Ben Alpi, “Hashtag” (2015)
A smartly presented sci-fi short, “Hashtag” demonstrates how a science fiction film made with a tiny budget and minimal special effects can be a cult success if its actors are able to do exceptional work with a significant theme and plot. In “Hashtag”, the theme focuses on the impact of social media on human society, to the extent that people form their identities and judge their self-worth (and the worth of others) based on the values and structures imposed by social media platforms. The plot explores what happens when an online social media celebrity (Gigi Edgley), known only as X, is interrupted in her various online tasks – which include advertising products even during intimate personal routines such as her morning shower, and collecting statistics on her popularity and the number of friends she has – by mysterious hacker Gil (Erryn Arkin) who forces her to question the nature of her existence. Her resulting curiosity about the box she lives results in her employer, who communicates through an AI being called Te’a (voiced by Juliet Landau, the real-life daughter of Hollywood actors Martin Landau and Barbara Bain), ditching her and casting her out into a place populated by other social media celebrity has-beens. We do not know what this place is as the film ends at this point and so we are left to speculate on what sort of uncertain future faces X. We also must muse on the nature of Gil himself, whether he truly is a rebel hacker or is a company employee sent out to get rid of X before she experiences burn-out and starts losing her fan base and clientele.
The undoubted attraction of the film is Edgley who in the space of less than 15 minutes fills an essentially one-dimensional character with so much feeling and emotion that viewers end up feeling for X, despite her hectic and shallow lifestyle and her extreme dependence on her employer and Te’a for affirmation and purpose for living and being. I did not get the impression that X ever really realises that she is being turfed out completely and permanently – so abrupt and horrific is the way she is shunned by her employer once she asks a question that she seems unaware is forbidden. The special effects used are excellent but Edgley’s portrayal of a lonely social media celebrity on the edge of burn-out and cracking end up overpowering the film’s technical aspects.
The film’s fast pace mirrors the frantic speed at which Edgley’s character is forced to live her life constantly exposed to public scrutiny – though interestingly we never see her audience and so the possibility exists that her audience really consists of bots activated by a limited number of algorithms – and only allowed brief breaks for privacy and self-reflection. Even then, she is expected to view her employer’s media during recreation time. On the one occasion when she looks outside her box and sees other boxes just like hers, the film achieves true existential dystopian / panopticon horror.
Social media celebrities and the audiences who support them and their platforms turn out to be prisoners in a system that milks them both for profit and to harvest their data and information that can be used to manipulate and even blackmail them. The prison formed is not so much physical as it is psychological, even spiritual. Prisoners may not even realise they are trapped as their identities and self-worth are shaped and moulded by the prison’s parameters and the values and beliefs it promotes. The devil really does exist in the details of the prison.