The immediate question that arises any time this problem appears is, how could the writers be so lazy? They sweat so hard creating a richly imagined world, only to rip us out of it by botching a simple element of the everyday one. We don’t need a character to scroll through days of texts to establish verisimilitude. Even hinting at a couple lines of past exchanges, out of focus or beyond the frame, to fill out the text box would do more than enough to make us believe these are texts between two sentient humans.
Shows and movies would often be better served by keeping those extra texts in focus, and seizing the opportunity to add Easter eggs and deeper characterization. Why not show an earlier photo Doug sent Emily of his slurped-dry T-bone at Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse and the caption “booyah”? Why not show Hugh Grant and his son backchanneling over text for weeks without Nicole Kidman’s knowledge? If you’re going to include a shot of a texting app, that app becomes the stage, and its mise-en-scène should be treated with as much care for realism as any set, or you lose the audience. That white space is ghostly.
There’s also a more elegant and cheaper option. Rather than cut to the phone itself, have the texts appear on their own, as a character receives them, over the screen’s main action. Some shows are savvier at this technique than others, but even the clunkiest versions are less disturbing than the blank slate route. What makes the Emily in Paris example so abominable is the show soon switches to the better approach. After that establishing shot of Emily’s iPhone, every text she receives for the rest of the season pops up beside her. (Her Instagram posts appear the same way; how she surges from 48 to 25,000 followers with photos of roses and captions #EverythingsComingUpRoses is a separate credibility issue.) It’s as if the creators assumed viewers were both unfamiliar with text threads and also completely unaware of smartphones. (Netflix did not respond to emails seeking comment.)
The only charitable explanation is that these are not oversights but deliberate depictions of vigilant text deleters. If that’s the case, then rather than looking like someone who’s never received a text, they just look like someone conscious of their data usage, or a digital neat freak. Or perhaps they just look like someone trying to scrub an unbearable past. If you erase everything and realize there is only now, you too can wipe away the Doug in your life and thrive in France without learning French.
There is, however, little data supporting this theory, or suggesting that text expungers abound in reality. Neither Apple nor Google would share with WIRED information on deleted text rates among iPhone or Android users. A crude poll of the WIRED staff found 61 percent “never” deleted their texts, and 39 percent did so “selectively.” No one said “often or always.” Chances are, most of us are as lazy about deleting texts as shows are about including them.
Though inadvertent, is there a message to be gleaned here? Would we be better off if we were like these characters—free of data, free of history, free of what we sent at 3 am? There is a certain Buddhist appeal to the cleanliness of their text threads. Nothing you’ve said before matters. You’re only as good as your next emoji, your next reminder to someone that you care.
Still, I reject this. For all we can debate about what smartphones have wrought, having an immense, immediately accessible library of our interpersonal relationships is among the net goods. While every tech platform nudges us toward the ephemeral—disappearing stories from Snapchat, Skype, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, et al.—our text histories offer an increasingly rare, comforting permanence. Threads are our staccato pen palships, testaments to our growth and regression, our inanity and suffering. Today you open the group chat to let your friends know you were laid off, and you are greeted by yesterday’s 78 texts dunking on Brendan’s new haircut. Rarely do I scroll back far, though sometimes my friend and I will use the search feature to resend a single text the other sent four years ago, completely out of context: This was you, then.
Texting presents challenges for any show or movie set in the 2000s. It’s most often implausible for characters to not text, and yet making texting look sexy is hard. But avoiding blank slate messaging isn’t complicated, and there are rich aspects of texting’s impact on us still unexplored onscreen. Until then, maybe just show a new text coming in on the phone’s home screen, and don’t have characters swipe open to the horrifying emptiness.
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