Bo Burnham Has Explained the Dumpster Fire That Is Social Media Better Than Anybody
Bo Burnham really cracked the code for this whole internet thing. After making one of the earliest jumps from YouTube sensation to mainstream entertainment success, Burnham has his thumb firmly pressed on the pulse of the bulging, gurgling, endlessly growing mass that is our ubiquitous social media ecosystem.
In particular, an interview with Burnham from 2018 when he was on a media tour for his directorial debut Eighth Grade has gone viral for a speech in which the multi-talented artist shared some bleak insights on the nature of the relationship between social media platforms and their user base, and his ominous words of wisdom ring even more true today than they did four years ago.
“They’re coming for every second of your life,” Burnham began, “They’re not even doing it consciously. It’s because these companies like Twitter, YouTube and Instagram and everything, they went public, they went to shareholders. So they have to grow. Their entire models are based off of growth.” Endless growth isn’t a new concept in a capitalist society, but that growth means something specific and insidious when it comes to social channels vying for your attention. “They’re trying to get more engagement from you,” he continued. “We used to colonize land. … They are now trying to colonize every minute of your life.”
Burnham warned a panel of concerned-looking young people of something they already understood about the platforms that have been with them since their parents gave them their iPads when they were barely crawling. “Every single free moment you have is a moment you could be looking at your phone. It’s coming for every free second you have,” an animated and exasperated Burnham lamented.
Along these lines, Burnham’s most recent special, Inside, was a fiercely introspective view on his personal relationship with the technology and culture that is responsible for his meteoric rise. Themes of isolation and identity as they’re defined in relation to social media ran throughout the special, which won three Emmys, including Outstanding Writing and Outstanding Direction for a Special.
As for the film that Burnham was promoting during the newly viral speech, Eighth Grade was a startling examination of how those who grow up in a time when social media has pervaded every aspect of their lives react both consciously and subconsciously to the constant presence of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter’s unblinking eye on their every move.
When accepting the award for Best Directorial Debut for Eighth Grade from the National Board of Review, Burnham spoke from the heart about how he felt the younger generation was unfairly assessed in their relationship to the internet, saying, “They are a generation that has been mischaracterized as self-obsessed, narcissistic and shallow, but they are not. They are self-conscious. They have been forced by a culture that they did not create to be conscious of themselves at every moment, to curate every aspect of themselves and present it to the world for judgment. … They are served by a culture that seemingly gives them everything that they want but nothing that they need. They are, after all, children, and we need to do better for them.”
There’s only one point that Burnham made during his viral speech which feels off-base — he said that this insidious cloying for every moment of our attention was not a conscious decision on the part of social media companies. However, that’s exactly what their strategy has been. These companies know how addictive their platforms have become, and the dark outcomes of that addiction are consequences that are willfully passed onto users by those in charge of this colonization of our time, as Burnham puts it.
Maybe it’s a good thing that Elon Musk is destroying Twitter after all.