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[19.0] Your main character energy is showing
You’re *so* you! So is everybody else!
Admit it: your middle school years haunt you. (It’s the orthodontia for me, cis!) Peer into my late aughts Facebook timeline and I will show you the traumas and Liz Claiborne hats of Summer ‘08. I contain multitudes insofar as I looked eight years old when I was twelve :)
The Internet’s vibes are off, knocked askew by tween years, sure, as well as our canonical urges, which, along with automagic and political agendas, divide cybertime into future and past alone. Gone—like my braces but not my collagen—is the present; we experience a simulacrum thereof, which explains why our journeys along the information superhighway are so darn uncanny.
Pinballing around the algorithm machine, our personhood teeters. We’re distilled from our messy human fleshiness into semi-coherent datasets as users. This is inherently dehumanizing; it is nevertheless revelatory. As Joanne McNeil writes in Lurking: How a Person Became a User:
“User” is a particular status, activity, and state of being, but the word is hated by some. Don Norman, who coined “UX”—user experience—said in 2008, “One of the horrible words we use is ‘users.’ I would prefer to call them ‘people.’” But the word “people,” as the artist Olia Lialina responded in her essay, “Turing Complete User,” hides the “existence of two classes of people—developers and users.” It is not a mellifluous word or elegant, but “user” is, uh, useful. Developers scripted these mazes, these interfaces, which users use to communicate and keep in touch. There are humans on the outside and humans on the inside; the platforms created by and used by humans outline and define identities, boxing users in, while tendering new methods of expression…
Blight has always lurked beneath the internet’s enchantments, and beside the chaos is wonder. It is an ether that fills the abyss of time and loneliness. It is a venue for curiosity and longing… Humanity is the spice, the substrate, that machines cannot replicate. At its worst and at its best, the internet extracts humanity from users and serves it back to other users.
User, in other words, both equates personhood to function and limns power dynamics behind the rat race. The term’s contradictions congrue with the antonymic couplets outlined in this newsletter’s previous issue (past vs. future, innocent vs. guilty, etc.). These tensions are the very incoherences keeping the Internet churning and highly profitable for a chosen few.
People try to resist this dehumanization fruitlessly, as their protest takes place in the very forum that reduces us to ones and zeros. No! we seem to cry out as a bajillion indistinct voices, I’m not like everyone else. My selfhood—all the tastes, quirks, likes therein—defies being placed in a box, no matter how multivariable. We’re sure to make this protest clear to our online audiences, who are attempting to make the same distinction.
In their excellent essay “Main Character Energy,” Coco Klockner charts the development of legible claims to complexity, which buck against the flattening, taxonomizing nature of screen-based media like cinema and social networks. Klockner sees a Genesis for the term in @lexaprolesbian’s TikTok video, a catchy jingle on being the main character of their neighborhood:
(Ok so clearly our middle school years materially affect us!!!)
Klockner’s definition adds even more contradictory dyads to our laundry list of inconsistencies fueling the Internet.
From the mass of these memes, a supercut of main-character-ness emerges: Main characters have an impeccable magnetism to them. They’re creative. They don’t play by the rules. They’re a little ugly but in a hot way. They’re full of themselves but humble at the right moments. They’re self-aware but unanxious. They’re not perfect, but if they stumble, a lesson is learned. Perhaps foremost, a main character emerges as someone who can pull off the paradoxical feat of conveying interiority in a world of surfaces. Main character energy is not a matter of being “individualistic” or singular but rather a matter of being extremely legible…
Part of the appeal of the “main character energy” meme lies in its tapping quiet moments of IRL self-assertion that have been lost to the pandemic. The meme inverts the “Everyday, I put on my silly little outfit and do my silly little tasks” energy of Sisyphean persistence during the pandemic into something that invokes an audience as witness. It reasserts the performing self — the self that feels most familiar and most valid — within conditions that may seem to circumscribe it.
The way I interpret Klockner’s prose, to possess main character energy is to balance along the seams of cyberspace, thereby making online life appear seamless to the rest of us. Crucially, this initiative’s labor should seem effortless, organic, masterful, to the plebes. In @lexaprolesbian’s case, encapsulating a simultaneous desire to be seen but not perceived, epitomizing the vapid profundity and deep shallowness of social media.
Those most successful at becoming main characters colonize others’ timelines by inhaling and conquering the algorithm. Residing in the uncanny valley between “organic” and “content,” proving via testimony that they are the most accessible and therefore human.
TikTok’s moneyed cousin Netflix recently released comedian Bo Burnham’s one-man show, “Inside,” which flaunts main character energy, having annexed the algorithm, high on a big budget. Over 90 minutes, Burnham assembles a patchwork of at once esoteric and deeply relatable songs and bits, all within the context of Covid quarantine and attendant cabin fever; jingles about white women’s curated Instagram feeds, for instance, or a reaction video to a reaction video to a reaction video. To The New Yorker’s Rachel Syme, Burnham’s special “captures, with a frenzied and dextrous clarity, the unmoored, wired, euphoric, listless feeling of being very online during the pandemic.”
Syme gestures to the contradictions and referential lingua franca that breathe life into main character energy’s elusive candor. Most glaringly, in Burnham’s case, the self-aware decision to never mention the pandemic represents a “purposeful omission that allows the special’s title to accrue multiple meanings,” permitting the viewer’s suggestable mind to backfill whatever motivation is most resonant to sustaining main character evangelism. The comedian’s transparent messiness—sobbing, outtakes, wires—also reminds us that the person inhabiting the screen is a real person (just like you!). “These glimpses behind the curtain give the work a veneer of authenticity,” Syme continues, “but Burnham is quick to tell us that we shouldn’t necessarily trust them.” Which works according to main character energy’s design: giveth and taketh alike bolster faith in the protagonist’s mission.
