Remains of the Day: Issue 05
COVID-19, Heisenberg Certainty Principle of Social Media, and other Invisible Enemies
As a reminder, I’m Eugene Wei, a former product person at companies like Amazon, Hulu, Flipboard, and Oculus, and I’ve kept a personal blog Remains of the Day since 2001, offering “Bespoke observations, 80% fat-free”, though the perceived fat ratio will vary depending on your tastes in technology, media, and all the other random topics I write about. Also, according to some nutrition hacker friends, fat isn’t as bad for you as once thought, though this does not constitute medical advice.
To be frank, I thought of changing my tagline to 80% virus-free, but since we don’t have reliable COVID-19 testing in the US yet that would likely be false advertising. Suffice it to say, rest assured I scrubbed this issue with soap while singing Happy Birthday twice before sending it to you.
I had planned to start this issue on another topic, but it’s impossible to avoid the coronavirus in the room, COVID-19. In part because every one of my inputs, from email to social media to podcasts to the people I hang out with, all want to talk about this latest coronavirus.
We often discuss how, in this age of information abundance, we no longer have mass media on the scale of Gone With the Wind, stories that connect the world. Instead, we are all absorbed in niche content targeted towards our personal tastes. It turns out that the origin of the word viral, from which we’ve derived all our growth hacking and memetic metaphors, was just the pandemic that would remind us of our interconnected status. It seems particularly apt and grim that in an age when everything is a meme, it was a virus that may already be a pandemic that reminded us that while our memes adopted the idea of virality, viruses were born in them, molded by them.
In between calls and emails to my parents to urge them to stock up and stay indoors, I, like many, watched the story hockey stick online. And like many, the varied reaction among different groups of people in my life was noticeable. While there are exceptions, of course, techies and some finance folks were among the first cohorts in my personal network to hit the panic button.
Tyler Cowen explained this as the difference between base raters and growthers.
The growther approach seems most common among people trained in mathematics, finance, and those who work in technology. Finance is centered on the idea of exponentially compounding returns, where small initial gains turn into something quite large. So financial professionals understand the growther perspective.
In tech, the major companies have grown from nothing to very large fairly quickly, often by taking advantage of a (positive) network or contagion effect for their products. Tech people are also familiar with Moore’s Law, which says that computing power increases exponentially as its cost decreases dramatically. It is no surprise that Bill Gates recently suggested that Covid-19 may be the once-in-a-century pathogen the world has been worried about.
Overall, the growthers tend to be analytical people who work a lot with numbers and are used to modeling the problems they face. The mindset in Washington, by contrast — and indeed much of America — is much closer to the base-raters.
That may be the case, though I know many people who are good at math in a variety of industries who found the uproar to be an overreaction. Instead, my pet theory is that some groups of people are used to medium-term scenario-building because it’s their job.
It’s sometimes difficult to describe what it’s like to live in the Bay Area in this era, though we’re starting to get more detached and varied anthropological accounts. When I meet ambitious young people and they ask me where they should go, I usually advise them to seek out three places in the world: Silicon Valley, Israel, or one of the tech hubs in China. The reason is that all three are places where their ambition will be amplified rather than mocked. They will be among their tribe, or, depending on your perspective, their cult.
The last three cities I lived in were New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. And, while I’m generalizing, it did strike me how the nature of ambition in those three cities varies. In New York, rub enough shoulders with finance professionals and you get a distinct sense that ambition is measured in wealth. That is, the dream is a mansion in Stamford, a summer home in the Hamptons, and an unlimited budget for wristwatches, all of which cost at least 20X the price of an iPhone but none of which tell time as well as accurately (people love to elaborate on the complications of their wristwatches, and I always wonder if the watch would be more accurate if it weren’t so complicated).
In Los Angeles, the currency of ambition is fame. Yes, there’s the dream of a home in the Hollywood Hills, the Pacific Palisades, or Malibu, but the path to that is paved by fame. I find Uber and Lyft drivers in Los Angeles love to chat about their get-famous-quick dreams, whether it’s some startup idea or a screenplay or some other grand hustle. And since the drives are longer, you get quite a bit of detail.
[This should be a reality show. Ride or Die. You are an Uber or Lyft driver. Some wealthy financier gets in your car. You have to drive them safely to their destination while trying to persuade them to finance your idea by the end of the trip. At the end of the ride, they render their verdict. If it’s a thumbs up, not only do you get a 5-star rating but they hand you a term sheet as well. I realize there’s a chance this is already a Quibi show.]
