Taking a Social Media “Nosedive” and Underrating Common Relationships in Black Mirror
Abstract: This paper discusses the social implications behind Charlie Brooker’s popular Netflix series Black Mirror and the competitive and obsessive one-to-five-star rating system characters use among each other. I conduct a close analysis of the first episode in Season 3, titled “Nosedive,” and how the faux interconnectedness people maintain within social media plays out in all of the relationships with the protagonist, Lacie Pound. This fixation with publicized social ratings miscalculates the relationships Lacie has with her peers, a vital consequence from the game of unnatural five-star selection represented throughout the episode. Importantly, the social meritocracy Brooker highlights in this standalone episode mimics the contemporary issue of social merit obsession through cognitive estrangement, which makes viewers realize the seemingly distant future setting of the show narrates their own present infatuation with digital and social connectivity.
Keywords: Black Mirror, “Nosedive,” social meritocracy, quantified acceptance, ratings, cognitive estrangement, screen culture
Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson’s politeness theory proposes “face” as a calibration of social performance in daily interaction. Individuals hold a particular social value through what face represents: “self-esteem, self-identity, and their credibility as a member of the social group” (Morand and Ocker 2). English producer Charlie Brooker delves further into politeness theory and the social exploitation behind it in his Netflix anthology series Black Mirror. Each episode depicts a standalone scenario revolving around the “personal and social consequences of the use of technology” set in an alternative future, but the episode “Nosedive,” directed by Joe Wright in 2016, exhibits the most realistic situation about today’s perception of social engagement (Third and Domingue 1). The sometimes-faux interconnectedness of modern social media plays out in face-to-face situations between characters in this Black Mirror episode, as the protagonist Lacie Pound strives for recorded, five-star daily interactions to bump her overall rating. Her relationships with the characters reek of superficiality due to her maintained face, which renders her more valuable than those less than her 4.243 rank in the publicized social meritocracy. But this “pastel-colored nightmare of aggressive cheeriness,” Sophie Gilbert describes in her piece for the Atlantic, sets up the superficiality of every character’s relationship with Lacie. The obsession with publicized, quantitative acceptance in Black Mirror’s “Nosedive” outlines the miscalculated relationships between Lacie and her peers as the characters play a game of unnatural five-star selection.
I extend the discussion about the modern regimented practice of building a social media presence online to analyze how the characters in “Nosedive” build their inauthentic lives around this engrossing rating system. The glamor behind the redressing of a front for social media stresses domination and thriving success in how someone carefully chooses to portray themselves publicly. This system of procuring inorganic online presences exists even in the absence of physical ratings, but those public social standings is what Brooker’s Black Mirror uses to present viewers’ social nightmares right in front of them in the most ominous way possible. After sitting down with her coffee order, Lacie strives to make the perfect half-moon bite into her eerily smiley-faced cookie for an online post with an overly animated caption. She proceeds to sip her coffee with the most unsatisfactory reaction, but the positive reactions she receives on her social media procure a more euphoric Lacie as her rating jumps to over 4.259 (Wright). The appearance of a character’s life molds into their actual habits, permitting screen culture to override natural function for personal enjoyment with what Oxford professor Susan Greenfield defines as a time-consuming practice with “at the press of a button you get instant feedback from whatever you’re doing.” Lacie’s social media decorum exposes how ratings dictate the smallest life tasks like how to eat something delicately for a picture to bigger ordeals like what level company to work at and especially who to speak to. A lower rating, such as the 3.124 Chester from Lacie’s office has, indicates that characters are nearing the chopping block at certain institutions and are desperate for a social boost, as Chester brings smoothies to their office that shunned him after splitting up with his boyfriend. Lacie’s acceptance of the smoothie and five-star swipe reassure him because according to their vengeful co-worker, “Of course, if it drops below 2.5, then it’s… bye bye” (Wright). Those in the office who have similar spiteful attitudes lower Lacie’s rating anonymously for showing mercy to a black man in jeopardy with his career. By helping someone of a lower status quo, Lacie taps into the realistic discriminatory nature of the rating system in Black Mirror. The social inequality presented in the one-to-five-star ratings for each character ensures the racially motivated inequality the white characters perpetuate in their homogenized elitism, as I will argue next is not far off from today’s pecking order.
Prejudices influence the rating system to ensure racism and gentrification sustain in a representational culture with the fictional monetization of social ratings. The meritocracy established in “Nosedive” supports “that groups disadvantaged on the basis of gender, ethnic origin, sexuality, and so on, would become disadvantaged in terms of ratings” (Third and Domingue 5). My analysis of this particular episode includes how non-white characters fare in this realistic caste system based on race, and what remarkable consequences they suffer from. Jack, Lacie’s local barista, and Chester are two of the only black characters, and both have less than a four-star rating as seen in Figures 1 and 2.
