Black Mirror has certainly tackled social media before, but for season 5 they took it head on in the episode “Smithereens.” The episode covers just about every app you use on a daily basis — Twitter, Facebook, Uber — and shows us the horrible danger that can come from using any one of them. The ramifications from these social media choices are meant to be portrayed as scary, and by the episode’s end, it’s downright terrifying.
There are spoilers ahead, and to explain it as simply as possible, “Smithereens” is about a Hitcher driver who has a bone to pick with the head of the Smithereens app. Just sub in Uber for Hitcher, and Twitter for Smithereen and it should all make sense. This driver, Chris (Andrew Scott), lost his fiancé in a car accident after he looked at a notification on one of his apps and he doesn’t really want anything from the head of Smithereen, Billy Bauer (played by Topher Grace), but he does want to talk to him and air his grievances.
But, oddly enough, there’s a weird burst of comic relief in the episode coming from Smithereens head honcho, Billy. While Chris takes one of Smithereens’ employees hostage in a field just outside of London, Billy is on a 10-day silent retreat in the Utah desert. We meet him shirtless, wearing a robe, with a man bun, as he tries to make sense of the hostage situation thousands of miles away. His team back in Los Gatos (which is just south of San Francisco and Palo Alto, where Netflix actually has a large campus), struggles to deal with him in a war room with big boards showing Chris’ social media footprint.
It’s hard not to see real-world parallels between giant social media companies and their founders in the episode, but both Smithereens and Billy aren’t just based on one thing. The character of Billy aligns with Mark Zuckerberg more than anyone else, but he’s been completely over exaggerated to the point where he feels like the fictional Zuckerberg in The Social Network (like, when Billy claims that the best part of his job is every now and then activating “god mode” to find someone).
The interesting thing is that Billy is also in charge of the Twitter-like app, not the Facebook-like one (that one is called Persona and it’s got a separate subplot in the episode, dealing with what happens to your account after a person has died and how it’s “archived”). Maybe is that a commentary on itself about how Twitter is slowly edging out Facebook as the preferred social media site, considering Facebook’s woes lately? But, even the Smithereen app is not without fault, as we quickly see how misinformation spreads on the site leading Chris to take his own drastic action.
Overall, the episode is more about the idea of all this giant tech and their companies than one specific thing, highlighting the perks (like the swanky AF Smithereen offices that offer massages), and the pitfalls of checking a notification at exactly the wrong moment. It’s actually a departure for Black Mirror, as most episodes actually deal with the technology turning on us. For “Smithereen,” it’s more about what the technology has done to us.