In San Francisco, ambition comes in the form of world-building, terraforming on a scale worthy of venture capital funding. It is both the strength and nonsense of the region. For every Apple or Google or Netflix you’ll also find a Theranos, a Juicero, or any number of other examples of either hubris, lunacy, or both. It’s the paradox of the tech industry that the failure rate of the collective ecosystem is so high that it will forever resemble a bubble of delusion, and that’s precisely why it works.
Core to this regional ambition and optimism is envisioning alternate futures. Read enough pitch decks and you’ll see countless up-and-to-the-right forecasts built on a premise of a world just pass the obscurity of the next turn in the road. The thing is, almost all of these imagined futures are bonkers, even to starry-eyed tech investors, which is why most of them never get any funding. But when they are right, those starry-eyed charts often prove wrong, not in being too optimistic but too pessimistic.
About a month after joining Amazon, I attended an offsite of all the VPs of the company. Not because I was a VP, mind you, but as primary note-taker and transcriber, and to present some spreadsheets of the future which might help the leadership team pin some exact dimensions to their dreams.
At one point, all the VPs were asked to forecast Amazon’s revenue in 5 years via silent ballot, all of which were passed to me and transcribed onto a giant sheet of paper. Then I showed it to everyone.
I wish I had kept that sheet of paper. What I do remember, though, was that the largest figure, one which just seemed extremely ambitious to most of us at the time, was something like $1.2B.
In 2002, Amazon’s FY revenue was just under $4B.
At the time we were all huddled in that conference room at a hotel, we were only a domestic online bookseller. And while we spent part of that offsite analyzing business plans to expand into new categories like music, video, and packaged software and new regions like Europe, those ideas seemed ephemeral in the way that all dreams do when reduced to a series of Excel graphs in a Powerpoint deck, the way clip art reduces otherwise elegant concepts to amateurish cartoons.
Amid this COVID-19 outbreak, a friend told me that preppers are right every 10 years or something to that effect. Every tenth or hundredth pitch deck you read turns out right, too. Spend enough time dreaming of the future and that reflex becomes a sort of muscle. It just happens that in Silicon Valley, that muscle is used, for the most part, to be long the future.
That ability to envision a vastly different future, though, can be put to use in the downside direction when something like COVID-19 comes along. All those up-and-to-the-right charts we’re making? Cover the labels on the y-axis and those are no different than those of a pandemic outbreak.
Furthermore, venture capitalists are accustomed to meeting entrepreneurs from a variety of fields and having to evaluate their prospects in their respective markets, much like finance people or consultants. Do that enough and you become accustomed to pontificating with the range of a generalist and the confidence of an expert. Some of it (a lot of it?) is just bullshit, but as long as one out of every dozen or so is not, the payoff of uncapped upside optionality makes it all work. I suspect, per Tyler Cowen’s framing, base-raters will always find growthers to be rather absurd, and growthers will never cease to regard base-raters as timorous.
Speaking of rare but deadly events, is it any surprise that Nassim Taleb of Black Swan fame was one of the first to sound an alarm on the risk of a coronavirus pandemic? If Taleb ever writes a children’s book, I hope it’s an update of the boy who cried wolf, except in this case it will be the old man who cried black swan, and by crying I mean cursing out everyone on Twitter.
Even today, I have friends in major cities all over the US who tell me nothing seems to have changed. Some in New York City seem to be proud, even defiant, that they haven’t broken their routines, though the fears of coronavirus seem to be concentrated in the coasts, where the virus infection seems to have entered the US first. I’ve been searching coronavirus on Google Trends, and it’s striking how the states that have seen the largest spike in searches for those terms, relative to overall search volume, are all on the coasts. Causation/correlation and all that, but it matches the rough geographic distribution of panic I’m seeing.
Even among my Bay Area friends, behavioral change has been slow to take. For the vast majority of them, who are young and in reasonably good health, it’s likely that even if they catch COVID-19 they’ll just suffer through a week or two of coughing and fever and then be fine.
The problem is that for some people, COVID-19 is particularly lethal. Based on the outbreaks in other countries thus far, those people are the elderly, especially those with comorbidities.
This makes our reaction to COVID-19 a test of the American concern, or indifference, towards its elderly.
For much of my childhood, my grandmother lived with us and raised me and my sisters so that both my parents could work full-time. America is now largely a society of nuclear families. Out of sight, out of mind. I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother and my parents as I saw scenes of people being evacuated in ambulances from the Life Care Center nursing home in Kirkland.
