In a recent article for the London Review of Books titled “You Are the Product,” John Lanchester takes a rather skeptical view of Facebook and Google, arguing that these sites don’t exist to bring people together or provide information, but rather to collect data on their users that they can sell to advertisers. Lanchester goes so far as to deem Facebook “the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind,” adding “it knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government agent has ever known about its citizens.” The article creates a frightening portrait of the social media landscape—Lanchester writes that Facebook is basically an amoral operation, selling user information to whomever pays for it, including organizations that seek to spread disinformation in the form of news. The site, he argues, is a threat to journalism as well as privacy.
I thought of “You Are the Product” when I was watching Friend Request, a new Facebook-themed horror film that opened last Friday. Way less scary than Lanchester’s article, the movie mines frights from social media but doesn’t critique it in any way. It’s no more than a cheap attempt to cash in on the zeitgeist, showing what happens when a Facebook-like site gets hacked by a paranormal presence. Friend Request doesn’t consider how the site accommodates this presence, and aside from a brief discussion of Internet addiction, the film doesn’t consider how social media might negatively impact its users either. The threat in Friend Request is entirely supernatural, letting Facebook and its users off the hook.
Laura, the heroine of Friend Request, is a psychology student at a California university who uses social media compulsively. The filmmakers characterize her as normal, showing her to be in touch with her friends and sociable with others. Throughout the movie we see how many “friends” she has on the Facebook-like site, the filmmakers presenting this as a reflection of her well-being and not an obsession with online status. The plot kicks into gear when a new student joins Laura’s psychology class. This young woman, Marina, represents Laura’s opposite; she’s ugly, solitary, and friendless. She reaches out to Laura via social media, and Laura, taking pity on the new new student, accepts her request to be “friends.” In no time the outcast begins stalking the heroine, sending her messages constantly online and following her around in the real world.
The movie vilifies the new student from the get-go. Not only is she physically unattractive and socially maladroit, she compulsively tears out her hair and throws tantrums when she doesn’t get her way. One character suggests that she may be mentally ill, though no one ever thinks of finding her psychiatric treatment. The filmmakers essentially blame her for failing to grasp social codes; Laura’s casual promise of friendship is meant to seem like nothing more than a nice gesture, even though it clearly means a lot to Marina. When Laura unfriends Marina online, the latter commits suicide and films the act, sharing it on the Internet as a live stream. The movie’s attitude toward suicide is disgustingly callous—rather than foster sympathy with a person desperate enough to end her own life, Friend Request presents her suicide as a means of intimidating the nice people around her.
After Marina dies, strange things start happening on Laura’s social media account. Her account shares the video of Marina’s suicide, even though she didn’t actively choose to share it. Then her close friends start getting hypnotized by a supernatural force in their computers that compels them to kill themselves. It turns out that Marina is a demon who’s using the Internet to haunt Laura, malignly intervening in every aspect of her life that’s affected by computers. Laura finds that she’s unable to delete her online profile or even turn off her electronic devices—her connection to the Internet is irrevocable.
Within this dumb story lies the potential for a worthy critique of social media along the lines of Lanchester’s article, with Marina’s invasion of Laura’s life serving as a metaphor for Facebook’s invasive practices. Friend Request might also have critiqued the ways in which people use social media to bully and ostracize others, as the superior Blumhouse horror film Unfriended did. Yet the makers of Friend Request never fault the heroine and her friends for living primarily through social media, nor do they suggest that the haunting is anything other than supernatural. It’s a film devoid of subtext, which is especially disappointing given that the subtext would have been so easy to incorporate.