(My gratitude to Porter Anderson for the title of this post, which I cribbed from his essay, Social Media: ‘Sharing’ our Narcissism. For those of you unfamiliar with the original myth, Narcissus fell in love with his reflection in a pool of water, so he lay down beside the pool and stared at himself until he died.)
Once upon a time, I believed, as many still do, that successful people were extra special because they had superior talent. Then I wrote a book which has actually been read by people I do not know personally. This could be viewed as a form of success (tilt you head and squint a bit) although certainly not enough to make me in any way famous. (I’m talking about being famous in a good way here. Winning a Darwin award is risky and serial-killing is both risky and messy.) Naturally, my failure to achieve fame is a terrible disappointment to me, but it does raise an interesting question: What mysterious X factor separates the famous (in a good way) from the merely talented?
Everyone has a certain amount of natural ability and the capacity to excel at something. But fame wannabes, unless we are genetically endowed with extra specialness as is the case with royalty, cannot just stand on a soapbox shouting, “I’m really, really special!” We may very well be, but who is going to believe us?
If we are serious about becoming famous, we must master and our area of expertise with demonstrable results and—here’s what I think is the X factor—acquire external accreditation. These requirements are difficult to achieve, but having attempted both, I believe that external verification requires greater investment of effort than establishing our base credentials, and is therefore the more daunting. Only those of us with an unshakeable belief in our own specialness have sufficient motivation and perseverance win the fame game.
In general, fame makers are only accessible to the hoi polloi via ladders of increasingly influential relationships. Fame seekers must cultivate well-placed taste leaders who can focus the attention of the wider world on our specialness. This is extremely time-consuming, not to mention inherently deceitful and occasionally boring. We’re not really interested in hearing about your gall-bladder operation, we just want you to say nice things about us to your millions of followers, so we pretend to be interested. It is also somewhat risky, since exposure of such sycophantic behavior substantially reduces our chances of acquiring accolades.
But is it possible to cut out the middleperson and proceed directly to fame via the internet? Recently, there has been a great deal of speculation about this revolutionary new DIY path to mass recognition. We no longer have to suck up to a few snobby, hard-to-attract experts; we can interact directly with potential fans.
In some ways, cultivating internet relationships should be easier. Personal appearance is no longer important. No one cares if we shower twice a day or twice a year, because all anyone ever sees of us is a cartoon avatar or an old image cropped out of a group picture and probably photo-shopped. My internet presence is three years, twenty pounds, and ten shades of grey out of date. I’ve saved a small fortune on clothes because most of my internetting is done in this ratty old bathrobe. Similarly, only the appearance of relationship matters. Just because we’re e-friends doesn’t mean I actually read the posts about your gall bladder operation. (Unless, of course, you are one of my real friends, in which case I am deeply concerned and hope you get well soon.) The important thing is slapping that “like” button, or, in cases where more personal interaction seems called for, tossing a LOL or OMG! into the comments.
There are two downsides to seeking fame on the internet:
Downside one: We’re going to have to do some math here. If F represent fame, and n represents the number of relationships that must be cultivated to achieve F, and f represents an individual fan, and I represents a person who has influence over some number of fans greater than 1, then the following two equations are both true: F=fn (DIY method) and F = In (traditional method). I have no idea how big n is, it really depends on the amount of fame required. However I’m damn sure it’s bigger in the first equation than it is in the second. I’d have to be insanely special to be worth spending that much time promoting me.
Downside two: Finding a way to stand out from the millions of bloggers and posters and tweeters competing for the same fan eyeballs. Some fame seekers take the direct approach. “Follow me on Twitter!” “Like my Facebook page!” While I applaud the honesty, I suspect this does not attract all that many eyeballs. Another option is to sneak a plug into the comments of some more famous person’s post. “Great post! I blogged about the same thing last week. Check it out here.” Personally, I think most eyeballs see right through this kind of blatant hijacking. A more sophisticated technique is to craft a tantalizing comment in the hope that someone will click on your ID to find out who you are. “I think we met that taxi driver’s cousin last week in Tangiers, except we ended up at a camel rodeo. Posted by PleaseCheckMeOut at 2:56 AM” This method may attract a second glance for those who have sufficient material about their specialness to pull it off. I don’t.
Difficulty aside, have you noticed the fatal flaw in the DIY approach to fame? It’s not all that different from standing on a soapbox, is it? Shouting out that we are special, which again we may very well be, does not make us famous. For that, we still need independent verification from an accredited source. Without it, all we are doing is lying face down at the me-pond.
Which brings me to why I haven’t been spending much time on social media recently. After two years of haphazardly working the DIY approach to fame, I have come to the end of my tolerance for me. I’m just not special enough to be worth the effort of becoming famous. It’s time to turn away from the me-pond and move on to something more interesting.
When I figure out what it is, I’ll let you know.