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Are you lainpilled? How Serial Experiments Lain took over the memescape

Live, laugh, Lain

A boy stands in an empty corridor wearing a Twilight t-shirt. “9/11 was bad” repeats an automatic voice on loop. The words “femcel lainpilled” flash onto the screen. With over 240k views, it’s one of the many surreal and unsettling videos on TikTok under the hashtag #lainpilled after the cult anime Serial Experiments Lain. “I could never explain this to someone that doesn’t use the internet like I do,” says one commenter. “Real so real,” says another.

Released in 1998, Serial Experiments Lain is a cyberpunk classic that takes place in a virtual world called the Wired, which bears an eerie resemblance to today’s internet. It follows the titular Lain, a 14-year-old girl who becomes obsessed with computers after she receives an email from a dead classmate who tells her that she did not commit suicide but has merely “abandoned her physical self” in place of the virtual realm. She claims to have found God in the Wired. This premise takes both the characters and viewers on a dark and uncanny journey into a virtual house of mirrors where identities emerge and mutate, and where the notion of reality is constantly called into question. 

One of the first instances of the internet depicted in popular culture (The Matrix came out the following year), Lain’s mind-bending depiction of a virtual realm, where people can evolve into god-like beings, might have seemed dystopian upon its release. But nearly 25 years on, the anime has taken on new meaning for a generation of zoomers, whose terminally online lives aren’t too dissimilar from that of the Wired. Nowadays, the idea that we can abandon our physical selves completely and live a completely virtual existence isn’t too far-fetched, especially with advancements in VR and the metaverse. On TikTok, the hashtag #lainpilled has over 29 million results, while a quick search on YouTube generates hundreds of video essays. A fan site Wired Sound For Wired People has been visited over 35 million times, so clearly something is resonating.

Today’s lainpilled content takes the form of surreal TikTok videos and roleplay that pull on themes of disassociation to create an overarching feeling of alienation. They maintain the spirit of schizoposting, a kind of experimental posting – video, meme or text – that adopts certain aesthetics that are legible to certain people sharing a community without didactically saying anything coherent. The memes depict scenes of Lain enmeshed in computer wires, or in a bear suit, with chemically imbalanced captions about mental illness and being terminally online. “Lain explores everything from false identity to parasocial relationships, which is an inevitable part of technology becoming so ingrained in our lives,” says Soulgem, the founder of Cyberus Zine.

In particular it attracts the sort of chronically online e-girls who self-identify as femcels and yandere GFs, who post about being mentally ill and listen to Mitski. “A lot of people think being a femcel is a subculture that spawns from incel culture but in my honest opinion a femcel is a subculture that spawns from the female experience and teenage girlhood as a whole,” says the admin behind Instagram meme page @sigmacorefemcel. “We relate to Lain so much she is an underground countercultural cyberpunk icon. This appeals to the chronically online cool people as we relate to female characters that are mentally unwell.”

It makes sense that teen girls see themselves in Lain. Her fragmented subjectivity, embodied in the multiple Lain alter egos inside the Wired, her socially awkward and reclusive personality, and her lack of origins, make her the perfect representative of girlhood online. “I feel like during the pandemic, a lot of people were living a Lain-esque life, shut-in and seeking out connections online,” agrees Soulgem. “There’s an appeal to being able to socialise without going out, being seen as who you are online and not in real life. There’s these lingering feelings of loneliness and post-pandemic internet addiction. Lain’s relatable, she’s just like me fr.” As a young girl in an increasingly dangerous online world, Lain’s experience mirrors that of many digital natives growing up alongside the internet, who are used to juggling multiple online selves and whose URL experience is extremely different to the kinds of cis-maxxed performativity found in the manosphere. 

Lain is also a central figure in godposting or transcendental posting, a trend among certain online art circles, where users engage in post-identity roleplay across various semi-anonymous DM groups, Discord servers, esoteric podcasts, and incoherent Substacks. Affiliated with anti-woke crypto communities such as Remilia Collective, users are encouraged to undergo digital an ego death ritual, using memes and shitposts as a way to plug into a collective unconscious online. 

But as New York artist Brad Troemel notes in his Hustle Report: “This isn’t the worship of technology as God, it’s the worship of God through technology as God.” Anyone who’s watched Lain can attest that a physical body is exactly what makes us human and that a terminal investment in digital life isn’t the way forward. So, whether you identify as a lainpilled femcel or not, let’s celebrate the exploratory power of the web without delving into nihilism. Remember: No matter where you go, everyone’s connected.