In 1959, Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” episode “The Lonely” aired, telling the story of Corry, a man who is sentenced to solitary confinement on an asteroid for 50 years. Every few months, a spaceship comes by with supplies, and in the fourth year, the captain of the ship leaves Corry the gift of a female robot named Alicia. Alicia walks and talks like a real woman — she is played by a real woman — and while Corry rejects her at first, he is quickly pulled into the illusion and falls in love with her. Sound familiar? Yes, the premise of Spike Jonze’s 2013 film “Her” is hardly new, but the story is freshly relevant today, when we stare more at our screens than at each other and have fully formed images of people whom we have never met in our lives.
The film isn’t about how we relate to our phones (who cares?), but about how we relate to each other. We are quick to ensure ourselves we would never fall in love with a computer — no matter how human it seems — because in the end we would know it’s an artificial creation, not a real person. However, most of us already have relationships to artificial creations, and in the meantime we are crafting creations of our own.
We’re in college, where we meet a lot of people and we follow a lot of those people on Facebook and on our other social media accounts. You’re probably friends on Facebook with someone you met on a cruise in 10th grade, someone who was your best friend for a night at Tom & Marty’s or someone who found your ID on the ground and returned it to you, and now you occasionally see what they’re all up to. When you “friend” someone on Facebook, you become each other’s audience, and your audience is constantly growing.
Using Facebook to keep up with your friends’ lives while you were “watching Netflix and not leaving the house” all break is widely accepted, but few in our demographic can say they’ve managed to limit their use to this purpose. Once you are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., it’s impossible not to put forth an image to your ever-growing audience, and no matter how humble you are, where there is an audience, you will perform. Your online persona is always contrived because everything you do or don’t do online is a choice.
Think about the first day of class when your professor posed an open question for anyone to answer — if you didn’t raise your hand, it might not have been because you had nothing to say, but because you knew that answering would change the way other people understand who you are. Social media platforms feel a lot like this. Everything you post becomes a piece of your image that your audience assembles. Knowing this, some of us untag ourselves from ugly pictures and put blood and sweat into formulating our comments, but even if we try to put our true faces forward instead of our best ones, our personalities are inevitably filtered when transferred to our profiles.
However, when we conduct our Facebook investigations, we take what we can gather about a person and fill in the rest. Human beings are human-obsessed. If we stare at any rug or tree long enough, we will find a face. It doesn’t take much for us to personify something (think Wilson in “Cast Away”).
Samantha in “Her” is not merely a more charismatic Siri who sounds like Scarlett Johansson. Like the images people present of themselves through social media, she’s a portion of human characteristics that represent a whole person. As we come to rely more on social media to communicate and to learn about each other, we form relationships not with people but with the personas they create. You know this, and it’s why you keep picking interesting cover photos and writing witty statuses, or quirky statuses, or inspirational statuses, or no statuses — whatever your online persona prefers. Maybe this isn’t a problem if this sort of interaction is only supplementary to face-to-face interaction. Maybe it’s not a problem at all. The point is that we are not as opposed to relationships with creations as we might think we are. I’m not in love with my smartphone, but I’ll be damned if I haven’t fallen in love with someone’s Facebook profile.