Why are people more keen of their social identity than their real life? With the pivot to privacy, this is a good debate to start.

As a lecturer in consumer behaviour, Abhishek Shukla was looking at a case study relating to a Melbourne restaurant. The business was undergoing massive change including employees’ training to improve the restaurant’s table turnover rates. However, after six months of makeover and training of staff, the turnaround of tables actually slowed down. The reason being, with phones becoming an intrinsic part of life, patrons were spending more time taking pictures of food and posting them on social media – resulting in an actual turnaround delay of 30 minutes.
For Shukla, this was the starting point of his inspiration for his film Social Media Murder Mystery. He realised that not only did social media indulgence result in loss of business, but even food has been given a certain social identity. One might argue that this could be good publicity for the restaurant but Shukla avers that “we have reached a stage where things are excessive”.
Shukla’s film took four years in the making and was released this year. But it comes at a time when the debate on the sharing of data and use of social media has become crucial and acquired scale.
The film, produced for half a million dollars, explores the dark side of social media.
It follows an overtly social media dependent husband, Doug and his emotionally disengaged wife, Tara as this interracial couple seek solutions to their disintegrating marriage.
Unknown “friends” interacting over social media convince Doug to do the unthinkable as his marriage disintegrates. A change of mind is not allowed as the society of “friends” is Hotel California of social media armed with information that we share regularly.
Doug soon realises that if it’s online, it’s public and things can’t be undone in the virtual world. The virtual society knows everything about the couple simply from their collective social media posts and they challenge Doug to a cat and a mouse game that he can’t win.
Directed by Shukla, Social Media Murder Society is a thriller. It’s all about the dangers of sharing too much information online. Shot in India and Australia, it has actor Sana Saeed, who had earlier played the young Anjali in Bollywood hit Kuch Kuch Hota Hain, and Australians Warwick Young as well as up and coming heart throb, Jason Wilder.
Shukla is clear his message is regarding the responsible use of social media. One of the key scenes is where the marriage counsellor explains why she is doing what she is doing and what society is all about. She states “if it’s online, it is public.” For Shukla, what that means is that there is a danger in sharing a lot of information online as we just don’t know how someone will pick that information or interpret that information.
Shukla, who did his PhD in International Business and Strategic Management from Melbourne Business School, has been teaching consumer behaviour, marketing and innovation in Darwin. He has always been interested in the collapsing boundaries between the online and real worlds. His first film ‘Quest for Versace’ and his second film ‘Social Media Murder Society’ have the online component common in them. “My passion was always to tell stories and I started writing plays on topics that excite me.”
It was after ‘Quest for Versace’ that he took up a two-month intensive study on filmmaking at the New York Film Academy. The script for Social Media Murder Society was written over five different drafts and two years, he reveals. When he did take his script to producers in New York, they wanted him to sell the script to them so they could make a three-million dollar film. However, Shukla chose to produce it himself with a few investors in Australia as it was a subject close to his heart. “Money is not related to story-telling,” he believes.
The trigger point, however, of the story is how people are more keen of this social identity than their real life experiences. He recalls how he was at a massive concert where people were more interested in posting online rather than enjoying the concert. “They all had their phones out which were pointed towards the stage and they were looking at the stage through their phone screens.”
This over consumption of social media is what Shukla is trying to debate through his film. “On an average a person has anywhere between 200 to 500 friends. If it is a millennial that number goes up to thousands. But how many are the actual friends? If it is 10 per cent, it is probably 100. So the information that one is sharing goes out to 900 other people. It takes only one psychotic person to ruin your life,” warns Shukla. And that is the message he is trying to send through Social Media Murder Society.
He explains there are two elements in the film – one is the relationship aspect between Doug and Tara which has its ups and downs. The other is the social media aspect, where Doug goes online to seek help regarding his failing marriage not realising his wife was already part of the online counselling society that ends with her shooting him to test the authenticity of their relationship.
“Social media is whatever we make it out to be,” says Shukla, adding, “There is more acceptance sought after in the online world than the real world. So social validation online or the number of likes that one gets on, say, a photo, becomes more important. Many people who are so active on social media are so connected to that strange world that they don’t know what is happening right next to them. The aspect of going out with friends has been replaced with ‘oh I have my phone’. There is a change in the consumption of entertainment. That is the major impact that social media has created,” he says. Good or bad that is the debate Shukla wants to start.
Sana Saeed, who plays Tara, shares Shukla’s vision. “Everything is on the internet now; you have your entire life out there. I comply with the fact that you can’t have everything out there.”
However, she says social media when used right has its plus points. “A lot of times, as an actor it is important for your audience to know who you really are. From that point of view it is important to introduce the work that you are doing. We have social media influencers and it is an amazing platform but you have to be cautious too. You have to be selective about what you post.” She adds working on a film which is relevant to the times we live in and with the collaboration of Indian and Australian team was fun.
The scale of social media has definite become a problem, argues Dolly Kikon, senior lecturer at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne. Social media has become a weapon for mobilising fear, violence and spreading of fake news but at the same time one cannot overlook the fact that it can also be used as a tool for getting information out through campaigns and fund raising. Also e-governance in rural areas is tool for development, she opines.
Clearly, the social media debate is one that has rightly been called a legend of informational warfare. It has also transformed image-making. Ultimately, one has to work it out oneself how much one wants to share.