COVID-19 isn’t the flu. COVID-19 IS NOT THE FLU. Most reports I’ve read so far indicate it has both higher R0 (R naught) and a higher CFR, even if the absolute figures from each seem low to the casual observer. It may be inconvenient to social distance for a few weeks, but in an age with such a wealth of entertainment, it’s hardly a prison sentence.
The problem of staying in has been, at least for me, a spike in social media usage, and with it, repeated and endless contact with COVID-19 in its memetic form. Reading Twitter, in particular, can induce whiplash because any view that gains any momentum will immediately summon its Wallfacer to beat it down, which in turn brings its Wallbreaker to the yard, and so on. Politics on Twitter is a hellscape as it is, but attached to COVID-19 discourse it is unavoidable because I’d rather not mute the topic and miss important information.
Panic! Don’t panic! Treat COVID-19 with the proper gravity! Break the pall with some levity. That take good! That take bad! Techies are good at exponential math! Techies aren’t any better at exponential math than anyone else! How dare you use a pandemic as the jumping-off point to talk about tech company growth rates! The CFR figures are overstated because we are undercounting the denominator! The CFR figures are understated because deaths lag! CFR rates aren’t comparable because countries vary in their healthcare infrastructure and institutional effectiveness! I drink your tears of panic for their salt content!
Someone, maybe it was David Foster Wallace, once described pornography as a fictional universe where sex could break out at the slightest provocation, and Twitter is now the type of bar that exists in movies, where someone will sucker punch another patron and initiate a bar brawl for nothing more than a sidelong glance, just because everyone’s itching for a fight.
As much as I joke around about COVID-19, it’s more coping mechanism in grim times than anything else. I am concerned, not for myself, but for my parents and others in more vulnerable groups and for medical professionals like my brother-in-law who’s an ER doctor at a few hospitals in the Bay Area, most of whom are out of N95 respirators and turning to PAPR’s. Thus my counsel is this: take sensible precautions with a reasonable sense of urgency and prepare for a few weeks of social distancing. Doing so in the U.S., with its ample access to drinking water and electricity and a sophisticated service economy, doesn’t require going full-on billionaire New Zealand bunker crazy. You can choose to call that panic or not, I DGAF about litigating language right now.
The irony, of course, is that if we go overboard, we may quickly halt the spread of COVID-19, as some other countries have, and if we do, in hindsight it will look like we overreacted. But the converse is also true. If we fail to act quickly enough, we can just look at what happened in a few countries where COVID-19 was imported sooner and where testing is far ahead of that in the United States and see that when we finally do panic, it will be much worse than it should have been.
Most medical professionals believe we’re already past containment and into mitigation now. I’m bunkering down for the next two weeks and will see you all online. Be safe.
Of course, the people who most need to hear this message don’t seem to realize that unlike most issues, a diagnosis of COVID-19 isn’t subjective.
The WHO report’s recommendations for countries with imported cases and/or outbreaks of COVID-19 include the following:
1. Prepare to immediately activate the highest level of emergency response
mechanisms to trigger the all-of-government and all-of society approach that is essential for early containment of a COVID-19 outbreak;
2. Rapidly test national preparedness plans in light of new knowledge on the effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical measures against COVID-19; incorporate rapid detection, large-scale case isolation and respiratory support capacities, and rigorous contact tracing and management in national COVID-19 readiness and response plans and capacities;
3. Immediately enhance surveillance for COVID-19 as rapid detection is crucial to containing spread; consider testing all patients with atypical pneumonia for the COVID-19 virus, and adding testing for the virus to existing influenza surveillance systems;
4. Begin now to enforce rigorous application of infection prevention and control measures in all healthcare facilities, especially in emergency departments and outpatient clinics, as this is where COVID-19 will enter the health system; and
5. Rapidly assess the general population’s understanding of COVID-19, adjust national health promotion materials and activities accordingly, and engage clinical champions to communicate with the media.
By all accounts, we’re maybe 1 for 5, perhaps 0 for 5. American exceptionalism.
I sincerely hope we see a Chernobyl-like miniseries on the bungling of the response to COVID-19 in countries like the US, not from some sense of schadenfreude or even for entertainment but because, as a cultural determinist and also a believer in the outsized reach of narrative video, we need a mass ideological inoculation against such institutional failure and widespread nonchalance the next time something like this happens.
That Contagion has been on the iTunes bestseller lists for weeks now is great, but watching it now is a bit like reviewing security footage of a robbery the day after it happened.
