It's complicated: A film examines our relationship with social media

The life you lead online isn't always the life you're actually living.

A Social Life directed by Kerith Lemon

In a world of status updates, indie filmmaker Kerith Lemon categorizes her relationship with modern technology under the "It's complicated" banner. And with good reason. Lemon, whose short film "A Social Life" casts a harsh light on our addictive entanglement with social media, has dipped a toe in almost every online networking platform. That involvement was mainly a requirement of her job at the time. Back in the early aughts, Lemon worked as an integrated-marketing specialist at Viacom, where she handled brand messaging for the likes of MTV, Nickelodeon and CBS Radio. "I jumped on all of them because I needed to know everything," she says. "I'm not exaggerating when I say that I signed up for eHarmony for a pitch to see how it would work."

Lemon, however, soon grew disillusioned with the world of marketing and in 2011 decamped to Los Angeles to pursue her true passion: filmmaking. There she worked as a freelance producer until she got a call from Oprah's OWN network to help develop its digital video strategy. After two and a half years as a VP at OWN, Lemon grew tired of telling other people's stories and turned to social media "as an escape from the day-to-day grind."

"I would be sitting on opposite ends of the couch from my husband, checking email and social media, and I was like, 'This is no way to live!'" says Lemon of her "aha" moment. "And it was almost simultaneously that all these articles started popping up, ironically, in my social feed about social media jealousy and Instagram envy. And I was like, 'Shit! I have that.' And I didn't like it once it had a name ... It's not me. I'm not this person."

That wake-up call was what prompted Lemon to depart OWN and begin work on a cathartic short film that would eventually result in "A Social Life," which has since made the rounds at various indie festivals. I spoke with Lemon about social media FOMO, addiction and the fine line between our digital lives and the truth.

Is this short reflective of your personal experience? Does it mirror what you went through?

There's a lot of things that I pulled from my own life in there. I've never written something like this before. I've written for other people. I've written for brands ... There's a lot of moments in the movie that are stolen from my life. The ending is completely exaggerated.

The power of the visual is super-interesting to me, and as we look at how that is distributed across the social media platforms, we're really only providing tiny snapshots into our life. I mean, the idea of capturing our life in a photograph is not new. People have wanted to do this since the dawn of cameras. But now with social media, we can distribute that to far more people. When you take these single images out of context, you can post something with a very certain intention, and then somebody, the viewer on the other end, could perceive that with a completely different outcome. So that's happened to me a lot.

The thing of her taking the picture of the wine bottle happened to me. I got three beautiful bottles of rosé, and they were the most beautiful colors. Pink. And the light was streaming through my apartment. I just thought it was a gorgeous photograph. I tend to use Instagram just for beautiful pictures. And I posted it and I even captioned it: "Cheaper than a plane ticket. I love France." And people would write back and be like, "You're in France? Where are you?" ... It clearly wasn't my intention. I wasn't lying about being in France. I was trying to be ironic and funny ... But it can happen so easily. I feel like a lot of the misperception happens on the part of the viewer and whatever you bring to viewing that photograph.

Going back to the rosé bottles and the misinterpretation of that image you put on Instagram: When I watched the short, I thought to myself, OK, it seems that you're implying here that the majority of people's social media lives are total bullshit. That they're intentionally taking these photos and framing these experiences to mislead people, to build out this greater image of their life and make it more exciting. Do you agree with that?

I don't think the majority of people do it with a really strong intention. I think that there's a lot of subconscious that happens in our posts ... I think that especially for career-oriented people like me, which is where I was coming to this from, if you start to think about your brand, you're making choices about what photos you post and don't post. That's not to say that she wasn't doing all those things. In my mind, the first half of the movie, she's not living a lie. Every time she wanted to post a photo, she knew it contributed to her brand -- so she was choosing carefully -- but she intended to do all those things.

But by the time we get to the afternoon of her staying at home, now it's becoming more manipulated, how small a fine line there is between truly living the life you post and being able to craft some other life online.

If you're feeling down and out about being on social media all the time, you have to consider that this is only one photo from this person's life. And they may not even be doing that thing in that minute you're looking at it. But your brain, for whatever reason, looks at that picture and thinks that must be happening in the now. And then you feel depressed or envious or jealous that you're not out there doing the same fun thing.

