Behind the Screen: The screenlife genre and connection in the internet age

A close-up drawing of a computer camera.
(Lucia Marquez-Uppman • The Student Life)

In a world dominated by digital echo chambers, misinformation and the looming fear that algorithms are spying on users, the technological discourse has inevitably become paranoia-filled. The concept of the cloud has grown more prevalent over time, motivating users to maintain privacy by creating pseudo-identities, otherwise known as profiles. To hide their real identities, many users cover their webcams out of a fear that someone is watching their every move.

In recent years, the screenlife film genre has translated these anxiety-ridden aspects of scrolling onto the big screen. Emerging as an offshoot of found-footage horror, GQ Magazine defines screenlife as an exploration of how our digital personas differ from who we are offscreen, [and] the ways casual cruelty can be enabled through the distance created by posts and avatars.” 

Although films about the internet have existed for as long as the internet itself, what is special about screenlife is its use of exclusively on-screen storytelling. This method binds the skepticism that digital natives have towards films that depict the idiosyncrasies of internet communication, as many of them seem outdated or miss the mark entirely.

These films create a plot in which the protagonists depend on their devices, making the desktop landscapes feel authentic and lived-in. From its depiction of individual texting styles to tab minimizations, screenlife gets the details right while offering a larger commentary on the relationship between people and the technologies they use.

From the hesitancy before a text is sent to the way people use the same password for all of their accounts, screenlife is able to capitalize on the minute details of internet linguistics. Though characters in this genre are often put in extreme situations, there is a universal element to the way users disconnect from their real lives when a screen is in front of them. 

The most successful entries to the screenlife genre have been the films “Searching,” “Profile,” and this year’s “Missing.” “Missing” serves as a “spiritual sequel” to 2018’s “Searching,” as both films are thrillers where the main character attempts to find a recently missing family member through the internet. Think “Finding Nemo,” but instead of Marlin traversing the ocean to find his son, he goes through a sea of archived internet accounts and emails.

On paper, this genre may seem like a snooze. Why would audiences want to watch other people browse the internet, especially if they themselves are browsing it every day? However, the appeal of Screenlife” is not the fact that these characters are on the internet, but it’s how they use it to understand, and to an extent, discover, the people in their real lives.

In both “Searching” and “Missing,” the protagonists investigate the whereabouts of their missing relatives while an ongoing investigation is occurring in the background. These parallel streams of in-person and online searches create a tension between the boundaries of privacy and revealing the true nature of a person or situation. 

“Profile,” another screenlife film, is able to tackle the tension between privacy and truth head-on, making the case that their interplay is at the heart of human interaction. The protagonist is deceived within an information echo chamber, and the film clearly makes the case that this deception could have occurred in real-life as well.

Beyond these examples, the screenlife genre aims to articulate how the internet informs personal relationships and dynamics. Social connection is always characterized by information that is left unsaid, as people drown in an awareness of their own assumptions and preconceived notions –– the digital screen doesn’t create this tendency but simply maximizes it. These films serve as a reminder of how people connect both off and online, creating perceptions based on what they choose to show each other. 

The chaos that ensues in all three of these films is beautifully communicated through the online setting. From embedding soundtracks within the music apps on a desktop to highlighting the sneaky shortcuts we use to seek or hide information, these films tell us a whole lot about how we navigate relationships in a time when screens dominate. 

In an age when polarization, self-expression and surveillance define much of technological discourse, screenlife introduces a new way for people to examine the real-life implications of these topics. Instead of capitalizing on the fear that someone is behind a user’s webcam, the genre dissects why that fear exists in the first place.

Screenlife calls out the tensions and hypocrisies of online users to the users themselves. It takes a crack at several important questions: If people are so scared of being watched, why are they constantly watching others? Should users be able to invade other people’s privacy in pursuit of some greater understanding? Even though this genre may not offer direct answers to these questions, it can help uncover a semblance of the truth while accepting a fundamental reality — the internet is only getting bigger, and users must figure out how to consume it without letting it be all-consuming. 

Peter Dien CM ’25 is from West Covina, California.  He enjoys listening to midwest emo, watching stand-up, and playing Go with his roommate.

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