She knows through social media that she was never invited in the first place. But bolstered by her confidence-boosting YouTube videos, Kayla decides to go to the party that she knows will be humiliating. It's a swim party. At the expensive, expansive party house, Kayla nervously changes into her bathing suit. With slumped shoulders, Kayla wills herself forward. As she walks to the swimming pool, Kayla's YouTube self is heard in voiceover. Her digital self addresses and encourages Kayla every step of the way: into her bathing suit, out the bathroom door, across the living room, out the patio door, down the steps, and into the pool.
In the pool, Kayla serendipitously meets Gabe (Jake Ryan). The two engage in awkward yet shared exchanges and later, Kayla goes to Gabe's family home for an adolescent date in which Gabe serves a meal of Chicken McNuggets. The two bond over preferred dipping sauces and shared Rick and Morty jokes. On this date, Gabe tells Kayla that he's seen her YouTube videos and that he likes them. Social media helps deepen and strengthen their connection.
As Eighth Grades highlights, there's no going back to a pre-digital world. What matters is how we use digital media to fashion and frame our ever-shifting self and how we use media to create new meanings and forge new communities.
Conversely, as the movie suggests, we must not romanticize more traditional media. A medium is a designed channel of communication, including writing, maps, and cave paintings. Understood in its widest sense, the school podium is a medium. To return to the scene discussed above, the principal at the podium, after telling graduating eighth-graders that they will receive their time capsule, announces the winners of various categories from best smile to most beautiful eyes. Kayla is a recipient of one of the awards. She is bestowed with the title "Most Quiet".
Is this medium (the podium), controlled by a singular authority (in this case, the principal), categorically better than digital media which allows multiple participants and voices? Digitalized social media allow us to challenge how dominate media frame and narrate us. Moreover, digital media can challenge hierarchically organized media that categorically disallow the masses from participating and having a voice. Social media can be used for pernicious purposes, but it can also be used for projects that see beyond the myopic confines of the present. Whereas many traditional media create a "center-margin pattern of organization", social media, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, has the potential to create "multiple centers without margins" ("Media and Cultural Change" in Essential McLuhan, Routledge, 1977)
Near the movie's end, Kayla burns her time capsule. All the "hopes and dreams" contained by this medium have proven false. The "self" archived in the time capsule is not the same "self" Kayla is now. But this scene of burning is not presented as an existential trauma. Rather, the movie ends with Kayla creating a new time capsule—this time a digital video rather than a shoe box—that is addressed to her future self, four years into the future. Will the Kayla graduating high school recognize the eighth-grade Kayla? Are the two even the same person? (These are questions not unique to a digital modernity. Samuel Beckett brilliantly explored such questions in his 1958 play, Krapp's Last Tape.) Kayla creating a new time capsule allows her to assess the self she is now and imagine a different self: the self she hopes to become through social media.
For how it deconstructs and explores identity in the digital age, Eighth Grade deserves to be placed in a time capsule for one of the best movies of 2018.