“Almost every adult I’ve talked to about social media has remarked how glad they are that they didn’t have it when they were in high school. What does that say about our true feelings about this thing we’re all glued to?”
Jonathan Ignatius Green’s thoughtful and highly entertaining documentary Social Animals, which premiered to great acclaim at last year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) film festival, looks at the effects of social media on young people.
Following three teens as they grapple with the ups and downs of lives lived within the clutches of Instagram, with a chorus of young people giving their own thoughts direct to camera, if you’re over 30 Social Animals will make you glad none of this was around when you were a kid. (And yet…)
Breezy and pretty Kaylyn Slevin, the daughter of millionaires, is an Instagram influencer with a beach lifestyle. Humza Deas is an urban photographer who climbs New York’s bridges and buildings by night to get the best shots. Emma Crockett is a typical teen in a church high school in Ohio. All three are burnt – to a greater or lesser extent – by social media’s dark side.
I asked director Jonathan Ignatius Green about making his film, reactions from kids and parents, and how the three are doing now…
Sarah: How did the idea for Social Animals come about?
Jonathan Ignatius Green: I’m a partner at a content agency called Conscious Minds. We had been creating Instagram content and strategies for years for brands like Nike and had a lot of first hand experience with the rise of influencer culture on this and other platforms.
At one point my business partner Blake said “why don’t we do a documentary about this.” After a lot of development of the project (which including shooting a lot of footage that never made it into the film), we decided to focus the film on teenagers, this first generation to have grown up with cameras and social media in their pockets as one of the main tools for navigating adolescence
Between them, Humza, Emma and Kaylyn, your three main subjects, really cover the ups and downs of Instagram life. Did you have to spend a long time looking for people who had really seen the bad side of Instagram, or did most people have a story to tell about that?
In the course of looking for compelling stories, we heard a lot about the positives and the negatives of life lived on the platform. Many of those anecdotes became fodder for the “chorus” montages that appear throughout the film.
We got kind of lucky in finding Emma, who obviously represents some of the darker aspects of the platform. She was the last subject we cast and we were specifically looking for someone who had gone through something very difficult on or because of Instagram.
We got connected to a counsellor in Ohio who works with teenagers. After chatting for a few minutes about the kind of story we were looking for, he said, “This might sound kind of weird, but you’re describing my daughter.” And then he introduced us to Emma.
Three weeks later we were on a plane to film with her and her family.
Did they tell you why they wanted to take part?
Emma specifically wanted to take part because she believed that her story might encourage other young women who have had similar experiences.
Humza and Kaylyn likely just saw it as more publicity, but they did also like the idea of someone telling their real stories rather than just a little news blurb or social media posts. They were gracious to let us into their lives.
How did making the film affect you? Do you use social media differently now, or have you developed immunity to trolls and other people’s curated feeds?
I don’t know that I use social media differently, although I did create a second (public) account shortly before the film premiered, as a modest effort to keep professional and private content separate. But now I mostly just use my public one because all my friends follow that one as well and it’s too much work managing both. Who’s got time for that?
Honestly, the things I experienced hanging around teenagers for two years probably effected the way that I parent more than it did my own behaviour. My son became a teenager while I was making this film so the questions I was asking each of these teens were, in a way, coming from my own parental inquiry. I think parents right now, because they didn’t have social media in high school, are struggling to find the best way through uncharted territory.
The age-old tension between protecting from harm while not being overly strict or sheltering is especially challenging when it comes to social media. And unlike sex or drugs or other powerful things parents instruct teens about, they have no first-hand experience of navigating high school with social media, so it can be hard to encourage healthy behaviour.
They likely aren’t really sure what healthy behaviour looks like.
What have people’s reactions been to the film and is there a split by age? Have you been harangued by horrified parents or were you really confirming (very entertainingly!) what people already suspected?
The response has been great. There have been some horrified parents, but for the most part the film has done exactly what we hoped for; sparked more dialogue not just about teenagers and social media, but about adults’ behaviour as well.
The teens and tweens making up your Chorus, speaking directly to camera about how they use social media and its pitfalls, were terrific. They were all so honest and also so clued up. Were they typical of the young people you spoke to?
They very much were. What’s great about this age of development is just how honest teens are willing to be about their experiences, especially when they can sense that you are actually interested in them and in hearing their stories.
What do you think the answers might be to dealing with the pressures and problems of social media? Your Chorus seemed to be quite resilient but at their age they shouldn’t have to be that way.
I think balance and moderation is the answer to almost everything in life. Too much of anything, even seemingly good or innocuous things, can pose problems.
But, as mentioned above, I think we (as a culture) are still trying to discern what balance really is. I’ve talked to a number of adults that have struggled with comparison and self-worth issues they attribute to social media use.
