‘They’ve got to be recording me’: The dangers of acting as if you were in a series

Social media’s takeover of our lives has caused us to start articulating and sharing our own existence as if we were playing a role, with all of fiction’s resources, tricks and vices serving to distance us from authentic reality

Jim Carrey
Jim Carrey on ‘The Truman Show,’ which 25 years ago was called a “dystopia."Collage: Blanca López

A Netflix billboard in Madrid’s Plaza Pedro Zerolo commands it in huge letters: “Live every day as if we were going to make you into a series.” The order isn’t necessary. With their lives impacted by social media right down to the most intimate details, many young people are already doing just what the ad campaign demands. What’s more, they’re going even further: not just acting as if they were the star of a series, but rather the protagonist, director, scriptwriter, producer and lighting technician of the one-person project of incalculable scope that is the construction of an identity via the internet.

“There is a link between our way of inhabiting the internet and how we feel,” writes philosopher Margot Rot in Infoxicación [whose title combines the Spanish words for “info” and “intoxication”], an essay about “how the excess of information to which we are exposed on social media influences the development of our subjectivities.” On the internet, the information we share about ourselves is arranged in the form of a timeline, as if each publication was a small piece of a story that is constantly with us. The Facebook wall, the Instagram or Twitter feed and the telephone photo gallery are chronologically ordered spaces in which each memory helps to shape a biography-in-progress. And, as anyone who has encountered this genre or any of those usually labeled as non-fiction (chronicle, documentary or essay, for example) knows, exposing reality always means reconstructing it from a series of subjective decisions. Reels, Instagram’s trendy short videos, look like trailers of our own existence: a trip or a party is narrated with background music, a dance of images and a narrative order with a beginning, middle and end.

Perhaps because youth have been the most conscious of all this meta-representation, for some time, when they talk to their smart phone camera to share news about what’s been going on — which is to say, reinforce their identity — many young people use a language that seems pulled straight from a script. They call switching to a new plan of action “starting a new plot,” sometimes they see themselves as “the main character” of their surroundings, while on other occasions they feel as though they’re a “supporting character.” When something bad happens they console themselves by thinking that the lesson “will help develop their character,” running into someone they know is called “an interaction” and a “canonical event” is an unexpected happening that marks a turning point in their lives.

More than a century ago, Oscar Wilde affirmed in The Decay of Lying “the secret that Truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style,” and defended the idea that the “poor, probable, uninteresting human life” usually “imitates art far more than Art imitates life.” Ultimately, what Wilde dismantles in this essay, pitting art against a nature “so stupid, so obvious, so unnecessary,” is the old distinction between the natural and artificial: that there is nothing more deeply rooted in human nature than artifice; nothing more civilized than the hoax. Anyone who has prepared a reel on Instagram or a TikTok video knows that it doesn’t matter whether one’s words are sincere or simply a posture. “The novelty introduced by social media,” explains Rot, “is the way in which we exercise staging, no longer of who we are, but of who we want to be. That thoughtful staging has to do with esthetic consciousness and, therefore, with moral consciousness. It has to do with the ideal projection of oneself and with a kind of future-fiction. Nowadays we would call it manifesting. Staging on social media means voluntarily and creatively putting oneself into action.”

Follower, spectator and therapist

It has been said that the contestants on Big Brother, similar to the regulars in celebrity gossip magazines, expose and sell their privacy and intimacy. Still, they only offer parts of the former to the viewer, skipping over that which is taboo (such as time spent in the bathroom or having sex) but which is part of everyone’s life. Truly, that which circulates on the internet (this “new mental landscape,” in the words of Franco Berardi) is the intimacy of millions of users who, at a predetermined moment and by way of a chosen code (a frame, an outfit or a song) transmit their desires, inclinations and frustrations. The person who records videos for YouTube or who simply takes a selfie finds themselves at the same time alone and in front of the world, in a position comparable to that of the novelist who barely knows their readers, or the patient with their therapist.

“The virtualization of body, experiences, sensibilities, relationships and the economy has turned us into cyborgs,” states Rot. “The first iPhone ushered in a new way of thinking about time and space. Our identities are stories in a space of creative expression. We are what we say we are and image is our gadget.” When the large part of our relationships and the construction of our subjectivity have moved into a territory as full of possibilities as the internet, in which every user competes for attention, it follows that issues that until recently were merely the subject of obsession for communications professionals now concern all of us.

