The immediate question that arises whenever this problem arises is, how could writers be so lazy? They sweat so hard creating a richly imagined world, to tear us away by botching a simple element of everyday life. We don’t need a character to scroll through days of texts to establish verisimilitude. Even hinting at a few lines of past exchanges, blurry or beyond the box, to fill the text box would do more than enough to make us believe that these are texts between two sensitive humans.
Shows and movies would often be better served by retaining these additional texts in focus and take the opportunity to add Easter eggs and further characterization. Why not show an earlier photo Doug sent Emily of his dried T-bone at Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse and the caption “booyah”? Why not show Hugh Grant and his son the backchannel for weeks without Nicole Kidman’s knowledge? If you want to include a photo from a text messaging app, that app becomes the stage and its staging should be treated as realistically as any setting, otherwise you lose the audience. This white space is ghostly.
There is also a more elegant and less expensive option. Rather than cutting on the phone itself, have the texts appear on their own, as a character receives them, above the main screen action. Some shows are connoisseur of this technique than others, but even the noisiest versions are less disturbing than the virgin slate road. What makes the Emily in Paris so abominable example is the spectacle soon passes to the best approach. After this shot of Emily’s iPhone, every text she receives for the rest of the season appears next to her. (Her Instagram posts appear the same; how she increases from 48 to 25,000 subscribers with pictures of roses and captions #EverythingsComingUpRoses is a separate credibility issue.) It’s like the creators assume viewers aren’t familiar with text threads and ignore smartphones altogether. (Netflix did not respond to emails requesting comment.)
The only charitable explanation is that these are not oversights, but deliberate portrayals of vigilant text suppressors. If so, then rather than looking like someone who’s never received a text message, he just looks like someone aware of their data usage, or a digital freak. Or maybe they just look like someone trying to brush up on an unbearable past. If you erase everything and realize that it is only now, you too can erase the Doug from your life and prosper in France without learning French..
There is, however, little data to support this theory or to suggest that text redactors abound in reality. Neither Apple nor Google would share information with WIRED about deleted text rates among iPhone or Android users. A crude survey of WIRED staff found that 61% “never” deleted their texts, and 39% did so “selectively”. No one said “often or always”. Chances are, most of us are as lazy to delete texts as shows are to include them.
Although inadvertently, is Is there a message to glean here? Would we be better off if we were like these characters – no data, no story, no what we sent at 3 a.m.? There is a certain Buddhist appeal to the cleanliness of their text threads. Nothing that you have said before matters. You are as good as your next emoji, your next reminder to someone you love.
Yet I reject this. For all we can argue about what smartphones have produced, having a huge immediately accessible library of our interpersonal relationships is one of the net goods. As each technology platform pushes us towards the ephemeral – stories disappearing from Snapchat, Skype, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, et al.—Our textual stories offer an increasingly rare and heartwarming permanence. The threads are our staccato pen palsies, testimonies of our growth and our regression, our inanity and our suffering. Today you open the group chat to let your friends know you’ve been fired, and you are greeted with 78 texts yesterday about Brendan’s new haircut. I rarely scroll far back, although sometimes my friend and I will use the search function to return a single text sent four years ago, completely out of context: it was you, then.
Texting presents challenges for any show or movie set in the 2000s. It’s most often implausible for the characters not to text, and yet making texting sexy is difficult. But avoiding blank slate messages isn’t complicated, and there are rich aspects of the impact of texting on us as yet unexplored onscreen. Until then, maybe just display some new incoming text on the phone’s homescreen, and not drag the characters into horrible void.
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