CW: Sexual violence.
A/N: There is significant discourse and confusion surrounding Chris Chan’s pronouns. For this article, I choose to use ‘they/them’, even though Chris identifies as a trans woman. This choice in pronouns is not to undermine the legitimacy of the trans community. Instead, it is to highlight the complicated nature of Chris’ identity in relation to an audience who is critical of the reasoning behind such representation. For a more thorough explanation of the controversy, please consider reading this Meaww article.
“Hello ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, and dudes of all teen-ages as well as the uh… gals. My name is Christian Chandler. I am here and y’all are there.” The awkward and nasally voice gives way to a two-note piano solo as the screen shows a short burst of video clips: A man outside a house. A boy with a bowl cut and a striped shirt being interviewed on TV. A plasticine portmanteau of Sonichu — a cross between Sonic the Hedgehog and Pikachu strung onto a necklace.
It’s Christory. That’s what they call it — the Christorians, the amateur historians, archivists, biographers, and psychologists who document the life of one person as it happens. Chris-Chan, a high-functioning autistic persona, and an infamous internet meme, punctuates the internet like a sledgehammer to a block of ice. In his 59-part Youtube series, Chris Chan: A Comprehensive History, GenoSamuel2.1 chronicles the life of this person from birth to near present-day through over 40 hours of footage. As we see Chris’ face age before our eyes, GenoSamuel2.1 asks, “What made him this way? What is the attraction? What keeps us fascinated?” As if we don’t already know the answer. We’re fascinated by the glimpse into another life — fleshed out, soft, and bleeding in all of its agony and perseverance. Our omnipresent view allows us to survey someone who exists in an absurdity, where reality and fiction are interwoven so tightly that you can’t tell what’s what.
However, there are two sides of the spectacle and the looking glass goes both ways.
Just as the digital world is an extension of the human experience (Boellstorff), GenoSamuel2.1’s series is as much a personal timeline as it is a digital repository of Chris’ data. Private emails, homemade videos, photographs, Twitter, and Tumblr posts all co-inhabit the same media and are neatly lined up as evidence in order to build a psychological profile of this physical stranger, who also is an intimate digital interlocutor. At times, Chris speaks directly to us. In Part 3, we see a homemade Youtube video of them wearing their iconic blue and red striped shirt, Sonichu medallion, and Santa hat, enigmatically stating, “Hello, my name is Christian Chandler, age 22 at this time. I will be 23 on February 24th, 2005. Anyway, for over a year now, I’ve been trying to attract a 18-22 year old boyfriend-free girl.” Other times, we pan over their comic strips, which mirror both real-life events as well as expectations of what life could be: We see a 2-D insert of Chris commanding Sonichu to go forth into the world as their creation gleefully replies, “I WILL! THANK YOU, FATHER!”
Chris’ self-representation is juxtaposed with comments from strangers who’ve encountered them in real life. “So Sonichu [Chris Chan] returned to Alderman [Library] yesterday. I am not sure what to make of him.” a user writes in their blog post. “He sits in his chair and draws his sonichu comics, harmless I ass[u]me. Yet, I feel like he knows he’s different …He seems intelligent enough to understand that he does not understand.” Some people also take an active interest in shaping Chris’ ‘storyline’ to suit their own interests. In one example, trolls create the fake persona to become Chris’ girlfriend in order to get their hands on the Sonichu medallion. The trolls then film themselves destroying it, taking joy in stabbing or lighting the object on fire.
The series portrays these complicated relations in dialogue with one another as Chris often replies back to trolls and other commentators in order to clear their name or justify their actions. This engagement then further prolongs the interaction until it negatively impacts them. At the same time, an audience of observers — those curious enough to stay in the loop and those driven to document each interaction and event — grows and is compelled to watch the spectacle. Spurred on by the crowd of onlookers, as well as malicious and malignant actors, Chris is in a relation of cruel optimism: “[W]hen something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing… They become cruel only when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially” (Berlant 1). Chris is actively seeking intimacy, which can lead them to misstep into the spiderwebs of trolls or villains who wish to actively harm them. At the same time, the attention these engagements generate form the basis of sociality — a promise of deeper meaning and connection between individuals that is never fully realized.
Chris Chan: A Comprehensive History and the spectacle that it presents is just as much a digital archive as it is a cautionary tale. It shows the internet as a curious beast that cannot be easily satiated. Individuals like Chris can be exploited and commodified as a source of collective ire, disgust, and pity. At the same time, through its length and sheer volume, the series seems to suggest that it could easily be you or I who falls prey to the web’s many eyes. Although there are many reasons — time, place, race, gender, age — why some can slip in and out of the internet’s gaze, the lack of active interest in our own lives doesn’t mean we shouldn’t operate with some degree of skepticism or unease.
As the internet becomes more and more regulated and streamlined, we transform our digital selves into objects of interest, curating our image and personas. The person we portray ourselves as on LinkedIn, a career-oriented social network system, can be radically different from the ‘us’ that inhabits more casual sites like Instagram or Youtube. These images may even be further divergent from our own physical realities. Yet, I am simultaneously myself and a representation of myself, a creator and a commodity. And so are you.
