Facebook fact, Facebook fiction

Despite its much-discussed dark side, Catfish is a profoundly positive film.

Last year's runaway cinematic success, The Social Network, is routinely described as "the film about Facebook" -- but anyone who has seen Catfish, a documentary by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, will realise that this low-budget reality thriller captures the everyday reality of the site in a way that was not possible for a film as busy as Sorkin's.

As A O Scott of the New York Times puts it:

The Social Network is about origins, while Catfish, at once narrower and more universal in implication, is about consequences. Mr Zuckerberg may be the genius who invented Facebook and cashed in on its success but many of the rest of us live, at least some of the time, in the world he made and, on the evidence of Catfish, it can be a pretty creepy place.

Some critics believe the term "creepy" doesn't do justice to the film world of Catfish. According to the Economist: "The film has been called 'creepy' -- a description at once appropriate and insufficient. Creepiness is a skin-deep sensation, whereas the twists and turns of Catfish ultimately create a portrait of loneliness and grief."

Critics have contorted themselves to avoid revealing those twists, while at the same time asking if such a multi-layered tale could possibly be captured purely through opportunistic filming. And, if not, is Angela Wesselman -- who is at the centre of the film's twists and turns -- a victim of artistically motivated cruelty?

Philip French in the Observer has this to say: "Much of the apparent authenticity of Catfish derives from the grainy, rough-and-ready quality of its filming. This is a developing story captured on the wing by larky, creative explorers with cameras in hand. If it is real, are the makers exploiting their unwitting collaborators?"

For as long as the film-makers maintain their creation is 100 per cent true, there is no way of knowing where on the spectrum of fact and fiction Catfish lies, although this will not prevent speculation. (Ryan Gilbey's Guardian article points readers in the direction of some compelling theories -- beware, spoilers.) But even if the most cynical suspicions are correct, Catfish still provides us with an up-to-the-minute piece of cultural commentary. It is a rolling collage that demonstrates the most popular forms of technology and the way they function in our daily lives. The star of Catfish is Nev Schulman, a 24-year-old New York photographer who shares an office with his brother, Ariel, and Henry Joost, both film-makers. The trio have laptops, iPhones, satnavs and mini-HD cameras. Tim Robey of the Telegraph finds the film-makers chance recording of Nev's internet romance to be a logical extension of their plugged-in lifestyle: "Nev, a subject who is knowing and naively good-natured by turns, is part of a generation that embraces constant surveillance: it seems quite plausible that the camera was such a constant presence in his life that it naturally captured everything."

Sceptics have questioned the likelihood of Nev, a good-looking, likeable guy, finding himself sucked into an online relationship. Jonathan Romney in the Independent scoffs: "I can't buy the idea . . . that someone like him would be gauchely susceptible to e-flirtation in the first place." But he misses an interesting point, which is that the social profile of the kind of person who uses the internet for romance has changed. Online relationships are no longer a last resort for nerds and recluses. They are now a logical option for time-poor young people who have grown up using the internet for everything from music to work and who find it natural and logical to use it to search for romance as well. Nev is the poster boy for the internet generation and, for a while, he seems to be on to something good.

Kaleem Aftab at the Independent sees things from this perspective: "The two have never met but as Nev begins to Photoshop pictures of himself with Megan to see how they'd look together as a couple, the love story takes on the air of a schoolboy with crush on a celebrity. He's giddy but can he really know her from this online communication? Perhaps. Perhaps he even knows her better than if they'd gone on a series of dates."

Even the twists that shalt not be named have not driven Nev to condemn Facebook and in a recent interview given he revealed that he is currently seeing a girl who contacted him through the site. "I am seeing a girl I met on Facebook. She Facebooked me out of nowhere and the first thing I said was: 'You look and sound great, but I'm not going to invest emotionally in this until we meet in person.'"

He is also still friends with Angela Wesselman. What remains when all the internet rumours melt away is the faith in people, technology and romance that Nev shows in the film.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage