Here I review the movie Nerve, directed by Schulman & Joost and give the movie way more credit than it probably deserves. While something of a silly story there are interesting ideas about social media and anonymity on the internet.
The plot of this movie is essentially a bildungsroman about a precocious high school girl, Vee, seduced by the internet into doing dangerous and illegal things. Friends tease Vee about not taking action to do something new, that her life is boring, and this peer pressure compels her to be a “player” (versus a “watcher”) on a phone game called Nerve. Watchers generate dares and Players complete them for money, likes and followers. The player must film the dare on their phone in order to get paid. The watchers are all anonymous who can comment in real time on the action. One of the most interesting scenes which portrays trolling shows Vee changing in a dressing room with watchers making salacious and critical comments- the kind that can only be said when one believes their words will not be connected to their corporeal selves.
Nerve indulges both the exhibitionism and voyeurism which defines social media usage. I asked my wife what the characters being in high school does for the movie aside from defining its audience. She said that full fledged adults would be too smart to partake in such a program. That seems too narrow a definition of “adult” but the theme of young people being seduced by social media to change their lives is the central theme and you have to accept it to move forward. I was on the verge of stopping the movie until Vee signed up and the movie shows the program analyzing all of her social media in order to use it against her later. This sort of algorithmic personality analysis one of the most surreptitious and dangerous components of social media.
Like any gateway drug leaning trench-coated out of an alleyway the dares start simple and escalate in severity but also in payment. (Some also include starting a fight between two best friends, which could only work in a movie about high schoolers.) Vee reaches her limit and attempts to opt out of the game and her life is stolen, bank accounts emptied, social security number, social media, etc. Vee becomes a prisoner and is required to “win” Nerve in order to get her life back. Winning comes down to forcing Vee and a Mad Max extra to a duel in a panopticon style arena with masked users and cameras in all directions.
Here’s the spoiler and the crux of the movie. Nerve puts it up to a vote for the watchers as to whether or not Vee should be killed. Watchers vote yes in a majority. After the staging of Vee’s execution all of the watchers receive a message with their full name and that they are an accomplice to murder. (Vee’s hacker friends change the code of Nerve to reveal the watchers.) After which everyone signs off in fear and we presume Vee gets her life back.
Here is why this move is effective: the idea that anonymity is one of the fundamental dangers of power on the internet. The idea from Dostoevsky that if god does not exist then everything is permitted. Anonymity shields one from public scrutiny and allows people to act in abominable ways they would never do if everything connected back to them. This idea may be a matter of saliency. For example, lets imagine a pile of dollar bills in a communal living space. Residents are unlikely to take the dollars because taking one obviously signals theft. However, if it is not cash that is being taken but something of equivalent value like a drink then one probably feels less qualms about taking it, although the value is the same. Casinos encourage this lowered saliency by issuing out chips. It isn’t necessarily five dollars that is being lost. (I’ll credit Dan Ariely with this idea although I’m not sure it was originally his research.) I would argue that setting up an avatar and posting things under an alias creates the same cognitive disconnect regarding moral behavior.
This leave us with something of a contradiction. I believe that anonymity can be valuable for internet users and for young people as they experiment with their identity. The internet should provide a safe place to test those identities. However it’s also the case that real harms are being committed through those avatars. I’m deeply skeptical each time I am asked to register an account (i.e. WordPress’s use of Gravatar) because I suspect that my data is being aggregated to sell me crap or monitor my activity. Currently there is very little citizen oversight over data surveillance and I align myself more with those seeking to protect anonymity. But in keeping anonymity we may also lose accountability. This is why the Geneva Conventions mandate that soldiers must wear a flag when conducting wartime operations, because a stateless entity might be more likely to commit war crimes, just as anonymous watchers are more likely to vote in favor of egregious acts of violence.