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We Live in Public: The Sociology of ‘Social Animals’

"We are social animals, and we are visual animals. And now we are both of those things digitally."

With documentary Social Animals, director Jonathan Ignatius Green explores the digital and real worlds of today’s image-focused teenager, where Instagram followers, likes and comments mark success and self-worth.

“In 1997 in Santa Cruz, California a man named Phillippe Kahn invented the modern camera phone,” Green recounts. “But he didn’t just solder a tiny optical device to his Motorola flip phone. He did something far more game changing. He built a back-end system that would take that captured photo, and through the connection to the internet provided by the cell phone, immediately share it with hundreds of people. Real-time, portable, electronic image sharing.

“He effectively invented a new paradigm of sharing one’s experience, the paradigm that would, over a decade later, become social media’s most emotionally powerful tool. For over a century the telephone has allowed us to tell people in real time what and how we are doing.

“With Kahn’s invention in our pocket, we can visually broadcast our lives, just like the people on live TV. And with Instagram, more than any other platform, the moment a person downloads the app, they are transformed into a channel.

Read more: Incisive Instagram Doc Social Animals Is Essential Viewing

“When I started making this film, the first generation born into Kahn’s new world was starting to graduate high school, digital natives that had never known a world without the rapid capture and sharing of images as part of their daily social experience.

“That fascinated me because high school is awesome, but it also sucks. It’s that stage of life when you’re really figuring out who the hell you are and it gets messy. These teens are going through that development with technology embedded into the journey. Instagram, and its close social media cousins, are so impactful because they access two innate facets of our nature. We are social animals, and we are visual animals. And now we are both of those things digitally.

Read more: How the Director of Social Animals Made a Documentary About Teens and Instagram That Doesn’t Suck

“I’m convinced that the pressure to construct a digital self is a wholly new thing in our history, and in our high schools. While peer pressure and sexual exploration and gossip and pissing contests and popularity and every other layer of the teenage maturation gauntlet has been around for a long time, these emotionally complicated experiences are being played out in a new way on this platform. Some argue that social media only drips fuel on all the flames that have always been there. There’s nothing new here. But a blazing forest fire is different than the flicker of a candle in more ways than simply scale. We are living in a new era.

Read more: Jonathan Ignatius Green, Emma Crockett and Humza Deas on Bringing the Instagram Generation into Focus in Social Animals

“It was my first inclination to engage intellectually in this conversation throughout the film. To that end, I interviewed many of these thought leaders on the topic, including inventor Phillippe Kahn. But when I juxtaposed a PhD talking head next to my endearing teenage characters recounting their experiences, two things became immediately clear; these elements could not live together in the film I wanted to make, and there was no question which one was expendable. What remains is a film about three teenagers told largely from their own points of view. 

Read more: Social Animals: Timely Documentary Addresses Social Media, Mental Health, and the State of Being Young in America

“[Social Animals] intends only to provoke a more earnest and well-rounded conversation about the benefits and costs of the many technologies we continue to integrate into every facet of our lives and our relationships. In our age, the seductive convenience and power of new technologies is often embraced and adopted without examination. 

“But the unexamined life is not worth living as one smart guy once said. I believe it is our sociality that preserves our humanity, yet without balance and context has the potential to strip it away.” 

To learn more about the documentary, visit