The Heisenberg Certainty Principle of Social Media
“This is story about control
My control Control of what I say
Control of what I do
And this time I’m gonna do it my way
I hope you enjoy this as much as I do
Are we ready?
I am ‘Cause it’s all about control,
And I’ve got lots of it”
– Janet Jackson, “Control”
I was on a panel at a Lightspeed Social Conference recently, and I don’t remember in what context this came up, but I referenced what I refer to as the Heisenberg Certainty Principle of Social Media.
Heisenberg Certainty Principle of Social Media: online, everyone sounds more certain than they actually are.
In practice, this means everyone sounds smug online. This is the reason, I think, that when I meet someone IRL, a person I’ve previously only known from a social media account, I almost invariably find them more agreeable and pleasant in person. Online, I find even myself insufferable.
The reasons are manifold. Character count limits on Twitter make already intolerable pundits more, mmm, pundity? Chasing likes rewards a Hemingway-esque muscularity of language: terse and confident. It’s the fortune cookie syntax which makes everyone sound like a banal guru. The flywheel of social media feedback constricts our language like a noose. Publishing a tweet with all sorts of qualifiers and hedges might be intellectually honest but it makes for terrible like-bait.
This applies to almost any social network. Extreme points of view amass more feedback. In this mass Skinner box test we call social media, we’re all conditioned to know that we’re more likely to get a pellet of food from the dispenser when we hit that lever with absolute swag.
Other forms of media are not immune. I’m guilty of speeding up playback of some of the podcasts I listen to, sometimes up over 2X. This is after editors have already removed all the filler and qualifier words and awkward pauses, a pruning which narrows the range of perceived variance in the speaker’s conviction. When you speed spoken language up, everyone sounds almost imperious in their confidence. When I slow podcasts back to 1X, speakers sound drunk, almost incoherent.
[I’ve learned over many years that work meetings, like Twitter, reward a type of hyper-confident presentation of one’s opinions. And that speaking like you’re a podcast on 2X speed with all your filler words removed makes you great in the room. It’s great for anyone seeking a position of authority, like politicians. But conversely, some of those people have turned out to be the most useless people I’ve worked with, so buyer beware.]
But the primary reason for the Heisenberg Certainty effect is that our dominant social networks converged on large, singular feeds as their dominant architectural style, and in these singular feeds, as I’ve written about before, everyone is looking at everyone looking at everyone. The observer effect is all-corrupting. Tech CEOs love to analogize these giant public feeds to the public square but the truth is we’ve never had a public square like this in the history of the world, a scalable and scale-free omniopticon.
And, just as Heisenberg said that the impact of the act of observation means you can’t measure the momentum and velocity of an object exactly at the same time, publishing when you’re under the watchful eye of the online hordes means you can’t judge the position and velocity of anyone online with any real accuracy.
Conceding even the slightest ground to your opponent in view of so many of your peers is unappealing and a sign of weakness. Per the feedback incentives noted above, it’s best to come out throwing punches with certitude. Certainty leads to smugness, smugness leads to resentment, resentment leads to argument. And engagement-based algorithms, oh brother do they love argument.
Face-to-face conversation removes the observers and all the accompanying pressure for social conformity. Furthermore, a person standing before us in flesh and blood is perhaps the most potent evolutionary cue to our empathy, not to mention that the threat of having them punch us in the face if we insult them acts as a real deterrent to trolling. I believe it was Samuel Jackson who said, “When you absolutely, positively have to have level-headed discourse, get the two motherfuckers in one room, accept no substitute.”
Now, some of that is courtesy bias, to be sure. The heightened honesty elicited by disembodied conversation can be useful. One thing Jeff Bezos said a lot in the early days of Amazon was that email was one of the great inventions because our customers were so unfiltered and honest in their feedback to us. When you’re trying to be the world’s most customer-centric company, it turns out it’s helpful to have customers dialing up their feedback to 11. Hear them bitch and moan about shipping prices long enough and it will sink in that some things are both the irresistible force and immovable object.
Still, I can’t help but think back to my short stints in customer service at Amazon, long before the era of online social networks, as a harbinger of the quality of discourse to come. Nothing can prepare you for how emotionally shattering it can be to have some middle-aged lady curse you out via email because one corner of the dust jacket on a hardcover she ordered had a slight tear in it.
Online, our fellow man is abstracted, decontextualized. Take that and sprinkle in the status incentives to challenging other users online and you have a gladiatorial game design. Like a video game, if you own someone online, it’s as if their status booty scatters to the ground beneath their now-vanished corpse and you can scoop it up as if you’re in some online MMORPG. It’s no wonder people add in so many more exclamation marks and smiley faces and emojis in internet communication, trying to re-inject all the signals our bodies and faces would normally carry in a conversation, cues which defuse the propensity to conflict.
