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“I’m the main character”: the commodification of the individual under modern capitalism

Writing by Amelia Lockhart-Hourigan. Illustration by Violet Colley.

Social media can be a wondrous place. It gives us an opportunity to share our best bits with the world, to cultivate an online presence that can be used for making one’s wildest dreams come true, whether that means finding love, starting a business or even just learning a new Tik Tok dance. But has the growing intermingling of consumerist culture and social media turned us into nothing more than products to be sold? A new social media trend of describing oneself as “the main character” has revealed a rather sinister side effect of cultivating an online presence, which forces us to redefine ourselves not by who we are in real life, but rather who we are in relation to all other content online. With a growing sense of disillusionment among the younger generations with organized religion and its teachings, is social media and the commodification of the self filling the void left behind in our sense of purpose?

It is very rare nowadays to find someone who isn’t active on social media in some way. Even if it’s just a Linkedin account, practically everyone who has the opportunity to access the internet has interacted with it in some shape or form, and thus has had the experience of creating a profile to represent themselves in the online world. As the internet has expanded, however, cultivating an online presence has become much more than just picking a funny username; rather, more and more frequently we are being tasked with defining ourselves completely by what we post online. With the well of content ever expanding, being “seen” on the internet is harder than ever before, and so the everyday individual is left with the challenge of differentiating themselves from the billions of others attempting the same task in order to prove their validity and importance. We are being forced to sell ourselves in competition with every other man, dog and brand in the fight for the fleeting attention, and in turn validation, of every other internet user. As the general cultural obsession and involvement with social media grows, so does the desire for recognition in this new sphere of play. No longer is life about face to face interactions, but rather, recording real life events in order to prove to everyone else that they actually happened — pre-COVID, that is. We are being told by the media that the only way to get this attention that we have been pavloved into craving is by proving ourselves to be worth everyone else’s time. And so, we are left with the impossible task of defining ourselves as "unique" or "individual" in order to separate ourselves from the pack and prove the worth of our product (this being our self) on the international media market. This incredible oversaturation of media content has left us feeling disillusioned and empty; we are screaming into the void with no way of knowing if anyone is listening, but they aren’t — they are too busy screaming into it themselves.

Although the problem of finding purpose in our lives is not new, those who came before us had different ways of coping with existential dread, for instance, through religion. However, with the younger generations experiencing a growing rejection of the church, this new gap is being filled by the ever-expanding reach of consumerism. It is no wonder that we are trying to prove ourselves as “the main character”; film and television has become our new Bible, and as we too are being filmed and consumed as characters online, it makes sense that we now have a drive to prove ourselves as worth the time of the ever-watching public. It may sound sacrilegious to say, but for the majority of young people, attending church or worship services is not the way to find something greater than ourselves, as we have access to our own type of instantaneous creation every time we open our phones. Our sense of purpose has been redefined, not by the way we treat others or by any ancient teachings, but by consuming the media being fed to us on our phones. Every notification, comment, like or livestream is in effect a hand reaching out to us from the darkness, yet, rather than pulling us out from the debris created by the internet, it only draws us in further.

There is certainly no harm in relating to the characters or content we see on our screens — after all, it can be said that the point of such content is to create connections between those who consume it — but our collective sense of self has become warped by the way in which we are forced to present it to others. We are losing touch with reality as more and more emphasis is put on our online presences. Defining oneself as a character online makes much more sense than defining oneself in real life. However, it is almost impossible to differentiate oneself from any other social media user due to the aggressive oversaturation of content. If there are millions of other people attempting to take up the same, limited space as us, how are we to supposed prove ourselves as a unique placeholder? Those who are successful in gaining media attention are only successful in doing so because they fulfill the incredibly specific criteria deemed important by the media at that point in time and are forced to craft hollow, false personas in order to keep up with the demand for said content. When the attention does then eventually drift onto the next big thing, they are left with a warped sense of self, having experienced an intense burst of validation for an extremely limited facet of their being. How can we be expected to prove to ourselves that we are worthy of this overwhelming validation again, once it has been taken away?

Moreover, social media is incredibly limited in terms of what we can show on it. Even if one was to film every second of their life and stream it online, their viewers would never actually be able to feel what they were feeling, nor to see life completely in the way that they are seeing it; this, of course, is part of the curse of being alive, but is only exacerbated by the development of this new facet of self that comes with cultivating an online personality. So, due to the permeation of social media into our collective cultural psyche, it is practically impossible for someone to define an honest and complete sense of self in the modern era unless they are to remove themselves from the internet and social media completely. Doing this removes the judgement of others, as well as the need to market oneself as a consumable product, but given the overwhelming monopoly consumerism has over us in the modern age, it is hardly possible to define a sense of self without it. If you aren’t being seen by the media, if there is no one to comment on your existence thus confirming that you do in fact exist, how can you really prove in this new world that you do? It is a bitter cycle; simply by being born in this modern era of technology, we are forced into proving ourselves as being worthy of love and attention on a scale that humanity has never experienced before. While the benefits of the internet are immense and undeniable, the negative impact of this intersection of consumerism and the self is equally as real.

Rather than opening us all up to new levels of interconnected-ness, the bitter reality of being unknowable as a human being is being felt on an even more painful level; we have been forced to sell ourselves to the world, even though it has become apparent that this world will never really know us. We are forced to seek validation from a consumerist culture that thrives on an insecurity it created, with life getting its meaning from fleeting interactions with a seemingly endless vacuum of content. As it is this content and media that acts to shape who we are, we are left not really knowing who that self is; how can we define ourselves when it is an algorithm that has fed us the content that has shaped the self we think we have? There is no real way to differentiate between our online and in person presences, so how can we define who we are, when we are being told who to be by an intangible force that thrives on our subservience to it?

There is no way to prove that we are the main character, when billions of other people are trying to prove the same thing for themselves. While the internet promises us a chance to make deeper connections with more people than could ever be thought possible, we have found ourselves isolated and alone. With our sense of purpose and self being defined by what we put out and the way others react to it, and the penetration of consumerism into every facet of our culture, we have become our own commodities; we are now the products being sold and bought by our followers, and the lines between what is tangibly real and mere figments of the collective imagination of the internet are blurring more so than ever before. We no longer have religion to explain to us the meaning of life; we have TV characters selling us vitamins and Tik Tok stars dancing to advertising theme songs. Addison Rae is God now. And there is nothing we can do about it but watch.

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