The Nation magazine, the liberal equivalent of 'eat your vegetables' and 'how can you get any pudding if you don't eat your meat?' (sorry - not appropriate for the animal rights crowd) has a feature article this week regarding the narcissistic traits of modern youth, modern life, modern politics, modern just about everything:
"Everyone, in the back of his mind, wants to be a star," says YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley, explaining the dizzying success of the online mecca of amateur video in Wired magazine. And thanks to MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, LiveJournal and other bastions of the retooled Web 2.0, every Jane, Joe or Jamila can indeed be a star.... We now live in the era of micro-celebrity, which offers endless opportunities to celebrate that most special person in your life, i.e., you--who not coincidentally is also Time magazine's widely derided Person of the Year for 2006.
Actually I'm surprised by the number of people who don't want to be a star. Many people are happy staying out of the limelight. What people want is that they don't want to be left out, which is something different from wanting to be the star.
So we upload our wackiest videos to YouTube, blog every sordid detail of our personal lives so as to insure at least fifty inbound links, add 200 new "friends" a day to our MySpace page with the help of friendflood.com, all the time hoping that one day all our efforts at self-promotion will merit--at the very least--our very own Wikipedia entry.I don't think are necessarily seeking fame on the Internet, but rather, connection. I once read a quote that I paraphrase: "a thought that isn't written down never occurred." I'd add to that that a thought that isn't shared isn't much of a thought. That way of thinking demands a form of expression. If the Internet didn't exist, we'd have to invent it, and fast!
In The Frenzy of Renown, written in 1986, Leo Braudy documented the long and intimate relationship between mass media and fame. The more plentiful, accessible and immediate the ways of gathering and distributing information have become, he wrote, the more ways there are to be known: "In the past that medium was usually literature, theater, or public monuments. With the Renaissance came painting and engraved portraits, and the modern age has added photography, radio, movies, and television. As each new medium of fame appears, the human image it conveys is intensified and the number of individuals celebrated expands."
The broadcast media's voracious appetite for spectacle insured that notoriety and fame soon became subsumed by an all-encompassing notion of celebrity, where simply being on TV became the ultimate stamp of recognition. ... Fame is now reduced to its most basic ingredient: public attention. And the attention doesn't have to be positive either, as in the case of the man in Belfast who bit the head off a mouse for a YouTube video. "In our own time merely being looked at carries all the necessary ennoblement," Braudy wrote twenty years ago, words that ring truer than ever today.I think of the modern media arts as being very powerful agents, practically like explosives. Over the last century, the audience has had to learn to discriminate among the various new explosives suddenly seeking their attention. The artists using these media are well-trained and have apprenticed many years. They've earned their place. The increasingly-well-trained public actually has little patience for brazen people who simply seek attention - why should they indulge simple attention-seekers when they have so many other options?
Celebrity has become a commodity in itself, detached from and more valuable than wealth or achievement. Even rich New York socialites feel the need for their own blog, socialiterank.com, to get in on the action. The advice for aspiring celebutantes may be tongue-in-cheek--"To become a relevant socialite, you are virtually required to have your name in the press"--but no less true in this age of Paris Hilton wannabes.It's harder to get famous than to get rich! The obscure rich know this sad fact!
Fame is no longer a perk of success but a necessary ingredient, whether as a socialite, chef, scholar or skateboarder. "For a great many people it is no longer enough to be very good at what you do. One also has to be a public figure, noticed and celebrated, and preferably televised," writes Hal Niedzviecki in his book Hello, I'm Special. When it is more important to be seen than to be talented, it is hardly surprising that the less gifted among us are willing to fart our way into the spotlight.Sorry, this is rubbish (although maybe as a farting ex-candidate for Governor, I should just keep my mouth shut, but I'm never the one to let the risk of hypocrisy stand in the way of a good argument).