The counter to context collapse is the ability to re-inject context. There are dozens of ways to do so, and while none might be the exact equivalent of meeting someone face-to-face, I believe the next wave of social networks to outdo our incumbents will take that job more seriously.
In the last issue, I wrote about how the ability for a user to control their pace of media consumption was a critical part of media user experience. In the same way, context controls should be core to the design of any social network.
When we see users retreating to private messaging groups to discuss some thoughts they don’t feel comfortable sharing on Twitter or Facebook, they’re merely exercising manual control of context. When people migrate to Facebook Groups from News Feed, they’re often sacrificing distribution for greater alignment. When people mute or block on Twitter, they’re trying to alter their conversational terrain.
When young people create numerous finstas, cycling through them like burner phones, or when teenagers already feel a need to create a FikFok account, when they switched from Facebook to Snapchat with its more fine-grained, deterministic messaging distribution controls, they were seizing the reigns of context over all their various identities.
For much of this first era of social networks, we’ve contorted ourselves to the odd-shaped social structures built by social media companies. The companies that compete successfully with them in the future will be ones that flip that dynamic and bend to accommodate the full breadth and complexity of human identity and community.
Yes, that’s right. It’s time to bring back Google Circles.
A few readers asked me about Fleets, a type of Stories-like feature for Twitter being tested in Brazil. In one sense, this does restore some context control to the user since no one can reply, like, or retweet these Fleets.
However, unless Twitter can prevent people from screenshotting these, people can perform a manual quote-retweet of controversial Fleets and post them to the main feed as Tweets. Fleets will still be distributed to the same graph of followers as Tweets, I assume, so protection against cancellation is some form of weak security by relative obscurity?
When Instagram launched Stories, some people asked me if I thought that would relieve the performative pressure there. My response then was the same as it is to the question around Fleets. They remove some level of pressure around the craftsmanship of the post, but if you don’t change the graph structure, you don’t fundamentally alter the context. The network’s the thing.
Fleets are an amusing name, though, and made me think Twitter should launch an entire suite of features using that same rhyme scheme.
Reheats: when someone retweets themselves. Or should those be conceits? To reduce the outbreak of social media vanity, each account will be a limited quota of one of these per month.
Receipts: when someone posts a screenshot of someone’s offensive Fleet.
Deceits: fake news. Twitter will proactively mark all of these with a warning message, except those from Trump.
Bleats: the new name for Promoted Tweets. When you want to ensure everyone in your Timeline sees your tweet, you can pay for a Bleat. To raise revenue, Twitter will launch its equivalent to Tinder Gold, granting each subscriber a stash of Bleats each day. Like Super Likes, even people who’ve blocked and muted you will be forced to see your Bleats. Later, after an outcry from users, Twitter will launch a counter-subscription which allows you to block Bleats.
Chretes: tweets by Chrissy Teigen. Every one of her tweets will have that GIF of her grimacing at the Oscars appended automatically.
Skeets: terrible takes that are instantly ratio’d. In the future, Twitter will aggregate all ratio’d tweets in one tab in the app so we can all go there for our daily dose of Vitamin Schadenfreude, just after we’ve completed our morning meditation.
Social Distancing is the new Conscious Uncoupling
I’d never heard the term “social distancing” until COVID-19 appeared. Like “conscious uncoupling,” it sounds like the type of vague, clinical euphemism common in corporate vernacular. Yet this is one instance in which a bit of abstraction in language might be called for. Saying you’re self-quarantining sounds a bit alarming, while you’re hiding from the world in your bunker sounds aggressively antisocial. Shifting social norms often requires a bit of polite misdirection in the beginning, the way we chuckle when offering an elbow in place of a handshake (“haha it’s the corona handshake!”) so as not to offend. Sorry to cancel our meeting, just practicing some social distancing, <smiley face emoji>!
Before it was given the official name COVID-19, this new virus was referred to as “novel coronavirus.” Again, an almost whimsical adjective to describe a mysterious, heretofore unidentified virus. Ah! How novel!
While many of us in the US may soon be practicing social distancing, if we aren’t already, every bit of advice on dealing with COVID-19 feels like it has analogous lessons in social media. If these giant public feeds like Twitter and Facebook and Instagram are our public squares, perhaps we should be practicing social media distancing, avoiding those mass public spaces, tamping down the spread of things like misinformation and tribal outrage.
