By Eli Natinsky
IABCLA Vice President of Operations
“I know very little about anything, but what I do know is that if you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.” -Bo Burnham, YouTube star
I admit it – I don’t share much personal information on social media. Why? Maybe it’s not my nature. Maybe I don’t crave the level of peer approval I did years ago. Maybe I know people are watching and a misstep could hurt my changes of securing whatever it is the grown-up me needs – a job, a reference, a loan. It’s probably some combination of the three.
I was struck, therefore, by “Eighth Grade,” written and directed by Bo Burnham, a professional YouTuber. The film chronicles the last week of middle school for Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a 13-year-old growing up in unnamed American suburb. “Eight Grade” is very much a study of the here and now in that Kayla is an avid social media user – she has a YouTube blog, she constantly posts to Instagram and Snapchat, and she closely follows her classmate’s online activities.
The subject matter is familiar territory for Burnham, one of YouTube’s first stars. The platform had recently launched when, at the age of 16, he began posting his original satirical songs for his friends and family. The segments quickly went viral. I watched a few of his early videos including “I’m Bo Yo.” Just how “viral” are we talking? Burnham’s rapping and keyboard playing on that ditty has now garnered it 28 million views.
Burnham was a recent guest on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” He spoke about “Eighth Grade” and the fact that he wanted to make a movie that is not judgmental of today’s online climate. Rather, he wanted to be an observer who takes an “emotional inventory.”
“I really set out to just make a story about how I was feeling at the time that I was writing it, which was nervous, and sort of wanting to talk about the Internet and how it felt to sort of be alive right now,” Burnham said.
“The problem is it – we are hyper-connected, and we’re lonely. We’re overstimulated, and we’re numb. We’re expressing our self, and we’re objectifying ourselves. So I think it just sort of widens and deepens the experiences of what kids are going through.”
Burnham’s last thought particularly resonates, and I feel fortunate social media wasn’t around in my younger years. Growing up is hard enough without the added pressure to perform as Kayla does in the film. I found it troubling that she advises viewers “How to Be Confident” on her blog even though she’s a mass of self-doubt and insecurity. Another scene that made me uneasy had Kayla wake up, get out of bed, put on makeup, return to her covers, take a selfie, and post it with the caption, “Ug! Woke up like this!
I am curious how I would have handled social media if it had been around when I was a teen. Like Kayla, would I have also taken endless selfies? Would I have had my own video blog? Would I have felt the need to constantly “like” and comment on my classmate’s posts? I’ll never know.
I can only tell you how I use social media now, and that’s in a more practical and responsible manner. It often serves as my news aggregator, as well as my resource for learning about people, places, and things. I’ll often say during the course of conversation, “I’ve heard of that!” How exactly did I hear of “that?” The answer is likely Facebook or Instagram. Someone probably posted an item, I saw it, and then I put it out of my mind until it was discussed some months later.
On a final note, I want to mention a scene in “Eighth Grade” I found relatable. It’s the end of the day, and Kayla has retired to her room. Enya’s ethereal “Orinoco Flow” is heard as Kayla’s eyes dart across her phone. Overlaid on the teen’s face is a collage of various photos, videos, emojis, what have you. She’s in utter bliss. It is a wonderful melding of sights and sounds, and it’s one of the best representations of the social sphere I’ve seen. There are times when I’ll also lie in bed and scroll. The imagery is random and infinite and, as Enya sings in the chorus of her tune, I “sail away, sail away, sail away…”
Eli Natinsky is IABCLA’s vice president of operations. His writing explores various media, marketing, pop culture, and technology topics. Additional pieces are on his website: elinatinsky.com.