Bo Burnham and the end of selfie culture

A couple of weeks ago, I saw the name ‘Bo Burnham’ trending on Twitter.

I looked him up, he turned out to be a young comedian who made one of the best films of 2018, ‘Eighth Grade’

Eighth Grade is a deeply cringey, touching and scary film about the effect of social media on an awkward eighth-grade wannabe-influencer.

I would never have guessed such a sensitive film could have been made by a 20-something YouTube comedian.

In 2006, when Burnham was a sweet young Christian teenager from Massachusetts, he posted a video of him singing a funny song while playing the piano, on a recently-launched website called YouTube.

The song, ‘My Whole Family Thinks I’m Gay’, was one of the first YouTube videos to go viral. By the time Burnham was in his senior year, he already had a Hollywood agent. He dropped out of university and went straight into performing live. He was nominated for the best comedy show at Edinburgh festival in 2010, when he was 20, and made his first Netflix special when he was 23.

And he was funny. Watch this clip of him in a room full of older comedians, including greats like Garry Shandling, and check out the respect they give him. As Judd Apatow puts it: ‘Unlike everybody else on earth, who struggles for years to figure out how to be funny and have some presence onstage, he was riotously funny and entertaining from moment one’.

The reason Burnham was trending on Twitter this month is he released a new Netflix special, that he made inside his house, inside one room, during the pandemic.

It’s called ‘Inside’ and it’s a very funny, claustrophobic, riotously-creative exploration of what the last 14 months have been like for many of us, trapped inside, alone, online.

Burnham is a child of the internet — it’s the genie that made him a prince — and he has the same troubled relationship to this genie as Dr Faustus had to Mephistopheles. In the film’s most memorable number, ‘Welcome to the internet’, he plays the Net as a demon who will give you everything you wish to watch, instantly, destroying you in the process:

So perfectly does the internet appear to meet our emotional needs, you may decide, as Burnham does half-way through making the special, that we should never go back to how life was, never go back to ‘real life’, outside, face-to-face. We should only ever meet digitally. Another song tells of the awkward pleasure of sexting:

We’ll talk dirty like we’re ancient Egyptians

You send me a peach, I send a carrot back

You send a ferris wheel, that’s pretty abstract

I send back a ticket stub, implying that your Ferris wheel’s your body and I’d really love admission to it

Oh no! What if, now, you think that I’m implying your vagina is as big as a Ferris wheel?

You send back a snowman

Crisis averted.

The internet unlocks our creativity, and the film is a testament to just how creative one human can be, shut in a room for 14 months. The music reminded me of everyone from Beck to Frank Ocean to Of Montreal to Arcade Fire to SouthPark. I don’t know how the fuck Burnham programmed and shot the entire film himself, with all its effects, multiple camera angles, light changes and so on, all while performing at the same time…It’s insane. It’s as if Coppola made Apocalypse Now in his garage, playing all the parts.

Yet the riotous self-expression of the internet also makes us more disconnected, and more narcissistic. We’re all performing, leering into the black mirror of the Net. This is Burnham’s great theme — how the internet makes phony performers of all of us. Another of his numbers is ‘White woman’s Instagram’, with him, in his room, alone, acting out some of the classic cliches of that genre:

An open window
A novel, a couple holding hands
An avocado
A poem written in the sand
Fresh-fallen snow on the ground
A golden retriever in a flower crown
Is this heaven?
Or is it just a
White woman’s Instagram.

Of course, being White is a professional hazard in comedy these days, so Burnham makes comedy out of that too — one of his previous songs bemoans the difficulties Straight White Men face (‘you don’t know what it’s like, until you walk a mile in my Uggs’), while at the beginning of Inside, he goes full White Saviour complex, declaring he’s going to ‘heal the world with comedy’ (shades of Russell Brand there).

Gradually, the manic and ironic performances fall away and he seems to fall apart. In one song, ‘All Eyes On Me’, performed with accompanying canned laughter, he opens up to his imaginary live audience:

You wanna hear a funny story?

So, uh, five years ago, I quit performing live comedy

Because I was beginning to have, uh, severe panic attacks while on stage

Which is not a great place to have them [canned laughter]

So I, I quit, and I didn’t perform for five years

And I spent that time trying to improve myself mentally

And you know what? I did! I got better

I got so much better that in January of 2020

I thought ‘You know what? I should start performing again

I’ve been hiding from the world and I need to re-enter”

And then the funniest thing happened…

At the end of the song he attacks his camera tripods like King Kong attacking the planes buzzing around him. The film cuts to him curled underneath a duvet. He looks unwell. His hair grows steadily shaggier and his face ever whiter throughout the film. Like many of us during lockdown, he starts to crash into depression.

It reminded me of Shia LaBeouf weeping with a paper bag over his head, or Joaquin Phoenix appearing to have a breakdown on David Letterman. Wow, the audience thinks, is he OK? Are we watching someone fall apart, live? Is this for real? Or just another performance? Is he performing falling apart? Did he really have panic attacks? Is his life really so bad? Can an account of a mental breakdown really be so artfully put together?’

This is what the internet has done to us. We can’t tell what’s real anymore, and what’s a performance for likes. Our outer and inner lives are both so profoundly mediated by the internet that I sometimes find myself thinking in tweets.

The internet today is what God was to people in the 17th century — a constant companion, in good times and bad, the invisible presence you find yourself praying too in the happiest and the darkest moments of your life.

When people lose their loved ones, for example, they go straight on Twitter to tell everyone. ‘I lost my darling today and I am broken.’ Broken heart emoji. Needless to say, you’ll get a tidal wave of support (hopefully), but I find myself wondering, ‘why are you telling us?’ Because our feelings are not real unless they’re shared online.

The constant performativity of digital life can lead to a cynicism — nothing is really real, everything is a performance for likes. Social activism becomes ‘virtue signalling’. Public discontent becomes ‘faux outrage’. Authenticity becomes a performance. White women open their hearts on Instagram — ‘can I be real for a moment?’ — but naturally, they’re perfectly lit and in perfect make-up.

Even anti-social-media rants become another performance. ‘I’m going to take a break from social media for a while’ is the Twitter equivalent of Bowie declaring ‘this is the last show we’ll ever do’. Yeah right.

This cynicism extends to people’s public messages around their mental health. When Jameela Jamil goes on Instagram to campaign against body-shaming — in an endless series of perfect selfies — you wonder…is she really ‘better’? Isn’t ‘mental health campaigner’ just another image?

Part of the cynicism around Harry and Meghan is really a cynicism about the internet. If you’re really so emotionally frail, why do you feel you have to heal so publicly? Why do your family therapy on Oprah?

The internet makes mugs of us all — Harry and Meghan, Jameela Jamil, Russell Brand, and even Bo Burnham, for all his irony. As he put it:

Social media — it’s just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform, so the market said, ‘Here, perform everything to each other all the time for no reason.’ It’s prison. It is horrific.

Although I think Inside is a great work of art, it takes internet self-obsession to such an extreme that it almost exhausts the genre. Maybe we’re nearing the end of selfie culture. Maybe we’re finally getting bored of our selves. Maybe there’s only so much you can confess before you want to talk about something else.

Author of Philosophy for Life and other books. Honorary fellow, Centre for the History of the Emotions.

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