Brought to us by UK based theatre company Dante or Die, User Not Found is an immersive digital play that was re-released as a video podcast during the COVID-19 pandemic. The work is centred around the continued existence of our digital footprint after we pass away. Performer Terry O’Donovan portrays one man’s journey through grief, all delivered to us via a smartphone screen.
Please be aware this review contains references to death throughout.
Netflix is for background noise. Tiktok is for self soothing. Theatre is… (I had thought) not for me? User Not Found is unique in its demands: to be watched on a mobile, full screen, held portrait, with headphones. Already, in a world where attention spans have halved in 7 years, this requires dedication. And I like that. I usually keep myself painfully overstimulated so that I don’t have to acknowledge… any passing thoughts. Sometimes I want white noise. But other times I want entertainment to slap me across the face. And User Not Found had me in a chokehold for 55 minutes.
I thought I might use this podcast as a scapegoat for a sobbing sesh. But I couldn’t: I was too invested to make it about me (highly unusual). We meet Terry (the protagonist) and watch him discover through a flurry of incoming condolence texts that his ex has died. He is burdened with the choice of deleting or preserving his ex’s social media presence. By blurb, it sounds like a deep dive into the effects of social media on modern life, but it’s not. Thankfully. Social media trash talk is very 2016. The focus is on how relationships are made more complex by the fact that we are immortal through our digital footprints. Subtle audio of cafe music, chatting strangers, footsteps and street kerfuffle all suck you into what feels like VR. At some point in the 55 minutes, I forgot that I am in fact a 23 year old female and not a bloke called Terry. The podcast walks you through his grieving, as seen through his screen, and the narrative is both funny (at one point an animated frog is giving wistful advice) and achingly sad: quips like “I had forgotten the world could be soft” caught me off guard.
At one point, Terry is scrolling further and further back on Luka’s twitter, hunting for documentation of the landmarks by which he measures their time together. A trip to Southend. A Thai restaurant. His dad’s funeral. But none of it is there. And it’s awful, and all too familiar, to watch how lives can overlap and be shared, but each partner’s ‘story of us’ can be wildly different. I’m horrifically touch starved, so in the final hoorah, when our omnipotent narrator lays his hand out, offering to touch fingertips, a sinking feeling emerged somewhere in my stomach.
This show debuted in 2018 but was reborn digitally for covid. We have been forced to live this pandemic through a Tory lense, and Boris Johnson’s proposal to “let the bodies pile high” makes it easy to forget that those bodies are people. Mothers, uncles, neighbors, friends. User Not Found brings that fact home. 3.57 million people have passed since last January and through utter mishandling, people have been made to feel alone in their grief. The collective trauma of covid is incalculable, but our government still hasn’t felt the need to properly fund mental health services. As Terry states, “death is a story told by the living” and under the guise of covid induced delirium, the Tories erased themselves from that narrative. What haunts can heal, but accountability is overdue. At a time when reading a ‘daily death rate’ has become the norm, this was a much needed exploration of grief.
Having been exposed to my fair share of death both pre and post the prominence of social media, I was excited about immersing myself into User Not Found. The premise and innovative delivery went hand in hand to create a suitable environment to explore how personal grief has evolved in the 21st century.
I mostly enjoyed the experience, but perhaps I had set my expectations too high. I had envisaged a deeper development into the role of social media and the idea of public versus private grief, as opposed to one person’s rather personal journey through the process. While there were moments that resonated, at times I found it difficult to connect and access the emotions I felt the piece was attempting to evoke.
I found myself becoming rather irritated with the repetition of themes discussed, such as the obsessive analysis of the narrator’s deceased ex-boyfriend Luka’s social media, which lead to the eventual crescendo-like build-up of their emotions. This would then abruptly stop before they would nonchalantly continue with a completely different point. It was this constant jumping from one end of the emotional spectrum to another that I felt disconnected me from the piece. Don’t get me wrong, grief is repetitive, and unpredictable, and extremely infuriating, and maybe that’s what the narrator was trying to portray using these methods. There was just something about these moments that felt mildly forced.
