The One Where We All Suffer Thanks To Fame

on Friday, Feb. 28th

Two weeks ago the talk of the Internet was a frustratingly addictive game called Flappy Bird. You probably remember it dimly by now, perhaps even with a bit of wistful nostalgia for the top of the month. In the weeks since it was pulled from the App Store by its creator for being “too addictive” we’ve heard nary a peep about it.

That, I suppose, is the thing about Internet Fame; the fickle nature of which I can’t help but think contributed to game designer Dong Nguyen’s decision to take his game off the market. There’s no way that Nguyen, a lone programmer working in relative obscurity in Vietnam, could be ready for the deluge of attention–much of it negative–that came with the sudden success of the game. Especially such an unlikely game as Flappy Bird.

The indie game scene online can occasionally feel like a social experiment being run by sadistic Stanford grad students who never signed their ethics pledge. For every game creator who rises from obscurity to be lauded, there seems to be another one who is torn to shreds by the peanut gallery. The documentary Indie Game: The Movie does a pretty good job of showing just how fickle fans can be.

In this way the indie game scene is a microcosm of social media as a whole, which has given everybody with an internet connection the opportunity to discover what celebrities have known for years:

Fame kinda sucks.

As social animals our urge to seek attention is natural. We need the approval, or at least the acknowledgment, of others to maintain psychological health. Unfortunately we all seem to have hardwired limits on the degree to which we can extend our empathy. Celebrity culture, which was our 20th-century dress rehearsal for social media, hacks that empathy limit.

We find ourselves caring about people we don’t really know (e.g. Angelina Jolie, President Obama, Justin Bieber) very deeply. Sometimes in pathological ways. Then, because deep down we know we don’t really know these people we’re able to treat them as objects and not as people with real agency.

Habitual creatures that we are, this behavior bleeds into the other parts of our lives. Given that many of the people we encounter online are “just” a picture and a name, it becomes easy to see them as an object. Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell articulated what goes wrong when we see people as things in The Power of Myth, the 1988 interview series that put him on the cultural map:

You can address anything as a ‘thou,’ and if you do it, you can feel the change in your own psychology. The ego that sees a ‘thou’ is not the same ego that sees an ‘it.’ And when you go to war with people, the problem of the newspapers is to turn those people into ‘its.’

“Thou” here being shorthand for another active agent in the world. A will with desires, feelings, and power to create change. That can be a very hard concept to hold on to when the default language of commerce and technology is object-oriented.

Public life, of which social media is a part, is also object-oriented. Our public personas are roles that we play, not necessarily our true selves. Of course we have to bring a lot of our selves to the roles in order to play them well, but there is still a certain amount of filtering that goes on. The roles we play–be they politician, musician or something far more “humble”–are it-objects and not thou-wills. The will animates the role, but there comes a time when the role has to be put aside.

What social media has done is shrink the amount of time we have for our truly private selves. Privacy has always existed as a continuum. Jump in a time machine and pop out a few centuries back and what passes for privacy might seem very different. Depart the suburban enclaves of the United States that stand in for our national self-image and the same effect can be achieved. What makes the social media era so different is that it is always just a button tap away, and that button is almost always within reach.

Rejoice, for we are never alone. Be terrified, because we are never alone.

Letting social media into our lives is, of course, optional. Everything in life other than breathing, eating and eliminating waste is optional. Yet as the Internet becomes ever more integral to our lives there is social and financial pressure to stay connected. Two decades ago only doctors and lawyers could be expected to carry pagers; now everyone is on call all of the time.

There are those who push back against this pressure. Tiffany Shlain practices “technology shabbats” every Saturday, and Baratunde Thurston makes a mini-event of his winter sabbaticals. Yet stepping away from the Internet is a luxury that not everyone can afford. For some, like yours truly, being online is even part of their job. (I can hear the little violins, by the way. Keep practicing, Carnegie Hall has heard better. For the record: I’ve learned to love “Do Not Disturb” mode as much as I’ve ever loved my iPhone.)

What’s needed is a different way of viewing the role of this technology in our lives. Taking a break can be part of that, but the challenge in front of both users and designers to acknowledge up front that more has to be done than just connect people. From developers we need better tools to manage the torrent of connections.

The tougher challenge is to the users–that would be the rest of us. We need to foster a culture that values empathy over snark and trolling. An online culture that wouldn’t hurt to be a little more forgiving, acknowledging that we’re all broken in some way. One that defaults to knowing that most people are trying to do their best even when they don’t have the right tools for the job. We can save the vitriol for the real monsters of the world–human traffickers, corrupt despots, pre-fabricated boy bands–of which there are plenty.

Every foray into the pubic sphere is a kind of transaction. We trade our privacy for connection, notoriety, or power. All three if we can get it. The decision of what we choose to trade falls to each of us, but that choice is obscured by the deceptively simple designs of the current generation of social media tools.

The next step is to demand better tools for managing our digital reflections. Platforms that fail to provide such tools should be regulated to the trash bin of history.

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