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Rediscovering 'The Truman Show' in the age of Main Character Syndrome

When I first watched The Truman Show, it fucked me up. I vividly recall lying in bed afterwards, staring at my Bart Simpson duvet cover (the one where he pulled different faces) and thinking, my parents might not be my parents. It was an uneasy thought for an eight-year-old. Predating today’s invasive broadcasting, The Truman Show played with themes of surveillance, celebrity, and consumer culture. Jim Carrey’s Truman Burbank is an unwitting TV reality star and the first baby to ever be legally adopted by the corporation, which broadcasts his every waking moment to 1.5 billion viewers.

Truman’s understanding of his manufactured reality increases in tandem with his desire to escape it while the producers, helmed by Christof, the omniscient and ominously nicknamed “Creator”, scrabble to thwart our protagonist’s escape plans. Watching today, it calls to mind The Social Dilemma’s shocking, if not entirely revelatory, confirmation that social media apps are designed to hold our attention captive and push notifications act in much the same way as the “residents” of the fictional Seahaven who, when instructed by Ed Harris’ Christof, encase Truman in a choreographed traffic jam. 

Despite the film’s prescient – and well documented – depiction of reality TV and surveillance culture (in the film, 5,000 cameras capture Truman’s every move while in the UK, there’s an estimated 5.2 million CCTV cameras in use) what struck me most re-watching the film in 2021 is how we’ve collectively turned ourselves into Truman Burbank, willingly performing every aspect of our lives online. “I think it’s ironic that Truman was running from cameras, and our society is running toward them. No need to secretly broadcast life when we broadcast it ourselves.” lamented screenwriter Andrew Niccol, in a 2018 interview with Vanity Fair.

Mindful that, as Christof says, viewers have “become bored with actors giving us phoney emotions,” we carefully toe the line between curated and candid. It’s this desire for some semblance of authenticity that has given rise to TikTok and its unvarnished aesthetic. Indulging our desire to be seen, social media fuels and facilities our voyeuristic and narcissistic tendencies. The #maincharacter trend currently has 5.4 billion views on TikTok and 80,000 posts on Instagram. Lifestyle creator Ashley Ward’s now-viral (and oft-parodied) video urged viewers to think of themselves as stars of their show. “You have to start romanticising your life. You have to start thinking about yourself as the main character”, implored Ward over a moody score by ODESZA like the protagonist of a cliche coming-of-age film and eerily evoking the homogenous happiness of The Truman Show.

“Cue the sun” bellows Christof, who controls every aspect of Seahaven from the Lunar Room, a command centre on the 221st floor of an artificial ecosphere in Hollywood (where else) that houses the show. Today, we needn’t go to such trouble. Thanks to modern tech, we can create our own controlled environments with the click – or rather, swipe – of a finger. Instagram offers a smorgasbord of virtual backdrops from the otherworldly – such as @nenasensible’s trippy dreamworld – to the everyday, like those featured in TikTok star Yasmine Sahid’s Main Character series. Sahid’s “Me visiting home during the holidays, as the main character” video has been viewed 4.8 million times. The spoof riffs off small-town girl archetypes, the type that filled early 2000s TV and film when today’s social media creators were growing up. The Truman Show famously echoed TV adverts and 50s-era catalogues to remind viewers that “in this world, everything was for sale,” explained director Peter Weir in 1998. It’s widely acknowledged that the film foreshadowed modern consumer culture and product placement but what’s striking in 2021 is how everything – including creators – is for sale. 

Jim Carrey in ‘The Truman Show’

“There’s so much onus on just being famous at any cost. Sell it all,” said Jim Carrey of influencer culture in a 2018 interview with Vanity Fair. Three years later and our collective narcissism and self-promotional behaviour have reached all new heights. As The New York Times reported, the creator economy is the “fastest growing type of small business,” according to a 2020 report by SignalFire, a venture capital firm. As if lifted from an Andrew Niccol script, LA start-up NewNew pitches itself as “a human stock market,” whereby viewers can pay to vote in polls that control aspects of the creator’s life. “It doesn’t matter how boring you think you are,” said Founder and Chief Executive Courtne Smith in an interview with The New York Times, “there’s someone out there who would find your life interesting to the point that they’re willing to pay.” 

In 2012, brothers Joel and Ian Gold published a paper in the Journal Cognitive Neuropsychiatry about a phenomenon they had dubbed the Truman Show delusion. Of the five case studies, three had referred to The Truman Show by name. Quoting “Mr B”, the brothers reported he believed he “was and am the centre, the focus of attention by millions and millions of people”. Today, this delusion feels less sci-fi and more in keeping with the narcissistic tendencies of a self-narrativising society that recognise the value in marketing the minutiae of daily life for profit. In search of other examples of the Truman Show Delusion, Gold and Gold scoured scientific reports landing on the British Journal of Psychiatry, which included a study by Fusar-Poli and colleagues which detailed the case of a person “who had a sense the world was slightly unreal as if he was the eponymous character in the film The Truman Show.” The report adds that despite his belief, “at no point did his conviction reach delusional intensity.”

In fact, from the vantage point of today, where fake news and conspiracy theories circulate freely, artificial reality is on the rise, virtual bags are selling for more than physical ones, and everyone pitches themselves as the Main Character, Fusar-Poli could be seen as prophetic. Everything is a bit unreal. We have surpassed the hyper-real simulation of The Truman Show and reached a place where “filter face”, NFT architecture and virtual wardrobes have become our reality, leading us to a Truman-like quandary of having to filter the fact from the fiction. “There is no more truth out there than there is in the world I created for you.” proclaims Christof. It’s a line we can imagine today’s tech giants saying.

This drive to monetise every aspect of life is fuelling social media. As proclaimed in The Social Dilemma, “If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.” Given this unsettling adage, it’s hardly surprising that content creators are seeking ways to reap the rewards, seeing as we’re all being sold regardless. Ludwig Ahgren, a 25-year-old Twitch streamer, is one such creator.

For 716 hours, Ahgren broadcast a near-constant live stream of his life in LA. Known in the Twitch community as a Subathon, whereby streamers perform stunts or activities to accrue paying subscribers, Ahgren’s 31-day stream is the longest in Twitch history but still 10,878 days short of The Truman Show. The stream monetised every mundane activity from showering (he wore shorts) to sleeping. “The sleep streams have been really interesting,” reported a 15-year-old fan in The New York Times, echoing Christof, “We find many viewers leave him on all night, for comfort”. Like the mega fans in Tru Talk, it took a legion of viewers to maintain Ahgren’s momentum, sharing YouTube clips and highlight reels to lure in new viewers and entertain existing ones while he slept. 

Sleep streams have proved lucrative for creators and though void of the self-aggrandising pomp and pageantry of TikTok’s #maincharacter content, they may be the most overt example of Main Character Syndrome, the (not-wholly-delusional) belief that you’re so interesting and worthy of adoration that people would literally pay to watch you sleep (they do). It might also be the closest we’ll get to the stage-managed authenticity of Truman Burbank.

In the climactic final scene, Truman, against a painterly sky backdrop, asks Christof, “Was nothing real?” to which his Creator replies, “You were real. That’s what made you so good to watch.” Today, Christof’s work is complete; we are both the creator and the star.

Mischa Anouk Smith