In the 1950s, only 12 percent of teenagers between 12 and 14 agreed with the statement, "I am an important person." By the late 1980s, the number had reached an astounding 80 percent, an upward trajectory that shows no sign of reversing. Preliminary findings from a joint study conducted by Jean Twenge, Keith Campbell and three other researchers revealed that an average college student in 2006 scored higher than 65 percent of the students in 1987 on the standard Narcissism Personality Inventory test, which includes statements such as "I am a special person," "I find it easy to manipulate people" and "If I were on the Titanic, I would deserve to be on the first lifeboat." In her recent book Generation Me, Twenge applies that overarching label to everyone born between 1970 and 2000.My, aren't we applying a very broad brush here! "Everyone born between 1970 and 2000": thank goodness for 9/11, because now we are serious again! In many ways, I think this so-called narcissism is actually a healthy development, where people begin to value themselves as they should be valued, and not as industrial cogs, or consumers, or whatever! As those supposedly-narcissistic Greeks said, "man is the measure of all things," by which they meant they weren't like those drone-like Persians of their day. I also remember something John Adams wrote, about how he had encountered a singing worker that day, and greatly admired his talent, and how he wished he had had more time to indulge in the arts and could have devoted less time to government. These statistics are a blessing, not a curse! And I doubt I deserved to be on the first lifeboat off the Titanic - that was for social-climbing "Alice Beane", not for myself!
Not only do Americans increasingly want to be famous, but they also believe they will be famous, more so than any previous generation. A Harris poll conducted in 2000 found that 44 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 24 believed it was at least somewhat likely that they would be famous for a short period. Those in their late twenties were even more optimistic: Six in ten expected that they would be well-known, if only briefly, sometime in their lives.Sadly, fame is for the very, very few: there just isn't enough time or people available to make it work for everyone. But these numbers I find suspect: "44 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 24?" - I wonder what the exact wording of the question was, and what, exactly, was meant by "fame"? I don't think the young are that clueless, especially modern media youth, unless they meant getting a brief mention on the TV News one evening a decade or so....
Without any meaningful standard by which to measure our worth, we turn to the public eye for affirmation. "It's really the sense that Hey, I exist in this world, and that is important. That I matter," Niedzviecki says. Our "normal" lives therefore seem impoverished and less significant compared with the media world, which increasingly represents all that is grand and worthwhile, and therefore more "real."The Greeks turned to the public eye - why shouldn't we? And don't use the argument that the Greeks were after permanent merit and we are after fleeting moments of fame. Any idiot can note that fleeting moments, if captured on film, can become more permanent than buildings, people, or even nations!
The evolution of the Internet has both mirrored and shaped the intense focus on self that is the hallmark of the post-boomer generation. "If you aren't posting, you don't exist. People say, 'I post, therefore I am,'" Rishad Tobaccowala, CEO of Denuo, a new media consultancy, told Wired, inadvertently capturing the essence of Web 2.0, which is driven by our hunger for self-expression.In the limited sense I spoke about above, that is correct!
Self-expression glides effortlessly into self-promotion as we shape our online selves--be it on a MySpace profile, LiveJournal blog or a YouTube video--to insure the greatest attention. Nothing beats good old-fashioned publicity even in the brave new world of digital media. ... YouTube has become the virtual equivalent of Los Angeles, the destination de rigueur for millions of celebrity aspirants....You got a problem with that?
As Jean Twenge points out, individualism doesn't necessarily preclude a social conscience or desire to do good. "But [Generation Me] articulates it as 'I want to make a difference,'" she says. "The outcome is still good, but it does put the self in the center." Stephen Duncombe, on the other hand, author of the new book Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, argues that rather than dismiss our yearning for individual recognition, progressives need to create real-world alternatives that offer such validation. For example, in place of vast anonymous rallies that aim to declare strength in numbers, he suggests that liberal activism should be built around small groups. "The size of these groups is critical. They are intimate affairs, small enough for each participant to have an active role in shaping the group's direction and voice," he writes. "In these 'affinity groups,' as they are called, every person is recognized: in short, they exist."Good for this Duncombe fellow! He'd be a good Ancient Greek!
There is a happier alternative. If these corporate technologies of self-promotion work as well as promised, they may finally render fame meaningless. If everyone is onstage, there will be no one left in the audience. And maybe then we rock stars can finally turn our attention to life down here on earth. Or it may be life on earth that finally jolts us out of our admiring reverie in the mirrored hall of fame. We forget that this growing self-involvement is a luxury afforded to a generation that has not experienced a wide-scale war or economic depression. If and when the good times come to an end, so may our obsession with fame.Like in community theater, the audience and the players often can trade places. Long live fame! Long live self-involved luxury!