Unfriended: A Glitch in Self-Mediation

Curator's Note

The ability to reformat one's image—to narrate or control what the self is—marks a change in our conception of identity and what we conceive of as our digital "selves."   Yet, with the recent revelations of Facebook privacy leaks and the growing threat of misinformation that "social" media perpetuates, the elation that has characterized the modern plasticity of "self-ness" is frequently undercut by incidences of material violence, bullying, and shaming it facilitates.

Levan Gabriadze's Unfriended (2014) taps into that shaky line between curated self-expression and material violence.  However, the violent "revenge" of the spirit that returns to haunt the “friends" that bullied her, I would argue, is not the central horror of the film itself.  It is a narrative McGuffin of sorts that paves the way for the film's core affective criticism: the gleeful deconstruction of the carefully crafted online "selves" of the main characters.  The film cleverly feints toward traditional horror tropes (the avenging spirit), but frequently is preoccupied by both literal and figurative deconstructions of the bodies/images the doomed teens have carefully crafted through their computer screens, iTunes playlists and Forever 21 searches.  The horror of these self-mediated images lies in their fragility and ultimate translucence—emphasized by the frequent glitches and shadows of their Skype video.  All the ghost in the machine that is Laura Barns has to do is pull up one webcam video or excavate a single Facebook message to unravel the carefully managed selves these kids (and the film's unique POV style) have created—of course the payoff is that she viscerally pulls apart their "real" selves as well.

Though now five years old, the film raises a timely question: what do we do with the increasingly frail connections between the lived, bodily self and the self-image?  I think it is ultimately ambivalent about the answer to that question, but how should we read such ambivalence?  Is the facile and fragile nature of the “curated self” ultimately detrimental?  Or, perhaps, is the film more nuanced in its criticism—pointing out the fact that people, not technology, are always already the problem?  



Lovely work, Dewey. There are strong parallels between Personal Shopper, Cam and Unfriended wherein filmmaking styles from various horror genre manifestions (from 'slasher' tropes in teen terror to explorations of psychological instablity) are revitalised and made all the more frightening through modern technologies.  In terms of articulating the mutability of our identities, your term 'plasticity' aptly describes a key sense of the modern self's fickle nature.  Returning to some of Jenny's points on the metaphorics of 'blackness' discourses, I wonder if 'white plasticity' and 'liquid blackness' might be juxtaposed in dialectical fashion to reveal aspects through which certain understandings of the self fluctuate.. 

I really like this! One thing I'm always struck by is the constant emphasis on the "true" offline self as opposed to the curated perfection of one's online identity. As you point out, the horror of the film can be read as the unravelling of this curation. This focus on supposed authenticity and revealing how people "really" are seems constant. And yet, these same fears don't seem to persist around physical photo albums or other sites of offline identity curation. Why are we so focused on revealing the "truth" of the online self? What other conversations are being pushed to the side?  

This is so true, Dewey and Andrea re: anxieties concerning authenticity. I think it is another version of the question of indexicality that was so pressing in relation to the emergence of digital photography. Now, with the digital perhaps and the lack of indexicality, we fear the inability to self-assert. Self-assertion seems so ineffective in digital space, requiring constant upkeep and curation as you say. The fact that these fears are a theme of the horror genre says a lot about the extent of our cultural anxiety surrounding this.

I think its interesting that in Unfriended the evidence of bad behavior is online whereas in the film Bang Gang (Eva Husson 2015), the bad behavior (in this case sex) ends up seeming to have been successfully removed and suppressed from the online. Your post also brings to mind a film I watched recently The Accused (Gonzalo Tobal 2018), where a girl is accused of murder and there is no evidence because the event occurred at a "free range" party where no social/digital media or phones were allowed so she cannot prove her innocence: this inverts the crisis of Unfriended. 

On a final note, it seems that this is a bonafide sub-genre of horror. What would we call it and is there a larger sub-genre it taps into?

Wow, it's remarkable how much the blog posts touched on dystopian or horror approaches to the self-image. I think Unfriended has much in common with Cam on the "liveness" front. Andrea's post evoked for me that liveness confers a reality effect to the self-image, and the liveness of the Skype video chat in Unfriended contributes to the real-time suspense of the vengeful spirit wreaking havoc with Laura's former friends. It also seemed from the trailer that the film's horror elements seem to stage cultural fears about an Internet of Things--lights that flick on and off without your input, or household kitchen appliances that can turn rogue (ouch). Cam and Unfriended both bring to the fore for me how self-images are corralled alongside these horror commentaries about one's data trail or networked second self, restaging how nothing uploaded to the "cloud" ever goes away. The data trails of Laura's friends spell their demise. I'm always interested by YouTube comments in general, and many comments for this trailer include people talking about deleting Skype, opting out of social media, and throwing away their blenders. In response to your question, Dewey, about the curated self, maybe the commentary Unfriended provides is that one's self is created today in a networked relationship to many people's data profiles--the self that emerges across the photos, tags, and metadata in our networks reveal a more entangled digital "self" than any one person can ever understand or unravel. 

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