Some, including myself, have even deleted Instagram for a month or two, a kind of mental fast to bring the psyche back into balance.
And almost every adult I’ve talked to about social media has remarked how glad they are that they didn’t have it when they were in high school. What does that say about our true feelings about this thing we’re all glued to?
You never mock or criticise your subjects, even though it would be easy to make fun of Kaylyn, who is very privileged. Was that something you were clear about with yourselves when you started planning the film?
I think my approach to documentary filmmaking is to build empathy for characters first. Their own short-comings and situations will reveal themselves, and people can make their own judgements without the filmmaker forcing his/her own judgements.
That’s not to say that my point of view isn’t embedded into the film. I think it’s just more subtlety there. I guess I prefer narrative sandpaper over the think-this-way hammer.
I’m also drawn to characters that have both virtues and vices, and do my best to depict both of those facets honestly. Because we all have both. Kaylyn works harder than most teenagers I’ve met. She’s very driven. Her value system and worldview may be different from my own, but if I was to make her simply a symbol of what her lifestyle might represent then the audience would start to see her as only a stereotype and not as a person.
At that point I think I’ve failed as a storyteller, at least the kind of storyteller that I strive to be.
Did you have lots of footage that didn’t make the final cut? They are three such coherent stories, was it hard to edit?
Uh. Yeah. Doc filmmaking IS editing. As my first feature film, it was a struggle to make all of these stories work together in the way I imagined they could. But I had a great team of storytellers in the editing bay. We probably restructured the entire film over a dozen times.
Emma, Humza and Kaylyn – how are they doing now? Are you still in touch? Also did they meet after filming?
They’re all doing really well. I’m in touch with each of them periodically. Humza is still going strong, building his photography career. Kaylyn just turned 18 and just won Miss Utah Teen USA.
Emma is actually married and living in West Texas with her husband. She and Humza came to the SXSW premiere last March. They met there while doing press interviews for the film. They were both very sweet and excited to meet. They all sat next to my family at the premiere.
My son was geeking out that he got to sit next to Humza. (He’s an aspiring photographer himself.)
Do you feel you understand more or less about social media after making the film – in that sometimes the more you dig down, the more confusing something becomes? I use Instagram but I was baffled why over 600 people would Like a post about what colour Kaylyn should paint her walls, within two minutes of her posting.
Yeah, it’s kind of nuts. I guess I’d say I understand it more. But life online is a complicated and often bewildering one.
Making Social Animals, did you get any hints as to what the next social media trends will be? In some ways it’s been around for ever hasn’t it, we used to go on chatlines in the 1980s and speak to other local teens (until the phone bill came in!)
Ha. Yeah. At the end of the day, I think there’s only one social media trend; to share a piece of oneself and get feedback from a group on what they think of what you’ve shared. It’s the “social” in “social media”. Humans have always done it. That’s why we could pull the name our film from the 2500 year old reflection of a Greek philosopher. [Aristotle, who said “Man is a social animal”]. The only difference is that we are now doing it more rapidly and in a more disembodied way.
The short and long-term effects of this disembodiment is likely that we start to think of ourselves and others more like products than people.
The 600 girls that liked Kaylyn’s wall colour post have never met Kaylyn. She’s more like a product to them, like Barbies they used to play with, but they get to “interact” with this Barbie.
It’s hard to say what that means for our culture. It may mean a decrease in empathy. Sherry Turkle of MIT has written about this quite a bit, and her arguments are quite compelling, I must say. I wrote a longer think piece for a marketing publication that explored some of these themes.
This was a first feature for you. Do you want to stay in documentary filmmaking or move into telling fictional stories? What’s next on your movie-making “to do” list?
We are actually developing a number of documentary and scripted projects, many connected to true crime stories, although the screenplay I’m currently working on is completely fictional. I’m very interested in both docs and scripted films. I doubt I’ll ever abandon either.
Social Animals garnered acclaim and awards when it came out. Was there a high point for you during all of that? And did you get to meet any of your heroes?
The SXSW film festival was definitely a high point. It’s a wonderful festival for so many reasons and the perfect place to get to premiere our film.
I did meet Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez at the filmmakers luncheon, which was super cool, but I have to confess I was more excited to meet Bart Layton who was there screening his new film American Animals. I have referenced his beautifully haunting documentary The Imposter for years and was really blown away by his new film as well. It was a pleasure to get to chat with him about his journey from documentary filmmaking to more scripted projects, and have him ask about my film as well.
Connecting to the community of independent filmmakers at the festival was a year highlight for sure. And I’m hoping to return to the festival this year as an alum.
Read my 4-star review of Social Animals