Black Mirror's third season opens with a vicious take on social media


The third season of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, a Twilight Zone-esque anthology TV series about technological anxieties and possible futures, was released on Netflix on October 21st. In this series, six writers will look at each of the third season’s six episodes to see what they have to say about current culture and projected fears.

If Black Mirror could be summed up in one sentence, it'd probably be "Technology is exciting, but people are awful, and they keep finding the worst ways to apply it." The anthology series had a seven-episode run on Britain's Channel 4 from 2011 to 2014, and Netflix is now producing new episodes, but the show hasn't changed much. It's still serving up cautionary tales about how people interact with media, the culture, communications, and technology, and how our obsessions and behaviors today might logically extend into horrors in the future. At its best, it's insightful, satirical, and bleak enough to shock even viewers jaded by the endless, pummeling violence of shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. At its worst, though, it can read like any other science fiction story processing our anxieties about the future: the hand-wringing fear of everything we take for granted can seem overblown and paranoid. As The Toast's Mallory Ortberg put it on Twitter, "What if phones but too much?"

"Nosedive," the first installment of Netflix's new six-episode season, replaces "phones" in that sentence with "social media." The script, written by Parks And Recreation's Michael Schur and Rashida Jones, turns social platforms' self-curation and validation-seeking into the backbone of a future society. But the issues at play go beyond the ways users project their best, most enviable selves onto their Instagrams and Facebook feeds. Almost exactly a year ago, Verge reports editor Josh Dzieza published a piece called "The ratings game: How Uber and its peers turned us into horrible bosses." The gist was that the combination of an on-demand economy and a new class of ratings-dependant employees was turning customers into entitled, hypersensitive critics. That article could have been the road map for "Nosedive." Just as Uber drives started offering riders free water, candy, and other perks to ingratiate themselves with increasingly demanding customers, the characters in "Nosedive" nervously tailor their lives to be ingratiating online, within certain very narrow guidelines.

Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker says "Nosedive" is intended as a satire, which helps explain its arch, bright, over-the-top tone. In the episode, augmented reality and a single ubiquitous social-media platform let users rate all their online and in-person interactions on a five-star scale. Everyone in this brave new world walks around with a user-generated score glowing in front of their faces, and that score determines their value in society, their access to services, and their employability. Protagonist Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas Howard) has a respectable 4.2 score, but she envies the higher rating of her childhood friend Naomi (Alice Eve), and starts taking calculated steps to boost her ranking. The episode title hints sharply at what comes next.

Black Mirror Nosedive


The barrier for entry in "Nosedive" is fairly high. Viewers have to accept that there's no competition for the social-media app that rules everyone's lives, and no way to rate businesses or other institutions. In the real world, people who have bad experiences with airlines or car-rental companies often go straight to Twitter or Facebook with their complaints, and often rack up instant, insincere public apologies from online customer-service reps. Lacie has no such option; when a company screws her over, showing no remorse and giving her no recourse, she's expected to retreat meekly and politely. As judgmental as her society is, it doesn't turn any of that judgment on institutions.

The episode also suggests that the only way to approach the coveted 5.0 rating is to project a Martha Stewart Living illusion of graceful, plastic beauty. Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright gives Lacie's pre-nosedive life a peach-and-pastel glow that's luminously pretty on-screen, but so flavorless and fake, it's impossible to imagine it's the only standard for five-star life. And yet there's no hint that anyone but the most low-rated outcasts in Lacie's world value any other form of achievement or art. In the real world, at minimum, there would be ways for people to degrade themselves for quick bursts of approval, like in the mesmerizing first season Black Mirror episode "Fifteen Million Merits." In "Nosedive," the only option for people who like grit or grunge is to drop out of the system, and take the consequences.

But "Nosedive" isn't out for reality. It's out to extrapolate the endgame of customer ratings systems, which turn the world into a lopsided giant prisoner's dilemma of applied power. And as exaggerated and unlikely as it is, it's also an effective story, because even in the broadness of its metaphor, it's relatable. Howard's performance goes a long way toward making the story work, because she projects such a fragile, brittle form of happiness when she's working hard for validation, and she's so rawly naked and afraid when her tricks stop working, and her real self starts pouring past the dams she's built. That feeling should be familiar to anyone who's censored their own image on social media out of fear of exposure, or just in hopes of a sparking a particular response from a particular person. It should be familiar to anyone who's ever had someone else post an unflattering photo of them, or fielded a hateful comment from a stranger.

And it should also be familiar to anyone who's been in an online sphere where they can be rated and ranked — anyone who's owned a business that's featured on Yelp, or released a podcast or a YouTube video, or even just sold items on eBay or Amazon Marketplace. There's a personal bruising effect that comes with a bad ranking, especially when it's anonymous. It's the feeling of being judged not just by one jerk, but potentially by the entire world.

Black Mirror Nosedive


And that's where Black Mirror takes its clever turn. What happens to Lacie amounts to an exaggerated morality play about the dangers of conformity and the small pleasures of individuality, but the broadest gestures don't matter. It's the small details that make this a recognizable world. Other stories, like Cory Doctorow's 2003 novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, or the Community episode "App Development and Condiments," have addressed this same idea, about how social approval might translate into power, and what that might entail for a society. But "Nosedive" makes it darkly, awfully funny, in the way advertisers manipulate Lacie by slapping her image into a billboard reflecting her fantasy life back at her, or the way she and her brother add insult to injury by down-rating each other after a fight. The episode can be strident and obvious, but like so many of Black Mirror's episodes, it understands human nature very well.

Back in 2015, a startup announced it was working on an app called Peeple, which was, in its original incarnation, almost exactly what "Nosedive" portrays: a "Yelp for people," complete with five-star ratings system. The internet loudly rebelled, complaining that Peeple would magnify the anonymous, cowardly bullying of other social platforms, and subject non-users to humiliation they couldn't control. The company fled from the public eye, and eventually emerged months later with a neutered version of the app, sans ratings and with ways for users to reject bad reviews. The instant outcry at the idea of Peeple makes the world of "Nosedive" seem even less likely than it would otherwise — we saw hints of this future on the horizon, and instantly rejected it. But at heart, Black Mirror isn't really about the future. It's about the things we take for granted in the present, and how it takes an exaggerated, satirical version of the world we live in to make us see ourselves clearly.

"Nosedive" ratings:

Relevance: Moderate. Yes, modern app ratings systems can have problematic applications and emotional effects. But competition (between driver services, between social media outlets, between everyone, really) will probably keep us safe from the one monolithic ratings system to rule them all, and the one acceptable monoculture we all have to copycat for approval.

Aesthetics: Glowing. Wright gives parts of the episode a gorgeous, sunlit gleam that powerfully highlights the difference between the eternal-magic-hour world of the haves and the grubby reality of the have-nots. Howard's vulnerability and determination really sell the material, even when the script overplays its hand. And it's all worth it for the telling, well-tuned moment when Lacie starts to come apart, and the bleeps of her plummeting rating start showing up in the episode's soundtrack.

Squirm factor: Incandescent. Knowing exactly where this episode is going to go makes it uncomfortable. Watching it play out in flop-sweat-covered real time is an exercise in slow-burn agonizing empathy.