Whereas Jack’s performance as a barista scores him a modest 3.797 rating, Chester’s lowered rating of a 2.4 later denies him entry at the office, indicating that he has lost his job and social distinction (Wright). These characters carry servile duties as being part of the lower ranks, these include getting coffee orders, bringing smoothies and even seducing women. When Lacie tours the lifestyle community at Pelican Cove, the realtor projects a holographic image of Lacie in a real estate fantasy complete with an accompanying hologram of a shirtless black man feeling her up seen in Figure 3 (Wright).
The sexualized and subservient roles played by the black male characters of “Nosedive” allow for Lacie and her co-workers to overpower them with their high ratings, as if the disregard for minorities in today’s society shapes a conduit for their white counterparts to better opportunities in areas like real estate. The white characters live better off in a seemingly gentrified neighborhood because affordability for nicer housing comes at the cost of a higher rating: those at a 4.5 rating qualify for a 20 percent discount at Pelican Cove (Wright). By having ratings lower than four stars like Jack and Chester, limited-edition housing white washes the area by ensuring a credit score based on social merit unachievable by black people. Businesses like real estate rather issue minorities hefty economic burdens in a representational world where higher-rated characters tap into bigger pools of money.
The financial value of the characters’ social ratings challenges the value of their inner and outer circles, as wannabe influencers like Lacie work to appeal to successful influencers in a social prostitution deal. Hansen Davis, a Reputelligent agent similar to a modern day financial analyst or “rating analyst” as they are sometimes referred to, helps the protagonist plan to boost her 4.269 rating to a 4.5 acceptable for Pelican Cove. But her inner circle of “mid- to low-range folks” sets Lacie back from achieving her goal (Wright). Her rating analyst advises her to get “up votes from quality people,” as distinguished by a rating above four stars. When tweeting at celebrities today, their engagement with the tweet significantly increases the number of likes and retweets an average citizen with less followers normally receives. When I tweeted at one of my all-time favorite musicians Ty Dolla $ign, he liked and quote tweeted the original message with a positive emoji (see Figure 4). This not only announced his engagement on my personal feed followed by 438 people, but also directly posted my content onto his public, celebrity-certified profile with 1.3 million followers.
Lacie must repeat this gradual rise to social fame with multiple influencers to afford a luxurious apartment, connoting notable social engagements with monetary value and turning screen culture into a profitable practice. She works harder to please the “high fours” she interacts with daily, as Davis puts it, but her reeking superficiality grows more potent as she begins to annoy these prime influencers. She offers a croissant to Bethany Jones, a 4.614 who works for the better company on the top floor of their building, and is met with rejection and a mere three-star swipe (Wright). Lacie sells herself short as not only a people pleaser, but a wannabe influencer. She grapples with the fact that kissing up to the high fours only makes her rating stagnant or, even worse, fall. But the need to be surrounded by such an elite crowd both in her inner and outer circles invokes her deeper insecurity that just being herself is not only socially insignificant, but financially worthless. Lacie’s self-hatred causes her to betray her values and even friendships with inferior characters like Chester, whom she denounces after he pleads her for a pity swipe to get him back into their office, due to the vilifying nature of the unconditional rating system Alan Third and John Domingue discuss in their research.
I supplement the analysis of Lacie’s disapproval of her shifting social state with Third and Domingue’s theory behind “ubiquitous personal ratings” played out in the “Nosedive” episode, which they define as treacherous and individually abusive when personally bought into the idea. The directors of the Knowledge Media Institute at Open University in the U.K. determine the current usage of rating systems for applications like Uber, where riders and drivers mutually rate each other from one to five stars based on the trip, carry no consequences outside of the app — rendering the rating system harmless. In Black Mirror, the publicly quantified value of face “is ripe for abuse. We envisage this abuse in the form of malicious, trivial or thoughtless low ratings directly, as shown in the episode, as well as in over-interpretation of low ratings in inappropriate contexts” (Third and Domingue 4). Characters like Bethany maintain their elitist circle by handing out “trivial” low ratings to lower fours to make sure these social climbers do not break into the popular mold. Regarding their distaste for Lacie’s desperation, Bethany and Naomi Blestow, a prestigious 4.8 and old friend of Lacie’s who asks her to speak at her highbrow wedding, demote her from reaching the profitable high four status she chases after for the 63-minute duration of the episode because they cannot afford to abuse their own ratings. After social calamity leaves Lacie at an unsuitable 2.6 rating, Naomi instructs her not to come because her uncalled-for lowered score threatens Naomi’s perfectly calibrated wedding: “When I asked you to speak, you were a 4.2, okay? And the authenticity of a vintage bond low four at a gathering of this calibre played fantastically on all the simulations we ran” (Wright). Lacie’s rejection from Naomi’s wedding, which she was banking on using to increase her own social status, speaks to the self-centered operations working within the rating system. Lacie needs a high four like Naomi to boost her own rating and Naomi needs a low four like Lacie to boost her own rating, but the damage to both of their plans cannot salvage their old friendship as Naomi’s line — “It was numbers for both of us” — reveal that true camaraderie was never the impetus for the invitation (Wright). As politeness theory reveals showing prime face produces the impression of good self-esteem and social standing, the protagonist loses both because she buys too much into the public validation behind the rating system. She leaves herself personally and socially destitute and unworthy of Netflix viewers’ sympathy because of her flagrant attachment to the ubiquitous rating system, which she lets consume herself and simultaneously dilute her amiability toward the other characters.