That said, I do agree that the idea of ‘stalking’ a lost loved one’s social media is used as a coping mechanism, albeit a sometimes toxic one. User Not Found explores the overall topic of bereavement very well and uses the relationship between visual and auditory stimulus to develop this. Accompanying an array of blurry pictures with the narrator attempting to recall the details of them but they ‘just can’t picture it’ is a perfect analogy of how disorientating loss can be. It is indicative of the guiltiness and aggravation that accompanies the desperate want to recall these things but being physically incapable of doing so. In juxtaposition to this the narrator shortly discusses a memory including specific, almost irrelevant, details to show how even the slightest thing can suddenly trigger your brain to focus on nothing but these moments.
I think as humans we have an inherent want to remember everything, but also to be remembered. There is almost a slight fear of eventual irrelevance. This can be seen through the initial reluctance of the narrator to delete Luka’s social media profiles, using the mindset of ‘what would I want if it were me?’ There is a fear that is rampant throughout our society that our entire existence on this planet equates to that of our social media, and thus deleting our profiles means deleting us completely. Our narrator then states that ‘death is a story told by the living’ before deleting all of Luka’s online presence, prompting us to realise that holding onto these things is purely a way for the living to cope, masking itself as a way to honour the deceased.
The intimate ending reminds us that we, the living, are connected through social media and ‘joined at the screen’ particularly in times of grief. While the role of social media can be perceived as a way of holding onto our lost loved one, the narrator uses this final moment to express the importance of letting go.
While it was interesting and explored feelings anyone who is familiar with loss will recognise, due to the lack of a deeper connection with the piece I won’t be rushing back to watch it again soon.
Hi everyone, my name’s Becca and I am fully obsessed with podcasts. I have one on pretty much every appropriate waking moment; the shower, the car on the way to work, the very second before I pressed play on the User Not Found podcast…In summary, I was very excited for the opportunity to review something that was absolutely my cup of tea but also that felt new to me.
Posing the question ‘what happens to your digital life after your death?’ the podcast has weaved through it an abundance of all too familiar human reactions to a person being unfairly, suddenly, and permanently removed from our lives. Each reaction is given a fleeting but by no means rushed treatment – I very much enjoyed the snapshot nature of the overwhelmingly varied and illogical grieving process. Terry, our Irish protagonist, talks us through his story of the breakup of a long term relationship, followed by the sudden death of his ex-partner only a few months later which sees him being assigned as the ‘online legacy executor’. He must decide whether or not to preserve the online presence of Luka, or delete him forever. This is an incredibly relevant aspect of modern life that I have to confess to never having thought about before. User Not Found frames this moral dilemma in the increasingly pervasive reality of corporate Capitalism, though at a base level it is very much a real thing.
Adapted from the UK based theatre company Dante or Die’s site specific play of the same name, User Not Found was the first video podcast that I’d come across. In the best way possible, it reminded me very much of the Archers and other radio plays that I’ve only ever caught passing snippets of. It is clear that a very careful consideration of sound, visuals, and context has been adopted in the process of adapting this incredibly captivating 55 minute film. Aside from the obvious video aspect of the project, this attention to soundscapes made User Not Found a particular anomaly in my podcast journey. Sure, I notice when Lenny Ware’s clattering pans might have been faded out on Table Manners, or slick interviews are carefully edited down on BBC Sounds’ Intrigue, but the construction of place, emotion, and character through background sounds in User Not Found is what gave it its distinctly radio play feel.
But User Not Found is not a radio play, it is just as much a visual experience as an audio one. In its final moments, it reminds the listener/viewer of its origins in theatre and invites us to participate as we might do in immersive theatre. Terry has just identified the fleeting yet deeply complex relationship that forms when we happen to brush hands with a stranger and asks us to do the same with him. ‘Maybe just if you want to you can put your finger tips on mine here…and that will be us.’ I found this an incredibly poignant way to end a podcast exploring grief and the inextricable nature of almost every relationship we form with others, especially as a very tactile person living in these strange un-tactile Covid times. I highly recommend User Not Found as a beautiful way to spend an hour.
Captions are available.