By spending more time just communicating with smaller groups via email and private messaging, we are social distancing, in a way. By blocking and muting more liberally, we’re just donning masks and washing our hands more frequently. The social networks themselves will always be conflicted when it comes to viral outbreaks on their networks; the financial incentive is for higher engagement, and thus the algorithms are designed to slingshot viral payloads to extremely high R0 values.
Of course, on one side of the information marketplace of social networks are billions of creators, many of whom spend their time designing viruses to ride just those algorithms to massive target receptors. We’re likely to always be fighting from behind, but some basic social media distancing practices may help flatten the curve on the most destructive of memes, and in the process, prevent an overload of our ICUs of sanity and social decorum.
I fully expect the word cloud from this entire COVID-19 outbreak to make the leap from medicine to technology and become a permanent epidemic in growth hacking discourse moving forward.
All PR is not good PR, but…
Before that panel at the Lightspeed Social Conference, I was discussing whether all PR is good PR with the moderator and my fellow panelist.
Nearly two years ago, I remember reading Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s hilarious rapier to the chest of a profile of Goop in the NYTimes Sunday Magazine. The last line of the profile is literally, “It was ridiculous.”
So it was with some surprise that I saw Gwyneth Paltrow shared a photo of the Sunday Magazine cover shot to her Instagram account. The caption was beaming with pride, and various celebrity friends jumped into the comments to congratulate her. Had they not read the article?
But, via the grapevine, I heard that the article had boosted Goop sales in the week following its publication and that other bouts of bad publicity had the same positive effects on business.
So is all PR good PR?
I don’t believe so though it often seems as if it’s the case. Instead, what’s at work is another principle, namely that one of the highest order problems for almost all businesses is awareness.
Bad PR becomes good PR when it increases awareness of your brand, foot traffic, and finally sales at a volume that exceeds the decline in business from the brand hit.
That was the chief lesson of the hilarious TV show Nathan for You, in which comedian Nathan Fielder posed as a business guru and recommended absurd ideas for boosting business to small business owners. The other lesson of the show, one which Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G and Borat also taught, is that people are mostly very nice to other people in person, even to crazy people, and online we are the opposite. Context is everything.
Movie of the Week: The Invisible Man
I love genre movies. Watch enough movies and the conventions of nearly every genre will inhabit your brain like an earworm. In film school, we spent a lot of time dissecting why certain genres endure long after you might expect them to have become irrelevant (vampire films, westerns, e.g.). Genres endure because they speak to some greater truths about humans and society.
I’m not too familiar with previous incarnations of the invisible man horror film genre, but in some ways, it is the perfect monster for the #metoo era. As every review will note, this Blumhouse production updates the story in a way that every woman who has been gaslit by a powerful white man will recognize with uncomfortable clarity. As seen in the trailer, a bucket of paint plays a key role in one scene; it’s no coincidence the paint is white. The movie captures the utterly maddening quandary of being a woman who knows the invisible forces destroying your life are real, you can name them, and yet everyone, even those closest to you, think you’re mad. The plot, as it unfolds, may seem absurd in parts, but it hinges around the assumption that no one will believe Moss. That, as many women can attest, is hardly a stretch.
Making the invisible visible has always been one of Elizabeth Moss’s talents. Her eyes always contain a sliver of mania behind them no matter the performance; it’s perfectly cast here. This film, unlike previous incarnations, puts you in the victim, the woman’s, perspective, rather than that of the invisible man. In this era, it’s difficult to imagine it could be the reverse.
Of course, in an invisible man movie, every wide shot and every bit of empty space in the frame holds some menace. That every shot of Moss leaves you wondering whose perspective you’re seeing is fun; that every shot is your perspective is a nod at the voyeurism endemic to life as a woman and a performer and life in the social media era.
As with Leigh Whannell’s previous film Upgrade, this film is a bit shaggy and loose with some plot points and scenes, but it’s an audience pleaser at its heart. I felt all the cycles of tension and release that I crave in a horror or suspense film. It never takes itself too seriously not treats the genre with disdain. It might not stick in the subconscious the way a film like Us does, but it’s an adrenaline rush all its own.
I know some of you may not be horror fans, and yet others might find the themes too close to the truth for comfort. I’ve always found horror films a cathartic mechanism for processing our subconscious dread, but you’ve been warned.
In theaters now. I realize that may make it a lousy recommendation when I’m also pushing social distancing, but right now I seem to have all manner of invisible enemies on my mind.