Black Mirror and its (sometimes scary) connections to museums and social media

The other day someone posted this amazing Black Mirror GIF on the Museum Social Media Managers Facebook group. The GIF was a reaction to an article about Instagram’s new algorithm changes that incentivize certain behaviors and bury content when narrowly defined rules of engagement are not met. I couldn’t help but think about all of the other potential Black Mirror connections one might make to #musesocial and #musetech. 

Scene from Black Mirror, Nosedive. Cheerful woman rates someone on her mobile phone

Here are a few episodes that come to mind…

Note: If you haven’t watched these episodes of Netflix’s “high-tech near-future” series Black Mirror yet, don’t worry! The content below does NOT contain any real spoilers…but the links do, so click at your own risk.

Season 1, Episode 1: The National Anthem

It's trending on twitter (scene from Black Mirror: National Anthem)

While it’s unlikely that your museum would be blackmailed by an anonymous (and horrifying) threat via YouTube, anyone who’s dealt with crisis communications or customer service is familiar with the experience of having your organization’s “hand forced by social media and the ineffable power of the internet.” As one TV critic writes, this episode is “astute depiction of public opinion’s changing tides, and the uncanny speed with which the unthinkable enters the realm of the acceptable.” What will you do the next time you’re asked to respond (ASAP, of course!) to a viral tweet or video campaign?

Season 2, Episode 1: Be Right Back

Chat message screen: I mean really speak. Chat response: We can speak.

A lot of us who work in #musesocial argue that it isn’t just an add-on or an after-thought—“social media IS your museum’s reputation” and all that. It’s the heart and soul of the museum, the embodiment of our relationships with the people we serve. But how far should we take that idea? This episode got me thinking: What if everything your museum ever posted on social was used to re-create your museum? Would the new entity closely resemble your true museum identity or would it turn out to be an empty shell? Would someone say (to your re-created-by-social-media-posts self): “You’re just a few ripples of you. There’s no history to you. You’re just a performance of stuff.” I hope not. An optimistic view of this episode is that it’s “an encouragement to embrace the many overlooked, annoying, contradictory things” that make us, us. How much can we bring our full, authentic, warts-and-all museum selves to the table?

Season 3, Episode 1: Nosedive

Scene from Black Mirror, woman watching her social media ranking go up and smiling

Are you being genuine or are you just in it for the likes? When you’re chasing that social rating, who are you hurting in the process? This behavior can start out relatively harmless but it can also be a trap. Studies of the “hedonic treadmill principle” show our engagement on social media provides a temporary boost from likes or favorites but does not result in long-term happiness. Are you helping your museum succeed or sabotaging your relationships with those closest to you? As one TV critic writes, “If any episode will make you chuck your iPhone into the nearest body of water, it’ll be this one.”

Season 3, Episode 6: Hated in the Nation

Mobile phone displays Buzzfeed article "What is #DeathTo?"

All I’m going to say about this episode’s take on social media mob mentality is this: be sure you research that hashtag before you post…

Season 4, Episode 6: Black Museum

Woman in museum looking into exhibit case

Okay, this episode doesn’t have a strong social media connection but, WHOOOEY, there are some dark museum interactives on display here. It might be time to stop and think: is your museum’s tech shop a “slave to innovations” regardless of the human or societal impact?

What do you think?

While these episode summaries seem to paint a pretty bleak and dystopian picture, what actually I love about Black Mirror is the texture and nuance it affords to its assessment of human decision-making. We’re fallible but we can also call upon our brains and courage in the face of rapid technological transformations in the world around us. I encourage you to watch the full episodes and let me know what you think!

 

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