Utopian yet deceitful, fictional yet realistic, The Truman Show (1998) can be interpreted as having predicted the pitfall of social media from a philosophical angle.
In the movie, the naive Truman Burbank is oblivious to the fact that he has been the main character of a live broadcast reality show ever since his birth. The town of Seahaven where he spends his entire life is an enormous set inhabited by paid actors and over 5000 hidden cameras that capture his every move for a global audience to view.
Today the idea of having one’s daily life exposed to an audience is not unfamiliar. Influencers such as the Kardashian are not the only ones who embrace the Truman lifestyle by producing reality shows like “Keeping Up With the Kardashian”. By diligently reporting snapshots of our daily lives on Instagram, Facebook, Tiktok, Twitter - you name it - whether we admit it or not, most of us are striving to become a TV show star like Truman. As we post multiple stories about what we eat, who we hang out with and where we travel to in a day, we expect an audience to admire our exciting life - at least, the one we convince ourselves that we are experiencing.
The problem with such expectation is that one’s life is turned into a spectacle, objectified under the gaze of the audience. In The Truman Show, the audience worldwide adore Truman, but more as a source of entertainment than as a human being. Although these viewers are perfectly aware of the unethicality of voyeuristic broadcasting, they cannot resist tuning in every episode, thus ironically enabling the show to sustain for over 30 years. When Christof, the creator of the show tries to capsize Truman to prevent him from escaping Seahaven, the viewer ratings skyrocket because the audience is curious about what would happen. It is not Truman’s life that matters, but the riveting spectacle of it being compromised.
As Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis suggests, humans as subjects are constituted of desires for what is beyond ourselves. We construct a desirable image of ourselves as that is a unified and self-satisfied object. We misrecognize ourselves as this objectified version and thus desire to be seen and affirmed as objects. In our minds, we imagine a crowd of audience imposing their gaze on us, the object, the spectacle.
With social media, the gaze is made concrete and quantifiable. Counting the number of views, likes, shares and comments on every post, we are assured of the existence of a crowd of audience as we imagine. As such, striving to become Truman means wanting to be someone else’s source of entertainment, to be both validated and objectified.
Notably, the key difference between Truman and social media users is that the former is deceived and manipulated, while the latter voluntarily exhibits their daily lives. As a result, despite wanting to be that star that Truman is, social media users, in my opinion, become more similar to Meryl instead.
In the show, the persona of Meryl is being Truman’s wife. Living under the same roof as Truman, Hannah, the Hollywood actress behind Meryl must sacrifice her real personality to fully dedicate to this invented character. “Well, for me, there is no difference between a private life and a public life. My life… is my life, is The Truman Show. The Truman Show is… a lifestyle. It’s a noble life,” commented Hannah in an interview at the beginning of the movie.
Eventually, the inherent dissonance with her character proves detrimental to the actress. Without genuine affection for Truman, continuing the staged marriage becomes unbearable for Hannah. In her last scene before quitting the show, Meryl breaks down and bursts into tears, “How can anyone expect me to carry on under these conditions? It’s unprofessional!”
Since our social media personae often represent how we want others to perceive us, they deflect from our personality in real life. Therefore, just like Meryl/Hannah, we risk prioritizing our public persona over our private lives, consequently suffer perpetual discontent. In order to nourish a fabricated representation, we forget to cherish our private experiences; we in ourselves become starved.
Logically, the solution to this entire dilemma is to leave social media forever. However, in real life, digital detoxes are often unsuccessful because the desire to be seen as an object is chronic (according to Lacan) and invented personae are not so easily extinguished. Plus social media can be a useful tool for positive purposes, such as staying in touch with family and friends. After all, one can list various pragmatic reasons to remain in the network. Hence, I suggest that we keep in mind the discomfort of a Truman-like existence and gradually refrain from oversharing on social media.
Quotes from the movie are retrieved from http://www.hudsonsclass.com/Documents/Freshman/TrumanQuotes.pdf
Johnston, A. (2018, July 10). Jacques Lacan. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lacan/#MirStaEgoSub