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Jane Austen wrote novels of manners providing a sketch of societal rules in the 19th century. In the new documentary Social Animals, coming soon to Netflix, teenager Humza Deas explains the social customs of the digital world: “The rules are unspoken. But they will be spoken to you if you break them.”
The smartphone habits of youngsters are a mystery to some of their parents and even to many millennials who went through the formative years of middle school and high school without social media. Social Animals pulls back the curtain by following three teenagers around in their social media lives. It seems like such a simple concept for a documentary, but this film feels revelatory and fresh.
Two of the film’s subjects are teenagers who rose to social media stardom: first Kaylyn, who goes to a Christian school, lives in a Calabasas mansion, and says she has wanted to be a Victoria’s Secret model since she was little (yep!). Then there’s Humza, a skateboarder and daredevil photographer in New York. The final subject, Emma, is a teenager in Ohio (also at a Christian school) who experienced the brutality, rather than the adulation, of social media.
Social media has a dark side, but the film also avoids demonizing Instagram, the primary app featured here. For Humza, Instagram launched him from humble beginnings where he couldn’t afford a camera into a business where he can show his vertigo-inducing talents, taking pictures on forbidden bridges and skyscrapers.
Interspersed through the three teens’ narratives are entertaining interviews with an assortment of other teens about the new cloud-based society of social media—for example, one girl explains that people don’t date anymore, they just send direct messages. The film shows a yawning isolation that many have noticed in the age of hyper-connectivity. Humza, for his hundreds of thousands of followers, mentions that in real life “I’m usually just by myself.”