I did think it was interesting that there was this one scene where she's sitting all alone on her couch and she uploads a photo of herself that's clearly been taken in the past. And it looks as though this is happening in the moment, and there's all that jealousy. And I think people do intentionally mislead others doing that stuff, no?

Oh, absolutely. But I also know that I post old selfies that were just great pictures of me and I thought, I wouldn't mind getting a little love back on this. Because we take a lot of self-worth from the likes and a lot of validation from these posts that we put up. I think especially for women. Not to say that it doesn't happen for men that way.

I think I interpreted the short differently from what I'm getting from you in terms of how I thought you were coming at it. From watching this short, I got a very pessimistic view of social media through your lens, but it seems as though you're not as pessimistic about it.

I'm an optimist. At the end of the day -- and this is the reason I left the ending very open-ended -- everybody has their own complicated relationship with social media. And I wanted people to have their own opinion of what she maybe goes on to do after this. Because for some people, like me, what I need to do after being stuck in this social media loop is that I have to put my phone down and leave it. I will go get a coffee without my phone. It drives my husband bonkers.

But for other people, it's about shutting down the app and opening up a book on their phone. Which is fine, too. But I just believe that we all need a balance. Like I said, we give social media too much credit and too much time from our lives.

Can we achieve a balance, considering that every other day there's a new app coming to take over and draw people's attention? Right now you have Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. That's already a handful of things for people to lose themselves in.

Oh yeah, for sure. As the kids say, "The struggle is real." I think it's possible, and that brings up a whole conversation that's not included in my film. But it's a conversation I've had with a lot of people after the festival screening: "What about our kids?" Every generation has their own complaint about something taking up too much time. Way back when, it was sitting in front of the radio for too long. And then it was that sitting in front of the television is going to kill you. And now it's that holding a device in your hand is going to take your life early. That's existed for a long time, but we can't let this new generation grow up without understanding that they have to make choices for themselves and form their own boundaries. Parents ask me all the time, "What am I supposed to do about my kid?" Well, the answer is not to take away their phone.

Do you think that there's any social media or digital backlash brewing?

I think so, just because it's so ubiquitous. I think that there will be a segment of people who are able, possibly higher-income earners, who are going to choose to send their kids to school with no technology. It's possible. And I think that it's interesting that a lot of this conversation around the complicated relationship with technology is coming from the tech world itself ... Mark Zuckerberg's sister has that whole Dot Complicated platform which does podcasts all the time. Yeah, it's about new technology, and she also is not saying we shouldn't use it, but just again creating that awareness and thinking about how are we gonna have balance in our lives and not get lost in the interwebs.

Why do I think we're persisting in this use if we know that even the companies know that it's bad for us? Because it's enjoyable.

Since you're highlighting how addictive this behavior is on social media and the narcissism involved, and you're so acutely aware of that, do you now reduce your involvement in the different platforms? And what are you actually even using?

The ones I check on a regular basis are Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I think that shows my age. I have an account on Snapchat: I work with a lot of different creators, so I have that because I look at what they're posting and see what they're doing. But I probably will never Snapchat. I keep it kind of slim and simple ... And I'm so much more conscious about what I post and share ... Predominantly now, everything for me is kind of a brand piece. Facebook is kind of friends and family -- where the wedding pictures went. Twitter and Instagram are definitely more brand outlets for me as a director and as a creator/storyteller.

We're getting to the point where Apple and Amazon have specific settings for their devices to reduce the blue frequency [in LED screens], the wavelength, so that it doesn't impair us as much and destroy our biorhythm so we can't go to sleep at night. And yet we're persisting with all of this ...

Why do I think we're persisting in this use if we know that even the companies know that it's bad for us? Because it's enjoyable. There's so many studies out there that show how many endorphins we get from the scrolling action, which is crazy to me. That's why all the sites moved to the long scroll, because you take joy from that motion and getting to see new exciting content.

I mean, it is addictive. Our bodies are physiologically being changed. I think it's responsible, and I'm glad that the companies are doing that, but I think that it needs to be promoted in a greater way ... We don't really know what all this social media use is gonna do. We won't know for some period of time. We won't know what all this technology is gonna do to us for some time, because it's all new.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Image credits: "A Social Life," directed by Kerith Lemon