Opposite to Lacie’s lost congeniality, characters who disengage from the rating system, like Lacie’s brother Ryan, allow them to not fall flat in a deprecating Black Mirror scheme, but to develop legitimate relationships. Brooker’s series title directly references what dauntingly stares back at obsessive technology users — a blank phone or tablet screen, or black mirror, asking if they have become “switched ‘off’ and self-obsessed; a constellation of fears, anxieties and desires; possessed by the urge to look and be looked at?” (Singh 122). Greg Singh, a lecturer on communications, media and culture at the University of Stirling in the U.K., presents a follow-up question about these dark insecurities: if the Black Mirror characters isolate themselves from face-to-face relationships with one another, “then what becomes of trust, and how might we recognise it in each other?” Contrary to what Singh is setting up for his trust argument, I presume Ryan’s digital relationship with his video gaming buddies, although unseen throughout the episode, to be one of the most authentic connections made with healthy five-star engagement. He doubts the subjective well-being of high fours, from Naomi’s perfect life his sister tries to mimic to Lacie’s Pelican Cove pamphlet as seen in Figure 5.
Whereas Jack and Chester face the discriminatory rating due to prejudices based on race and sexuality — Chester’s fallout with his former boyfriend causes his initial demise — Ryan, “white, male and hinted to be heterosexual,” exists as an anomaly to the system, “and it seems plausible that ones investment in ratings in general would vary in inverse proportion to societal privilege” (Third and Domingue 5). His comfortable 3.713 rating allows him to live carelessly regarding the abusive rating system “Nosedive” establishes, but he does not fall into the lower, disenfranchised group of characters like Jack and Chester because of his privileged identity. His empowered stance as a white, straight man co-exists in the real world as well as “Nosedive,” which molds him to be more of an entitled and correspondingly absent-minded character than a wholly compassionate one. I will argue next that Susan, the female truck driver who gives Lacie a ride, genuinely sympathizes with the protagonist because of her psychological detachment from the rating system, which has blacklisted her from the social meritocracy.
Susan’s resistance toward technology makes her the only courteous character in the entire episode because the rating system obstructs sympathy, a core part of human nature: “The digital form, however, seems to render us more fully immersed. Brooker explores both the possibilities and dangers of this immersion by using the form to disrupt our traditional sympathetic habits” (Schnebelen 23). Susan’s pity toward Lacie and her downhill spiral stems from the help she did not receive from doctors who gave an experimental cancer treatment to a 4.4 patient instead of her 4.3 husband who later died (Wright). Her personal digression from 4.6 to 1.423 mimics how her lost composure following her husband’s death lost her five-star swipes and instead gained her a foul ranking. Yet her freedom from social prostitution allows her to understand Lacie’s unwavering commitment to the system, and to advise her that tuning out and turning off gives her and characters like Ryan a true release and a more honest sense of self. Their self-governance in making their own life, in contrast to letting ratings dictate these decisions I mentioned earlier in the paper, mimics how people today remove themselves from social media and the consuming, psychological dichotomy between their public personas and their conflicted private lives to relish in social unrestraint.
