In the 1973 Disney film Robin Hood, Little John, sitting atop a tent carried by a herd of stampeding animals, asks the question “Who’s driving this flying umbrella?” The answer is difficult to figure out. Every stampeding animal under the tent is “driving”, and yet also none of them are. Their collective panic and fury drives the tent forward and into pie stands, towers, friends, and foes. It’s this question “Who’s driving this flying umbrella?” that we must ask ourselves in this increasingly digital, chaotic age.
Several news organizations are writing stories about the “NPC TikTok Trend” with airs of confusion, fear, and dread. The trend goes like this: The TikTok influencer stands motionless before their live-streamed camera. They don’t move until a viewer “tips” them a TikTok “gift” (usually a reaction image paid for with a TikTok currency that can be traded for real money). In reaction to this gift, the influencer will then speak a phrase or make a motion that corresponds with the gift. As the gifts pour in, the motions and phrases continue, and the influencer enacts the will of their audience for the duration of the stream.
NPC here stands for “Non Player Character,” a term borrowed from tabletop RPGs and video game culture. In these settings, the NPC is part of the environment, a person-shaped tool for the player to interact with. On TikTok, the influencer’s success is related to how much control over their bodies they cede over to the audience. The top earner in this category, PinkyDoll, who receives thousands of dollars a day, repeats phrases like “Ice cream so good” and “yes yes yes” with each donation for six hours a day as she surrenders her body and voice to her viewers.
Many people who aspire to be social media influencers cite the fun, creative, and self-expressive opportunities that career can provide. NPC streaming, however, is the opposite of this. There is no creativity, no self expression, and (if my assumption is correct) it’s not really that fun. This can’t have been PinkyDoll or any other NPC streamer’s goal when they started doing TikTok; no one dreamed of doing this as their career. However, the dictates of the online machine demanded this. The audience isn’t there for the person, the audience is there for the absence of a person which they can fill and control.
The streamer becomes a sort of meat-puppet, subject to the will of the audience. But whose will is he or she subject to? Who is driving the “flying umbrella?” The amalgamated agency of ten thousand viewers is not really an “agent” in any normal sense of the word. The agent of ten thousand donors doesn’t want anything other than to see someone give their body to its power. It doesn’t have any goals or desires other than the subjugation of the streamer to its strength. The flying umbrella produces men and women who are twitching and uttering memetic phrases absent of reason, desire, or self.
While NPC TikTok is an extreme example, the brutal desire of the unknown crowd, the egregore zeitgeist, is present in many digital spaces. Twitter (or X now?) demands that you weigh in on each zeitgeist-selected topic. Instagram demands that you change what you wear, eat, and do to better please the zeitgeist. The demands of trends, audiences, and memes produce influencers that exist first to please the algorithm, that drawn-curtain of a word that disguises a teeming sea of human desire. We must be careful how we interact with the powerful forces of the digital zeitgeist. We are facing concentrated, mindless influence unlike anything we have faced in human history, and it targets your reason, individuality, and personhood. This is, perhaps, one of the clearest examples of a spirit of the age, a power or principality of darkness.
When Paul commands the Ephesians to “not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18) his warning can be read not just against drunkenness, but against anything that supplants the human will or prevents human reason from cooperating with the Holy Spirit. We are to be “sober minded” because the devil hunts for us (1 Peter 5:8) While NPC TikTok is not the same as drunkenness, it is one of many algorithmic spaces that seek to prevent us from being sober-minded.
It can be easy to dismiss concerns about digital spaces like TikTok as a fear of the unknown. No one wants to be the old guy shaking his head at what the young are doing. However, these spaces are designed to steal your mind, designed to replace your agency, and designed to manipulate the amalgamated will of its users for profit. Mimetic, algorithmic spaces like TikTok are working continually to supplant human will and reason, the tools we use to discern right and wrong, and some of the tools we use to pick up our cross and follow Christ.
The NPC trend, like most of these trends, is probably going to die out soon. People will have spent thousands of dollars, a few streamers will make a fortune, and the internet will move on. However, we can expect the force of the amalgamation, the constant pressure for us to turn our personhood over to the will of the crowd, to only increase. It is part of the nature of digital life, and it will never stop hungering for more persons to dominate.