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On the Internet, We’re Always Famous

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‘For the vast majority of our species’ history, those were the two principal categories of human relations: kin and gods. Those we know who know us, grounded in mutual social interaction, and those we know who don’t know us, grounded in our imaginative powers.

But now consider a third category: people we don’t know and who somehow know us. They pop up in mentions, comments, and replies; on subreddits, message boards, or dating apps. Most times, it doesn’t even seem noteworthy: you look down at your phone and there’s a notification that someone you don’t know has liked a post. You might feel a little squirt of endorphin in the brain, an extremely faint sense of achievement. Yet each instance of it represents something new as a common human experience, for their attention renders us tiny gods. The Era of Mass Fame is upon us…

With the possibility of this level of exposure so proximate, it’s not surprising that poll after poll over the past decade indicates that fame is increasingly a prime objective of people twenty-five and younger. Fame itself, in the older, more enduring sense of the term, is still elusive, but the possibility of a brush with it functions as a kind of pyramid scheme.

This, perhaps, is the most obviously pernicious part of the expansion of celebrity: ever since there have been famous people, there have been people driven mad by fame. In the modern era, it’s a cliché: the rock star, comedian, or starlet who succumbs to addiction, alienation, depression, and self-destruction under the glare of the spotlight. Being known by strangers, and, even more dangerously, seeking their approval, is an existential trap. And right now, the condition of contemporary life is to shepherd entire generations into this spiritual quicksand…

I’ve come to believe that, in the Internet age, the psychologically destabilizing experience of fame is coming for everyone. Everyone is losing their minds online because the combination of mass fame and mass surveillance increasingly channels our most basic impulses—toward loving and being loved, caring for and being cared for, getting the people we know to laugh at our jokes—into the project of impressing strangers, a project that cannot, by definition, sate our desires but feels close enough to real human connection that we cannot but pursue it in ever more compulsive ways…’

— Chris Hayes, host of “All In with Chris Hayes,” on MSNBC, and the podcast “Why Is This Happening?”, via The New Yorker

 

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