Imagine what it would be like to see your whole life exposed in a ‘History’ for anyone to view. What would be embarrassing, intimate, melancholic, or even banal and lackluster events in your life are forever immortalized in shareable videos or screencaps. Your life exists outside of your own control and you can’t stop others from talking about you, analyzing you, scrutinizing you. Would you be overwhelmed by total, constant exposure? This paranoia of an ever-looming, omni-present audience makes me nervous. Although in many ways, the digital space mirrors our physical world, there is something both familiar and horrifying in the magnified scrutiny of our online selves. Even things we’ve said years ago can be dredged up and be animated in the present moment, whether they’re still accurate to who we are or not.
Within these parameters, arguments such as the ‘right to be forgotten’ emerge, wherein individuals have the right to request the deletion of their own personal data from organizations such as Facebook or Google. However, the legal process to request the erasure of data is neither straightforward nor universal. This right is enshrined within the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), is only applicable for European Union residents, and has several conditions in which an individual’s request may be overridden by the organization’s own rights. It seems that, even with one of the strictest privacy and security legislations in the world, we are still somewhat tied to the legacy our digital selves carry, whether created by our own interests or that of third parties. Furthermore, even if this law applied in Chris’ case, it could only do so much. It wouldn’t be able to ensure Chris’ full right to privacy. Not only would Chris have to push for an erasure of their data, but they’d have to remain committed to their own privacy and legally advocate for themselves. This would never happen; the allure of feeling included by an online community can trump much of the danger that comes with engaging with the anonymized world.
If one of the largest internet personas cannot escape total surveillance through legal means, then what hope is there for average users like you or I, who can also be near-instantly entrapped by our own data? This is the paranoia that permeates my own engagement with the internet. I’m drawn to the internet because it provides a fertile space for me to express a different, more intimate aspect of myself that may not be expressed in physical, public spaces. Like Chris, I was able to find my niches, my social networks, my own logic, and structure. I even discovered the communities that follow Chris, which connected me to a larger network of similarly-minded others without leaving my desk. However, I’m trapped in this cruel optimism too: I want to make meaningful relationships with others, but it’s at the expense of someone else. The moral dimension of this curiosity also makes me look over my shoulder and gives me a reason to worry that one day users could turn against me too. This is the admission price into the spectacle.
At the time of writing, there isn’t a happy ending in sight for Chris. In July 2021, a now-deleted phone call, as well as text messages, were leaked between Chris and an anonymous female interlocutor onto Youtube. Much to the horror and astonishment of the community, Chris admitted to sexually abusing their mother, who is speculated to suffer from dementia. The commenters on the video expressed their shock and dismay while forums across the web bustled in discussion. The mood was tense. Many thought it was fake. Few perhaps even expected this outcome.
The path had already been laid though. Over the years, silent spectators (such as myself), said and did nothing as Chris became more radicalized in their beliefs. We watched it unfold and did little to change the outcome. Trolls continually pushed Chris to the edges of mental stability and entertained Chris’ warped notions and expectations of the world in order to maintain the spectacle. They exploited each tender and vulnerable part of Chris they could get a hold of and used it against the internet persona for fun. Christorians too, had their own hand to play. They were ruthless in their quest to document Chris’ life, and in doing so, they created the captive audience that Chris could actively engage with. They also opened space for Chris to become an actor — someone aware of the spectacle and its spectators, who performs their own identity in response to being seen — rather than as a flat image.
After Chris had been arrested by the local authorities, many communities turned their interests to hunting down the anonymous interlocutor in the call. However, Chris Chan: A Comprehensive History is at a standstill. In all likelihood, GenoSamuel2.1 may never complete the series following these events. The constant humiliation and exposure had taken its toll on Chris’ psyche. Most people familiar with Chris would probably say that the writing was on the wall from the beginning, that this was only one of many terrible outcomes facing the persona. However, it’s now highly possible that this series, along with other videos, forums, and screencaps, could be used as evidence in a trial. This would not only implicate Chris, but also dox trolls who manipulated and bullied Chris over time and hold them responsible for their actions. It could also shine a spotlight on the toxicity of online communities and prompt further investigation into the digital equivalent of the bystander effect. There’s even the possibility that it could reopen questions regarding our privacy and security online. Unfortunately though, Chris represents a real-life Truman Show gone off the rails, with no option left for them to opt-out. And, just like the movie, once we’ve reached the end of the reel, we’ll turn our eyes elsewhere, looking for a new, fresh spectacle.
Berlant, Laurent. Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press. 2011.
Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton University Press. 2008.
Chris Chan: A Comprehensive History – Part 1. Directed by GenoSamuel2.1. YouTube, 24 Feb. 2019, https://youtu.be/zgxj_0xPleg. Accessed 24 Oct. 2021.
Chris Chan: A Comprehensive History – Part 3. Directed by GenoSamuel2.1. YouTube, 9 Mar. 2019, https://youtu.be/bxWLdbRv7Uo. Accessed 24 Oct. 2021.
Chris Chan: A Comprehensive History – Part 7. Directed by GenoSamuel2.1. YouTube, 6 Apr. 2019, https://youtu.be/cOnVFhqvUNM. Accessed 24 Oct. 2021.
The Truman Show. Directed by Peter Weir. Paramount Pictures. 1998.
Wolford, Ben. “Everything you need to know about the “Right to be forgotten””. Complete guide to GDPR compliance. 2021. https://gdpr.eu/right-to-be-forgotten/ Accessed 24 Oct. 2021.