“We are self-monitoring devices,” says María Barrier who, in the last episode of her podcast Bimboficadas [Bimbo-ified], stood up alongside Samantha Hudson for the right to be, at least for a few moments, “a dumb and boring bird.” “I have punished myself for saying something rude or ignorant, and I feel bad when I’m not entertaining, even if no one calls me out for it. I’m guided by a moral embedded in me, and even though I repeat to myself over and over that I don’t need to always be memorable and impactful, I can’t help but beat myself up for not being perfect. I think we are very attracted to exposure, but we are terrified of making mistakes and being punished.”

Psychologist Adriana Royo frequently comes up against the problems caused by this distorted temporality with the mandate of being productive, and in her therapy sessions sees “many young people for whom guilt is getting mixed up with anger and aggression because they compare themselves with other people who create more content and who are permanently online. They think that if they stop being so demanding and exposing themselves, they won’t get anywhere.” “One time,” Royo remembers, “an adolescent boy told me: I’m not going to delete Instagram even if my parents make me, even if I’m feeling bad or if I’m addicted. It’s how I present myself to the world: if I don’t have it, I don’t exist.”

But the internet hasn’t only transformed the way and rhythm with which we project ourselves to others. It’s also making structures, the one that until recently belonged to fiction and that we now apply to our online content, into those that dominate our inner voice. “I often think: ‘They’re recording me, this is from a movie,’” confesses Barrier. “For me, it’s a way of disassociating from reality. I like to think that the bad moments are from last season and now I have a new plot, which helps me to heal. I even like to think about how every character has their moment, it calms me knowing that ‘it’s X friend’s season.’ It helps me organize my mind, outline what’s going on and put it in order.”

“With time, the dissociation doesn’t help,” says Royo, the psychologist. “When the mind dissociates from an experience it’s because it’s too intense or traumatic, and it does so as a defense mechanism so the person can survive and move forward. But a part of that experience stays frozen within us and directly impacts us. If you stay in the margins of an emotion you can keep producing, making and demonstrating, but it’s not free: compulsions and anxieties will always bubble up.” Barrier has experienced these symptoms, but she thinks that, to a certain extent, getting away from oneself can be a relief: “I love to feel like I’m in an OVA [a special episode of a series or anime that stands apart from the main plot] or in a ‘vacation special,’ because that means I can rest, it’s a filler episode. Experience can weigh on you, my life story is painful and confusing, and seeing my life as if it were a series helps me to get back to the different people I’ve been, prioritize memories, and understand myself from a necessary distance.”

Mission: to not be unhappy

In Story, a classic manual used by television writers and novelists alike, Robert McKee states that a protagonist always “seeks an object of desire beyond their reach.” According to the U.S. theorist’s framework, a well-constructed fiction should reveal the gap between the protagonist’s expectations and their first failures, and develop the conflicts that appear during the pursuit of this object, which if procured, comes after increasingly risky successive actions (he calls this “the gap in progression”).

Much of the content that we upload to social media is an expression of different discomforts (economic and laboral precarity and instability, romantic betrayals, family problems…) and, on many occasions, are direct calls for help. Together, they form the accumulation of conflict that could be the subject of any coming-of-age novel (Bildungsroman is the term for this genre made popular by German romanticism) in which the object pursued by the protagonist is not a ring of power or an inaccessible lover but, simply put, to become an adult and lead a relatively comfortable and stable life. Perhaps that’s why the accounts of influencers who are perfectly integrated into the capitalist system and that only offer images of a peaceful and normative life are as implausible as they are boring. McKee would say that they omit the gaps. And so, every so often influencers offer up a drama that returns the interest of the public to their existence: an illness, a depressive episode, a breakup, a loss. Sometime the “I’m leaving social media” is its own rest between seasons.

Does this mean that the majority of the thousands of gigabytes of content that regular people upload every day to social media, and that reflects their day-to-day conflicts, has the same motivation? That it is possible to find a collective, political and almost revolutionary message (“we want a life that is worth living”) that goes beyond the construction of individual identity? Not really, because, concludes Rot, “social media winds up scandalously capitalizing on our struggles. It’s a bit naïve to think that we can escape personalism given the importance of individualism in leading the masses. I think about political parties, how they’re not really about ideas but rather the faces of those who lead them, something that even happens among the ones who defend other ways of doing things, such as climate change movements.” In any case, even if the material revolution is pending, the esthetic version has already taken place and Oscar Wilde would be pleased: never before has “the telling of beautiful untrue things” held so much importance in the lives of ordinary people.

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