TORONTO — The ensemble drama Men, Women & Children, which premiered Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival, makes the case that there is an entire generation of young people who are disappearing online, whose lives would be far richer if they'd stop using social media nearly as much, if not altogether. But one of the film's own stars would seem to disagree.
"I think everyone should have social media — all young people, at least," said Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) in an interview with BuzzFeed News at the festival. "When I was 15, I got my first smartphone. It's a different world now."
But, like so many famous people of his generation, Elgort was also recently confronted with the dangers of the internet with the ongoing celebrity photo-hacking scandal. While the victims have been rather uniformly female, that didn't keep Elgort from taking a necessary precaution.
"Oh yeah, I turned off my iCloud," he said, almost nonchalantly. "Like, I had taken some pictures, and deleted them, and I was looking in my cloud one day, and I was like, Every picture that I've taken is on here, even the ones I deleted. Like, all the shitty ones too. I was like, Hmm."
In the film, Elgort plays Tim, a high school student who gives up his status as his Texas suburb's big football star and loses himself spending endless hours playing the MMORPG Guild Wars after his mother abandons his family. He is pulled out of his funk by the relationship he builds with Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever, Justified), a similarly angst-riddled classmate whose own online life is policed with draconian zeal by her mother (Jennifer Garner). The film, co-written and directed by Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air), makes clear that Brandy's mom is in the wrong to be so militant about protecting her daughter from an unknown digital menace, but the movie's heart remains on the parental side of this particular generational divide. Social media like Tumblr and Facebook create far more isolation and misery for the characters than connection and warmth.
For 20-year-old Elgort, who has a robust presence on Twitter, Instagram, and Vine, life online can certainly reveal some dark human ugliness. But he regards social media as a powerful tool to combat that ugliness as well. "I remember the first time someone tweeted at me, 'You're a fag.' I tweeted about it," said Elgort. "Because I knew that's something everyone gets nowadays."
"All of my followers are young people, people who need to be influenced in a positive way," said Elgort. "The internet can be a shitty fucking place. So if I can encourage two million young people who are internet users to be good, then that's great, and I can do that quite easily. It doesn't take that much time. I absolutely should be on social media, and I think every person who's an influencer should be, and should be doing good things."
Unlike those followers (which, at the time of publication, is 1.94 million), however, Elgort's celebrity means he cannot really live his life through social media, something he realized well before the photo leak scandal. "I tweet things that make it seem like it's personal, but I don't tell you who I'm dating," he said. "I don't tell you when I'm meeting [friends]. I don't tell you where I am. Twitter is so important, and there's a certain way to handle it that makes you be able to in a very, like, beneficial way to your career, and also to your followers."
But Elgort didn't always have this kind of delineation in his life. "When I first had [Twitter], I had, like, 1,000 followers, and I just posted everything," he said. "Like, 'Oh, I'm at dinner with my friend. I'm here, here, here, here, here.' But once I realized, Oh, my god, now I have, like, 20,000 [followers], I was like, I need to stop doing that, because these aren't my friends. They are people who, if I see them on the street, I will be very nice to, because they're my fans. But, like, this isn't Facebook anymore."
And yes, Elgort does have a personal Facebook account, under a fake name, and he does appreciate the importance of not putting everything online. "I mean, even on Facebook, like, I wouldn't share everything with my friends, because that's obnoxious." he said. By the same token, however, Facebook has helped Elgort maintain a necessary perspective as his career has exploded over the past year. "I don't actually have 1,000 friends," he said with a laugh. "I have 50 friends. And I'm realizing, Oh yeah, I only have 50 friends in the world. Not 1,000!"
He continues to be wary, especially as regular social media users are still so unaware of day-to-day technology, making the job of tech-savvy hackers that much easier. But that's something Elgort believes will eventually be a thing of the past. "People are going to get more savvy. Right now, it's unfair, because people who are just users are much less educated in how to use technology than people who are hackers. Hackers are amazing at technology, and they can fuck you up. I think people are just going to learn. I think that in school, they [are] going to teach you more about how to use technology. I think there will be a time where a hacker tries to hack someone, and the average person's like, 'Fuck you, hacker. You're not getting in my shit.'"