Life & Culture

Theatre review: Public Domain

Social media culture is under the spotlight in this online offering


Poor Mark Zuckerberg. The man who as a student set out to do nothing more blameworthy than make it easy for people to be in touch with each other is reportedly now one of the most disliked people on the planet and in the crosshairs of President Joe Biden.

“I’ve never been a fan of Facebook,” Biden told the New York Times about a year ago. “I’ve never been a fan of Zuckerberg.” It is not a huge leap then to infer that Biden would get a lot of out of this new Southwark Playhouse musical, written and performed by Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke.

Every word in every song has been drawn from YouTube videos, tweets and Instagram posts by those who live their life almost entirely online. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say by those who can feel alive only on the internet.

Central to the show are fictional millennial vloggers Millie (Fornistal) and Z (Clarke) whose videoed confessionals feature a mix of fitness and make-up in Millie’s case and gay teen angst in Z’s. They attract nearly a million and two and a half million subscribers respectively.

Fornistal and Clarke convey the self-obsession of these internet personalities with exactly the right mix of vulnerability and narcissism. But their real target is not so much the “influencers” who present their lives as examples to follow or to avoid, as those who created the platforms on which they exist.

For this the writer/performers also play Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan.

Here the show recreates the milestones that marked Zuckerberg’s transition from wunderkind to villain.

There is the cosy interview in the home of Zuckerberg and Chan, followed by the questioning of Facebook’s founder by America’s Joint Commerce Judiciary Committee, which was conducted by legislators pathetically ignorant about how tech monopolies work.

But later, other members of Congress are up to speed when Zuckerberg is questioned about the moderators who work for Facebook, not as employees but as casuals whose job it is to sift through content of child and animal cruelty that continues to play in their minds long after the videos have been deleted.

There is testimony from the workers about their resulting trauma and Zuckerberg is challenged on the nine minutes of “supervised wellness” they receive.

According to the Congresswoman whose questions Zuckerberg dodges, this amounts to “crying on the stairwell for nine minutes while someone watches you.”

A bit like the case against Corbyn, the accusation made by this show is that the harm done by Zuckerberg and his company is all the worse for being presented as doing good.

In form the creators have taken the verbatim techniques of Alecky Blythe’s stunning National Theatre show London Road and moved it on a notch by musicalising that which was spoken. And like the best campaigning shows it makes us feel angry and complicit — especially those of us on Facebook.

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