I decided to start watching Season 3 of Netflix's Black Mirror this past Saturday night, while babysitting my 3-month-old niece. She was asleep, and my options were either: Turn on Gilmore Girls for the thousandth time, or indulge my curiosity about the British drama. I expected it to be a trippy mashup of The Stepford Wives meets Pleasantville. There's something satisfying about watching a messed-up alternate universe and then returning to your own, more sane life. But to my horror, I got just the opposite. In a blurb about the sci-fi series, Netflix calls it "a twisted, high-tech near-future where humanity's greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide." Netflix is wrong. The stories Black Mirror tells may be fictional narratives, but the world it depicts, at least in the Season 3 premiere, "Nosedive," is all too real. It's basically a snapshot of 2016 enhanced by Snapchat's "beauty" filter — you know, the one that's slightly ethereal, makes your complexion impossibly smooth, and gives everything a glow. The episode opens on what looks like a vaguely futuristic view of suburbia that's eerily pastel and perfect. But as soon as the main character, Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard) appears, any pretense is forgotten. Lacie is on her phone constantly, living a life ruled by a series of clicks and ratings. In this world, each character's purpose in life, with the exception of a few outcasts, is to raise their social media status. To do so, you must be sickeningly saccharine to others (everyone rates each other on a five-star scale after each interaction) and look for an Instagram-worthy moment in every situation.
It's disturbingly familiar. Like Lacie, many of us live life according to a five-star scale. It's how we rate our Uber drivers, Airbnbs, and customer service representatives, and how they rate us back. It's also how we go through dating apps — if someone is a four or five (maybe a three), you swipe right; otherwise, you go left. Lacie's life depends on her status online, and in some ways, ours does, too. Your follower count on Instagram can lead to a career and lucrative brand partnerships, and your Twitter following can garner you speaking opportunities. But you have to play your cards right. If you don't post the right thing — an inspirational quote, a coffee and a glossy mani, a slice of cake with just one bite missing — your followers could drop, and your funds dry up. Of course, as proven by a few of the episode's outcasts — characters who speak without a filter and whose status falters as a result — living a social media-driven life is a choice. It is for us, too. No one forces you to be on Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat. But it's also understood that there are social implications of not being on those apps. It's harder to make plans with friends, share an announcement with a broader group, or see what events are coming up. What made me so uncomfortable when watching this episode is that I can't imagine a world without social media. As a tech editor, it seems like every day I get pitched a new app, site, or device with a social-ranking element. But does our ever-increasing presence online doom us to end up as Lacie eventually does, imprisoned in some virtual jail cell if we ever choose to abandon these accounts? My uncertainty prevented me from watching more than that one episode of Black Mirror. I was too scared that the rest of the series would continue to hit uncomfortably close to home. Immediately after it was over, I went on Instagram and deleted what I deemed staged, Lacie-like posts (many of which involved coffee and some sort of pastry). But the next morning, I was back to Snapchatting a photo of a coffee cup with the words "Death Before Decaf." Habit's a bitch. But I was more introspective about my reasons for doing so. I didn't share the photo because I cared about status. I shared it because I thought it was funny and felt that friends would agree. It took all of two seconds to take, andit brought a smile to my face — not anxiety about how many views it would get. Lacie's world is one of extremes. You're either all in online, or not there at all. Our world also has these extremes, but they're less exaggerated. In our world, we can find balance. As long as we can do that, we can avoid Black Mirror's dystopian alter-present.