The proposed, inauthentic personas of the “Nosedive” characters correspond to how they miscalculate their relationships with each other, and that faux interconnectedness is what Brooker captures as the viewers’ reality through cognitive estrangement. Social media feed curation, the production of a manicured social media presence for self-gratification through quantitative approval, carries a substantive weight on how relationships between people play out. No one seems mentally unwell, but painstakingly joyful, but the first fails to be virtually proven because of what evidence is uploaded online: “What seems to have happened in this process is that the projection of such material upon social networking practices has led to an over-identification with the imaginative ‘self’ that exists as data, images, text; a social media profile that acts as a surrogate for personality; in other words, a vicarious, ‘inauthentic’ self” (Singh 125). The protagonist debuts her surrogate persona for the majority of the Black Mirror episode, which Singh’s “‘always-on’ culture” touches on and present-day viewers exercise regularly due to their hyper-engaging attitude toward technology. Lacie remains connected with her peers beyond her phone and computer by never shutting off a device, but still predicting how much presumably better their lives are than hers. The episode mimics the real world’s assumed network where being physically “on” goes beyond to always being in perfect tune with “real relationships, and real-time lives…. the boundaries between reality and virtuality have become blurred, somehow artificial, and that those distinctions no longer seem to matter as much as perhaps they once did, is significant for this line of thinking — connectivity is assumed; connectivity is ubiquitous” (Singh 128). In fear of recorded judgment through lower ratings, Lacie makes elegant tapenade in the supposed comforts of her own home and orders desserts in pursuit of a post-able aesthetic as opposed to physical nourishment. The protagonist and her peers deprive themselves of a comfortable life in exchange for fictional satisfaction, which pokes at how current younger generations operate to make “Nosedive” the most horrific episode of Black Mirror: it feels too real, even though everything about it screams being fake. Brooker produces this ploy through cognitive estrangement “to place us in an alternative reality, and then reveals the reality to be our own. This defamiliarization often occurs in the beginning of the episodes where the human/technology relationships seem like something in the distant future. It becomes clear as plots progress that we are often closer to the science fiction world — sometimes already in it — than we realized” (Schnebelen 45). He simply amplifies this obsessive relationship with technology by delivering it beyond phone and tablet screens and letting publicized social standards directly influence the characters’ way of life through job qualifications and housing restrictions. Characters’ battle each other for supreme social media followings, and this realistic battle grows more tangible in Black Mirror by letting those lower than the status quo suffer without special privileges and even without employment. I will argue next that the social-driven echelons distort how Lacie physically sees her peers in the episode as she subjectively sees what they are up to and what she needs to be a part of through retinal technology.
Each character in “Nosedive” has retinal implants that allow them to maintain face, or their personal presentation, in conversation while physically avoiding eye contact in an unorthodox way to engage in social support. Erving Goffman’s dramaturgy theory, which propagates the concept of face, identifies individuals as “social ‘actors’” who use “linguistic, behavioral, and gestural displays to present a positive self-image (‘face’); they seek to create certain impressions in others, to appear smooth and competent in their role performances, to be perceived as appropriately heedful and supportive of others’ performances, and so forth” (Morand and Ocker 2). Lacie and Bethany use abstract gestures to display their loyalty to one another in the battle between a 4.2/4.3 Lacie floats between and a 4.6 Bethany upholds. They, much like most Black Mirror figures, have augmented-reality lenses to see each other’s profiles without their phone screens (Wright). Their “supportive” social media practices allow them to physically look off into the distance and actually distance themselves from a genuine face-to-face interaction seen in Figure 6.
Their phones are compatible with their retinal implants, allowing them to check up on their peers while standing right next to them and therefore making traditional small talk even smaller. Any face-to-face interaction throughout Lacie’s day-to-day routine is well-researched and machined, which further plays out in their inorganic relationships and collective lives. When Lacie lands in jail for her inappropriate behavior at Naomi’s wedding, she uses what looks like a modern auto refractor, the computer-regulated machine at an ophthalmologist’s office where patients undergo eye examinations, to remove her augmented-reality lenses (Wright). She is forced to see without filters how her detrimental obsession with quantified ratings did not produce an enjoyable, high-quality life she had originally set out to. After being ostracized from the highbrow wedding and the rest of the highbrow world she had been imagining fitting into so perfectly, she is left with a misaligned reality that fishing for five-star swipes only outlined her demise, not her intended uprising.
Her societal downfall releases her from the grips of the social meritocracy, as Lacie loses her composure at the end of “Nosedive” and immerses in an unknown freedom from technology. Her discussion with the man in the jail cell across from hers details her transition out of the aggressively nice and always social “Nosedive” world — she goes from pretending to give digital and verbal likes to everyone to spitting out everything she does not like about the man (Wright). She laughs, she swears — which once marked her lower for unacceptable airport behavior that led to her initial collapse — and she begins to understand the release and sheer joy Susan felt when she erupted in the wake of her husband. In Lacie’s case, no one dies except for her online persona. The cacophonous “Fuck you!” she exchanges back and forth with the man in the jail cell for the episode’s final scene signals her uncouth becoming into her real self, finally detached from the technology-driven world (Wright). Brooker’s Black Mirror as a whole makes viewers realize “what technology does to the self; what happens when the tool itself begins to change the shape of its user?” (Schnebelen 46). This standalone episode shows how technology not only changes the way Lacie lived her life, but how she lived in accordance with everyone in it. And once she finally isolates herself from almost everyone and from all screens and augmented-reality gadgetry, she begins to change how bleak her reflection once was.
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