Burnham transparently (like a screen!) recognizes the intimacy involved in watching pandemic-related “content” in the midst of a pandemic. You’re most likely watching his special with few other people, if any, and in the daily inhabited confines of your home. “It’s just me and my camera and you and your screen, the way that our Lord intended,” he jokes, on point. But identification with characters has a significant religious history—some legitimately think intimate identification via media is according to God’s wishes.
In “The Expansive Present: A New Model of Christian Time,” anthropologist Naomi Haynes describes how Pentecostal churchgoers in Namibia identify with certain Biblical figures to make sense of their own lives and futures. Her interlocutors share this canonical closeness publicly through media like banners and Facebook posts so as to project their spiritual battles in a consumable format. Haynes writes:
Shared past and common futurity is not just a means of making sense of personal struggles by comparing them with the experience of someone like Joseph. Believers are not just identifying with characters in scripture the way that we might identify with the protagonist of our favorite novel. Rather, through these narrative practices, Pentecostals are inserting themselves into the text, and in so doing bringing the biblical past into an expansive present where the stories of the Bible are lived over and over again. To demonstrate how this works, I begin with an example from a Pentecostal church in Nsofu that I call Key of David. Each January the leaders of this congregation choose a theme for the New Year, which is drawn from a key text—a practice common in other congregations as well. This theme is printed on a colorful banner and hung at the front of the sanctuary; banners from previous years are also displayed. Each banner is phrased in the form of a proclamation, for example, “2014, My Season of Blessing and Enlarge- ment, 1 Chronicles 4:9” and “2012, My Season of Distinction and Rest, Exodus 33:14–16.” These verses give accounts of Jabez and Moses, respectively, but in mobilizing these narratives in their annual theme, members of Key of David have framed them in the first person; 2012 is my season of distinction and rest, not Moses’s.
Haynes’s quote introduces three new elements to our discussion. First, perhaps main character energy highlights a departure from novel-esque affiliations in favor of more religious, personal, existential affinities. Second, it proves the centrality of the media: the need for an audience to see and affirm. To experience and validate in communion, whether asynchronous, decentralized, or otherwise. Yet, third, it forces us to ask: when we identify with a figure, does that identity bind us to certain scripts and possibilities? How are we liberated or contained?
The anxiety underlying main character energy—@lexaprolesbian’s indecisive gaze-seeking, Bo Burnham’s kitchen sink of feelings, churchgoers’ annexation of Moses—suggests main character-ness is a possession rather than a trait. It can be lost as easily as it is found; the arc of fame bending toward gradual irrelevance. Though Klockner doesn’t clock it as such, I also think main character energy’s voracious colonialism and master-worship are born of white Christianity. The pandemic may have facilitated the phenomenon’s ascent, as Klockner claims, but it didn’t do so alone. Various forms of white panic in response to a national uprising against white supremacy, police violence, and settler colonialism fortified the ranks; main characters are overwhelmingly white, returning audiences to white stories, subjectivities, and power.
“I’m white and I’m here to save the day,” Burnham ~*jokes*~ in an opening jingle. “Lord help me channel Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side.” The wink-wink “self-awareness” shrieks “I’m not like the other whites!” in a stage whisper; Burnham’s viewers can make milky “meaning” of the largest mass mobilization in U.S. history the same way they can a concomitant era of epidemiological virality and mass death. As long as our gaze remains locked onto our main characters, we ignore their centripetal frolic around the truths and moments we should meet, identify, respond to.
This includes the forces empowering and defeating these very characters. In @lexaprolesbian’s case, no amount of main character energy could thwart the ultimate main character: the algorithm and its decisionmaking monopoly.
A supposed nip slip meant our main character couldn’t evade algorithmic control. Netflix, meanwhile, sold us content through Bo; its executives likely don’t care about the lessons of his special. I bet the church in Haynes’s vignette found some new converts by preaching main-character-ness as well.
Assertion of humanness, friction with developers and the algorithms they curate, sustains userhood as a category. By creating stories about who we are online and sharing them with our audiences, we invite validation from other people without validating other people as people. Main character energy yokes personhood to narrative, in which we are only as valuable as our stories. (Their resonance reinforces white-supremacist constructions of normative ethics and narratives, aiding in supremacist-motivated distraction.) In a quest to make meaning for ourselves above cybernetic noise, we pile onto our extant, shitty value system and generate even more noise.
Tech companies have picked up on the trend and used it to their advantage. You’re so you! their bespoke marketing schemes soothe. Earlier this month, Spotify encouraged us to celebrate our “unique listening style” with an “Only You” in-app experience. To assuage my white panic, the algorithm told me it’s so Adam and so cool to play Thundercat in the morning. Trademark? Pending! User engagement? Through the roof! You won’t worry about surveillance as long as you’re a main character :)
Spotify’s corpse pile of data unearths the role of temporality in main character energy, which involves a constant chronicling of the present. What am I doing today? How was my breakfast? Did I just burp? Haha. Various media facilitate this archiving, a pseudo-real-time relegation of the present into the past. Developers build the script. We’re just there to mad-libs it and recite.
Through storytelling online, we attempt an orbit-jump from userhood to personhood. But solipsistic protagonism splinters us from one another, from white-supremacist realities, and from the present. A faith—conviction—in uniqueness belies our common utility to surveillance capitalism. Rather than jumping out from the screen to show we’re real fleshy and messy in meatspace, we embody the screen, roving our respective realms as devices. Comment, like, subscribe. Amen.
Divine Innovation is a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology. Published once every three weeks, it’s written by Adam Willems and edited by Vanessa Rae Haughton. Find the full archive here.