Longtime Live Active Culture readers may recall that I was a reluctant adopter of social media, resisting the siren song of Facebook long after most others had succumbed. How times have changed! I've spent the last couple weeks being a beta tester (read: guinea pig) for Connections, the new social media network that promises to overthrow Tumblr and grind Instagram into the ground. Sure, there have been some minor glitches, like the mysterious Californian blood cult whose suspicious activities caused Connections' highly anticipated launch to be briefly postponed. But there's no point crying over spilled tamarind martinis, because, as the first national network mandated by the government for all U.S. citizens to use, Connections will soon be a part of your life – whether you like it or not.
If you haven't yet guessed, Connections is not a real social media network, though its recently launched website, connections.click, looks and functions exactly like the legitimate systems it imitates, complete with comments and likes. In reality, Connections is the cornerstone of #NoFilter, an ambitious interactive experiment integrating online alternate reality gaming with IRL immersive theater and a dash of spooky satire. This participatory performance art project, which kicked off early this month and continues through mid-November, is the latest brainchild of Orlando-based Pseudonym Productions, the twisted minds behind last Halloween's disturbing A Study of Dreams, and earlier boundary-pushing experiences like When Shadows Fall, The Republic and Catharsis.
I spoke with Pseudonym's vice president, Ricky Brigante (who provided me a complimentary #NoFilter membership for review purposes), prior to the project's launch, in order to discuss how he and company founder/president Sarah Elger intend to advance the unique brand of interactive entertainment they've been developing over the past few years. "We knew we weren't going to go anywhere by only entertaining 100 people every Halloween; we needed to do something bigger in scope and scale," Brigante says. Unlike their previous live performances, #NoFilter "plays out across digital means, but with physical pop-up happenings that relate to the story and bring people together to play."
Prior Pseudonym productions pulled their nightmare fuel from mythological terrors, but #NoFilter is inspired by a far more insidious monster that lives inside everyone's smartphone. "There's nothing more horrifying right now than social media; it is arguably the bane of everyone's online existence and getting worse," Brigante says. "We want people to be whatever version of themselves they want, but in a positive way, whereas online anonymity has been a really negative thing for the most part. We're trying to comment on that thematically ... the feeling that people are not people but products, a collection of likes and followers with no real deep connection."
Ironically, in order to participate in this pointed parody of privacy, players must provide their own personal information, though how much (and how honestly) you share is up to you. "We are intentionally asking people to play along in this world where privacy is an issue. We want to do a scary version of where we believe social media is headed if we don't change things."
After a brief signup process, my #NoFilter experience began innocently enough with slickly produced welcome messages delivered to my voicemail and friendly chats with fellow players (or were they performers?) over Twitter. But I quickly found myself tumbling down a rabbit hole of viral videos and vaguebooking Muttr posts, followed by anonymous late-night text messages that led me to encrypted upload caches and cryptic photos. Most intriguingly, my interactions appeared to be influencing the story, and I was even called out by name on the protagonist's personal blog. As Brigante explained, #NoFilter is about "being an active participant, having an effect on the story and feeling like you matter and make a difference. It's not just a video game that you play through, and it's done. ... The more you put in, the more you get out of it."
Last Saturday, I joined four dozen fellow Connections "Ambassadors" at the Timucua White House for Orlando's first #NoFilter live event. In many ways, its seemed like a typical tech startup launch party, with Connections CEO Nolan Stauf (played by actor Leo Uhakheme) waxing philosophical after downing a few too many tamarind martinis – his indescribably disgusting cocktail of choice – while his bubbly "chief influencer" Taylor Hill (Hillary Shurtleff) struck pseudo-yoga poses. But amid the shallow celebrity worship and backslapping, I managed to strike up an intriguing dialogue with Nolan's longtime friend Vokorev (a recognizable Orlando actress who wishes to remain unidentified), whose cadaverous pallor belied a healthy skepticism about her BFF's big plans.
It isn't often that Halloween season entertainment in Orlando involves metaphysical debates about governmental authority, societal power structures and the dark side of call-out culture, but I've found all that – plus cat memes! – within #NoFilter.
"Our slogan is 'question reality,'" Brigante says. "It's all about blurring that line between what's real, what's imagined and whatever's in between." As #NoFilter approaches its halfway point, I'm still not certain where that line is, or where it's leading me, but I plan to keep searching for answers until the bitter, tamarind-tinged end.